Daroff and Gensler channel the lightness and clean lines of a Philadelphia tower into striking headquarters for Comcast
C.C. Sullivan -- Interior Design, 10/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Philadelphia has a new icon: a 975-foot, faceted-glass tower by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. It's surprisingly tall and sexy for this buttoned-down city, but visitors striding across its plaza, surfaced in twinkling gray-green granite, might miss the tasteful signage announcing the building's primary corporate tenant. No doubt remains, however, once in the lobby: A two-story, 85-foot-wide LED display broadcasts welcome to the offices of cable giant Comcast. The display alternates hours of boffo imagery with brief instances of trompe l'oeil wood paneling. Above that, Jonathan Borofsky's shiny steel tubes bearing cartoonish pedestrians crisscross the atrium of the 110-foot-high lobby, also a public winter garden.
The dotty high-wire figurines and epic digital wallpaper are quickly left behind. Inside the 56-floor Comcast Center, a low-fat sophistication exudes. From the carefully varied elevator lobbies, the spaces open into bright, airy, tone-on-tone interiors that preserve the big views and clean lines intended by Stern's handsome obelisk design.
A collaboration by Daroff Design + DDI Architects and Gensler, the more than 1,000,000 square feet of office space reflect a longstanding relationship between principal Karen Daroff and Comcast's founder Ralph Roberts and his son, the current CEO, Brian. Two decades ago, Daroff designed the company's first real home, a humble 80,000 square feet near the Main Line. The company spent the next 18 years growing rapidly, moving into three different Daroff-conceived offices, all on Market Street, and expanding into other downtown spaces as necessary. Looking to bring all his employees under one roof, Brian Roberts saw the Stern tower as the perfect solution. "He envisioned a vertical urban campus, with lots of amenity floors, in a lounge think-tank environment," Daroff recalls. "It was to be sophisticated, not ostentatious or flamboyant." When the original project of 500,000 square feet scheduled for what Daroff calls an already accelerated timetable doubled in size, the architect knew she'd have to bring in reserves. Her first call was to Arthur Gensler; the firms had successfully collaborated on two recent large commissions: Kentucky's Louisville International Airport and Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Today, Comcast's 2,900 employees have the run of some 50 floors in its eponymous tower, topped out by an urbane conference-room floor of custom makoré wall panels, cream-colored limestone, and vast tables of knife-edged Macassar ebony. The furnishings' toned leathers and fabrics are invitingly modern, and they, along with the extensive art collection, appropriately defer to the real show: killer views of Philadelphia's spires and neighborhoods.
CEO Roberts and other top executives occupy the four floors below, connected by a dramatic staircase. Its fritted-glass treads and stainless-steel caps and handrails wrap around a four-story column of flat-screen monitors. On the floors below, perimeter offices have glazed interior walls, while open-office areas, marked by an occasional pop of saturated color—red, green, orange, or blue—have low workstations and high ceilings to maintain sight lines. Everyone can see the horizon in the distance, yet a glance down reveals William Penn teetering precariously atop City Hall. "No lowest common denominator philosophy here," notes Gensler principal and design director Keith Rosen. "There's a huge variety of spaces, color, and design."
The coherence of that variety is impressive, but the heart of the Comcast Center is Ralph's Café, a two-story dining universe wrapping the 43rd and 44th floors. The cafeteria's vibe is orderly and cool, but casual and creative, too, thanks to the number of spaces carved out by Daroff and Rosen. Staff can nosh while tucked into custom circular banquettes on the café's first floor. The second floor, really a mezzanine, offers more international fare—tacos, sushi—amid more mysterious environs. One area has tables and sleek white chairs enclosed by a curvaceous half wall of Corian, its organic form picked up on the ceiling. A color-changing LED light show glows from behind custom white-lacquered wood grilles surrounding the perimeter.
Below Ralph's is Comcast University, a training center, on the most colorful and graphic of the office floors. The four bright colors that make mere cameo appearances elsewhere take over here. Three-dimensional, lenticular photographs and oversize infographics add to the fun.
Below, the tower's shaft encloses Comcast's workhorse content and programming teams; lower floors hold customer service. In many instances, the building's translucent architecture takes over. Most notable are three "sky-atria," as Stern calls them, three-story glass boxes grafted onto the building's facade that yield its distinctive profile. One of these soaring spaces comfortably houses the lounge for the interactive media division; another is taken by offices. Daroff and Gensler have unified spaces such as these on dozens of floors, producing fresh riffs on the tower's governing principals: lightness, translucency, and clean-lined simplicity. "Chemistry was an important part of this project," says Daroff. "I identify with Gensler's vocabulary, and they share our aesthetic." For this design match, the tallest tower in Philadelphia provided a chance to reach new heights.