The spirit of George Nakashima checks in to Hyatt's new Chicago headquarters by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Thomas Connors -- Interior Design, 10/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
For most of corporate America, office still means the cool stone-and-steel luxe that came into vogue with the International Style. But when Global Hyatt Corporation engaged Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to design a new Chicago headquarters, it clearly had to underscore the company's expertise in being hosts. "Everyone who comes here should understand that this is a company that owns hotels," says Hyatt International president Bernd Chorengel.
Hyatt's former headquarters have had their share of drawbacks, but there was one standout feature from an earlier location that executives were nostalgic for. "In initial conversations, they expressed a fondness for one office's large communal space—a hub that everyone had to pass through," says SOM partner Stephen Apking. Now he and a team of young designers, imported from the firm's New York office, had to figure out how to re-create that effect in 250,000 square feet of space spread over seven floors.
The answer turned out to be a new seven-story atrium with a cascading glass staircase. "To give everyone equal access, the hub cuts through all the floors," Apking says. Conference rooms overlook it, and six coffee bars cantilever into it—housed in open-sided walnut cubes.
American walnut is everywhere, most notably in the lobby at the base of the atrium. Both the walls and floor here are walnut, along with a broad flight of stairs boasting a sculptural handrail with a strong handmade look. Not only the wood but also the treatment pay homage to George Nakashima, whose daughter, Mira, actually collaborated with SOM on designing the lobby's walnut reception desk, tables, and benches as well as the boardroom's tabletop, composed of three massive walnut slabs arranged in the shape of an arrowhead. "Hyatt was looking for a language that would speak for the full range of their projects, from exotic resorts to urban hotels," Apking says. "Nakashima's furniture has an elegant, modern appeal that's international."
He lavished an enormous amount of effort on surfaces and materials, and his pared-down aesthetic echoes that of Hyatt's top-tier hotels in Chicago, Paris, and Tokyo. "We limited the number of materials in public spaces—for quiet and comfort," Apking explains. Behind the lobby's imposing walnut stair, bronze mesh drapes the curtain wall, admitting light but veiling a view of the high-rise across the street.
Hyatt's own building, a 48-story elliptical tower by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, determined the rounded shape of the atrium. That, in turn, led Apking to give the open glass stairs a slight curve, punctuated by mid-flight landings. Together, these two moves create fluidity and mitigate the dizzying verticality. Treads of frosted glass contribute an aqueous effect to this communal fishbowl.
With the atrium, on the building's north side, serving as the front-of-house—in hospitality speak—Apking placed the bulk of office areas on the south side. This back-of-house is certainly less complex and elegant, but it's set back a good distance from the street, and that lends light and spaciousness. "Hyatt's previous headquarters was much more corporate, a lot of perimeter offices with rows of assistants running down the middle," Apking says. "Here, they were interested in openness. In tandem with that, as we analyzed the oval floor plate, it became clear that installing a lot of partitions perpendicular to the window wall would eliminate the view and natural light."
To preserve these amenities, the bulk of private offices are positioned at the core of the building. And walnut workstations don't compromise the openness. "Wooden boxes," Apking calls them.
The cantilevered coffee bars that seem to float in the atrium are, in fact, anchored to the conference and meeting rooms that line one side of every office floor. Each coffee bar has a galley kitchen, a walnut-topped island, bar stools, and a TV. Meanwhile, central break rooms, located farthest from the atrium, are graced with commodious counter space, museum-quality photography or works on paper, TVs, and banquettes upholstered in green stretch nylon. We call that five-star hospitality.