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Q&A WITH AN AWARD-WINNING ARCHITECT

One of the nine BW/Architectural Record award-winners was the team of Thompson and Rose Architects and client Gemini Consultants Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Charles Rose, principal of the architectural firm, believes that the interactive and iterative process between architect and client is absolutely crucial to doing good work today. The era when clients were dismissed as necessary evils by egomaniacal architects is over. To get a better idea of just how this collaborative process plays out in the real world, Business Week's Bruce Nussbaum, the magazine's editorial page editor in his day job, recently joined with Architectural Record Managing Senior Editor Karen Stein to talk with Rose. The following online-only excerpts of their conversation provide a behind-the-scenes account of this award-winning project.


Stein: We know that the interactive process between architecture and client is crucial. How did the process with Gemini end up being particularly effective?

Rose: First we had a client, David Teiger, who had worked with architects in the past and really understood the value of a process. Gemini Consulting, a mangement consulting firm, is also a company that understands process, because that's really the service that they're delivering to their own clients. Their basic business is creating an intensive process, which then has a transformative result for their client companies.

So the kind of architectural process we wanted to go through wasn't that far from their own culture. It was easier for them to embrace than might typically be the case. Some clients become impatient when you try to run them through a full, long process. They want to start seeing actual designs quickly and then they get caught up in the details. This client allowed us to keep in the process realm for quite some time before we started showing them results.

Because of that, we had a lot of contact with people within Gemini who were in different areas of the company. We could really probe in depth as to what tasks they were doing, how we could design things in ways which were more suited to these tasks. We could think about making the tasks more pleasant and more efficient to achieve.

Nussbaum: Where did you have this process play out? Did you interview them at your place?

Rose: We spent a lot of time in their offices. We would set up for a day or two in a conference room and get people to come and visit with us all day long from different departments. We would get the folks from graphics, for example, in the room and start to really understand what it was they were doing, who they needed to interact with, who they weren't interacting with but might like to be interacting with.

We were able to put together an interactive flow chart for the business. Almost like a bubble diagram, but less hierarchical in a way, more like a matrix.

Nussbaum: Do you do that with all your clients?

Rose: The process kind of varies depending on who we're working with. In this case, it seemed to make sense. We looked at what each department did, and we started to set up ideal spaces for them and ideal furnishings, which were very related. Sort of how they operated ideally and what tasks they were performing.

Stein: Is there ever a fear that you might be put in a situation of being asked to solve problems that can't really be solved by design? Is there a fear sometimes with clients that people will treat you like a complaint department?

Rose: There's always that. That's kind of like background noise, for almost every kind of project. And there was, of course, some of this. But here there was a pretty strong set of aspirations, which kind of overrode a lot of the complaining. I don't know if that makes any sense.

Stein: No, it does.

Rose: But they all understood what the aspirations of the project were in terms of improving the culture of the company.

Stein: Is there anything that happened specifically in this project that had never happened in another project, as part of that process?

Rose: Well, first of all, we went through numerous sites. We started working with the intent of renovating the space they were in. Ironically, after looking at other sites, it is the space they are now in.

There originally were a lot of mahogany desks and boxy spaces there. We produced a first series of designs for this space, with a much more substantial budget than what we ended up with. These first designs were very unconventional. They tried to create a set of narratives and metaphors and were explosive in how they reinterpreted the company and the culture. In some ways, it was a lot more fun and exuberant than what we ended up doing.

So we went through this first series of designs for this space. Then the deal fell through, and we actually looked at one, two, three other spaces, and we produced designs for each of them. And each time we completed schematic designs, for some reason the deal would fall through. We actually designed their spaces four or five times.

We also were, at the time, doing schematic designs for Gemini branches in Oslo and in South Africa. We were doing a little bit of work in London. We were doing some miscellaneous work down in Morristown. So there were items then that were generic to solving all their problems and less site-specific.

Simultaneous with this, we were also looking at designing a new kind of interactive conference room for them, which would allow them to sell new business in a more dynamic way. We were working directly with Francis Gouillart, who was their partner in charge. He wrote the book Transformation, which was the book that they marketed and sold. He was sort of the resident philosopher.

Nussbaum: Guru.

Rose: Exactly. And we worked with him to develop this interactive conference room where they could use a lot of media techniques and a film they were producing to show potential clients. The idea was to bring them to this site, and they could show [clients] in a visceral way what [Gemini] would be able to do for their company.

And then there was another project we worked on for Gemini, which was designing a semi-truck that could pull up to a client's site. You'd be able to sort of pull out of the truck the various elements the team would need at a client's site. You could set up within a site, the Gemini presence. The truck served as a sort of neutral territory to interview people in the company, sort of slightly off the premises.

Stein: Like the bloodmobile? Whatever happened with the truck?

Rose: The truck never got out of schematics. The Gemini project was very unusual, in that we ran through all these schematic designs, and there was so much talking. And then we finally got around to this final site, and it turned out to be the original building. We went back but the budget had been cut by almost 60%.

Stein: Wow.

Rose: And so what you see then is a very cost-conscious version of all of these ideas. So in some ways, they're not as strong here, as they were in some of the preliminary schemes. But they still are there to a certain extent and it was far more affordable to them, and I think that this allowed it all to make a lot more sense economically for Gemini.

Nussbaum: Didn't you also design some of the furniture in the end?

Rose: Yeah. I'd say just about everything on the sixth floor, we designed. And much of the fifth floor we designed. Although there were two portions of the fifth floor where we used off-the-shelf workstations from Knoll and people like that -- Steelcase -- to ensure a different kind of flexibility.

We could design stuff that took up less space in terms of the actual footprint, and it was more cost-effective, believe it or not. Some of that production stuff, like Steelcase's, is actually quite expensive.

Nussbaum: Where'd you have it made?

Rose: We had it fabricated locally.

Stein: In the Boston area?

Rose: Yeah, just a local mill workshop here.

Nussbaum: Is that unusual? Do you do that often?

Rose: It's pretty typical. I mean, an office like this might typically just have the reception desk fabricated and maybe the tables in a cafe. Here we did have a very large mill work package. But that does occur.

Nussbaum: How many of the people got hoteling stations, and how many got other types of work spaces?

Rose: I think in the end, it's probably 50/50 by population.

Stein: And that's because they grow and shrink a lot, or is that for other reasons?

Rose: Well, some of the departments are site-based departments. There are researchers who work with a library and work on the Web, and they're permanent people who are there every day. There is a group of analysts who work on analysis for the first year or two, before they become field consultants. And they had more flexible space that could be transformed a bit. But they also are all on site.

And then there were some support personnel who are always on site. The graphics department is always on site. They had workstations which were more sort of permanent.

This office is a point of affiliation for most of the consultants in North America. This office handles a lot of the consultants in North America. And most of the sixth-floor is work space for these consultants who come in maybe a day a week or something like that. So they are all getting just-in-time work spaces and ... hot desks and things like that.

Nussbaum: What was that last one? Hot desking?

Rose: Hot desking.

Nussbaum: Hot desking? I'm sorry I didn't get that for the piece that we wrote. What else can we ask you? What about the tax code? Did that play a role in some of the decisions?

Rose: (Laughs) Well, you know, Bruce, I'm not an expert on any tax liability issues.

Nussbaum: Right.

Rose: And boy, would my accountant support me on this. But my understanding is that there are different rules for depreciating equipment, etc., and furniture that is fixed, is accounted for very differently than loose furniture.

Nussbaum: Yeah.

Rose: And there were two or three reasons why we used a lot of the loose furniture. It can be moved easily. And it could be made off-site and shipped in. We were on such a tight schedule that, basically, when we finally nailed down the deal here on this space, we had only four months to design and build the space.

Stein: Which is extremely tight.

Rose: It's ridiculously tight. So, part of it was, we wanted as much to occur off-site as possible.

Stein: So you could ship it in.

Rose: Yeah. So we had a crane and we could crane in through one of the windows, all the furniture, etc., that we had designed, even the larger pieces.

So that curving just-in-time workstation comes apart, and was assembled off-site, and then each of those desks was craned in and then assembled in the space.

But that all qualifies as sort of loose furnishings, and a great percentage of the office does. And that -- loose furnishings, I believe -- is depreciated just like a computer, which has a positive effect on the books.

Nussbaum: That's what I thought. So what else should we be asking you that we haven't asked you? What haven't we covered that you think is important?

Rose: I'm trying to think. I mean, we were really trying to create a great place to work. And there's a sense in the office of real spaciousness and openness. The fifth floor can be maneuvered into a space that can handle the entire office population in a meeting. So there's an ability to push walls around and open up business throughout the office. The sixth floor feels especially very open, where you can look through this office landscape and get views out in back, to the city. And there's a sense of connection to the outside.

Within the office there are these, what we were calling landmarks, which were a different kind of tasking spaces. So the just-in-time station, or the reception desk or the conference rooms -- they all read, very strongly, through some kind of element, whether it's a painted curved wall, or this curved wood kind of construction. The's a feeling of a lot of light, a lot of space, and then a sense of connectiveness between the spaces by removing walls or having a lot of glass in there. So that was part of creating work spaces that really were derived from what the tasks were rather than being sort of ordered off the shelf.

In terms of materials, you won't see any lavish materials but rather the sense of using common off-the-shelf materials in a more exciting way than you might typically find. It sends a message of inventiveness, but on a budget.

Stein: What they try to do as a company.

Rose: Exactly. They're trying to somehow, within the design, to mirror the values they were trying to promote about themselves.

Stein: Good.

Nussbaum: Charles, thank you very much.

Rose: O.K. Thanks.



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