Bolt of Lighting
Studios Architecture brightens a law firm in Washington, D.C., by shooting sunlight down a chutelike atrium
Monica Geran -- Interior Design, 8/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
It's not that the premises of global law firm Morgan Lewis in Washington, D.C., had become seedy or dysfunctional. The passage of time had merely made the space look a bit bland and wan. "A beige riot" was the epithet applied by Stephen Paul Mahinka, partner and chief liaison, when discussing said offices with Studios Architecture principal Todd DeGarmo. The two firms had collaborated on smaller projects before; this time, the talk was about the big job of relocation, deemed the best means to achieve a complete aesthetic overhaul. To establish a strong, lasting presence in the nation's capital was Morgan Lewis's prime objective.
The project's genesis dates to 1997, a good year for real-estate finds in the city. Morgan Lewis's site search led to a government building on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol—a prime business address. Although still inhabited, the place was slated for a reconditioning process to encompass the total exfoliation of the skin, the addition of limestone cladding, and other upgrades.
The landlord had already agreed to have his base building team construct two new top floors for the tenants, raising the total to 14 levels. Studios Architecture and Morgan Lewis took advantage of the fortuitous timing to obtain considerably more. Terms were extended to erecting a height-matching rear extension with 40-by-100-foot floor plates. The extra breathing room provided space not only for more people but also for a 60-foot-long, 12-story atrium, which runs along one edge of the addition, adjacent to the neighboring structures. At a size of 320,000 square feet, the firm's new building is 25 percent roomier than the former workplace.
The insertion of the atrium permitted more windows. This increased the penetration of daylight through 40 added perimeter offices (for attorneys) and into inner areas (for everyone else), thus compensating employees deprived of front-row seating. But by far the most powerful means for injecting brightness is a tubular lighting element, dubbed the solar light pipe, extending from the atrium's ceiling to just 15 feet above the floor. Nothing short of ingenious wizardry, this instrument was designed by James Carpenter and David Norris—whose company specializes in glass, construction, and illumination—under the direction of DeGarmo. The tube-within-a-tube tapers from top to bottom, narrowing from 5 feet in diameter to about 18 inches. The inner pipe is prismatic glass with tensile steel spokes; the outer is stretched Lycra. "It looks like a 12-story sock," DeGarmo says.
To feed light into the pipe, a heliostat above the atrium's skylight moves in sync with the sun to catch reflections and lob them onto a secondary mirror, which then directs them downward. The output, bringing to mind a bundle of sunbeams, ends as a lustrous and ever changing star-burst on the atrium floor. And what if skies are overcast? No problem. A computerized mechanism kicks in with artificial light and color, simulating God-given brightness.
While illumination was the first priority for Morgan Lewis, the second was the physical organization of departments and amenities to meet the needs of diverse attorney practice groups. Sequentially, one starts at the ground-floor security desk, then climbs a monumental staircase to reach the second-floor reception area and, just beyond, visitors' business and conference centers. The next four floors are devoted to practice rooms for various fields of legal specialization: litigation, antitrust, intellectual property, and so forth. Level seven houses the law library. Eight through 12 are for still more practice groups, as is 14. On the 13th floor is Morgan Lewis's grand gift to the 700-strong staff, a dining room and cafeteria with a terrace overlooking, inter alia, the Washington Monument and the Capitol.
With respect to the interiors, DeGarmo emphasizes his team's resolve to present the firm's best front to visitors while taking a back-to-basics approach in behind-the-scenes areas. Honey-colored Australian lacewood cabinetry, Moroccan marble counters, and cork flooring are limited to public spaces. For offices, though indisputably serviceable, DeGarmo deployed humbler finishes, such as laminates and vinyl tile.
In short, money was spent wisely. But this restrained fiscal strategy inevitably leads to a question. Isn't the piped-in bolt of light—the project's centerpiece—rather a bold gesture for a legal firm? Partner Mahinka explains the motivation behind the architectural feature as well as the office as a whole. The design goal was to make a strong impression and, more particularly, to demonstrate by nonverbal means that Morgan Lewis is an innovative concern, eminently qualified to apply a fresh and constructive approach to clients' cases.