The Verdict is Unanimous *
London law firm Olswang loves its Gensler building
Ian Phillips -- Interior Design, 1/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
How do you design a landmark building in a non-landmark location? Ask Gensler. When the firm began work on a London office block, the Holborn area was a "dead zone," says senior associate and design director Armando Iarussi. And the site itself was far from exceptional. Sandwiched between 1950s buildings, it used to be home to a motor-vehicles bureau.
Gensler cruised through the brainstorming process with flying colors, conceiving the new building's facade as a glass sail that sweeps upward from the second level. This curtain wall not only looks stunning but also serves a number of practical purposes. First, the glazing satisfies strict rights-of-light requirements. (New construction cannot block more sunshine from neighbors than the previous building did.) The bulging sail also increases office space to 180,000 square feet and provides an important public service. "When it rains," says senior associate Jose Sirera, "people can congregate underneath." Or take refuge in the Starbucks Coffee concession, separated from the building's main reception area by nothing more than laminated glass.
The curved onyx wall behind the reception desk is intended to draw the gaze of passersby. "When you look in, it's warming, like a fireplace for the street," says Sirera. Granite slabs, used for both the pavement and the lobby's flooring, underscore the indoor-outdoor connection.
Opening up the interior to the world at large was important to the primary tenant. "Olswang is one of the most progressive law practices in London," says Iarussi. Founded in 1981—in a city where 1881 isn't unusual—the firm is known for representing entertainment and Internet clients. "Some law firms are stiff and hierarchical. That's not us," says Olswang partner Geraldine Proudler. "There was no question of a partners' floor or partners' dining room." Instead, 95 percent of offices conform to a 10-by-18-foot module, the exceptions being front corner spaces. And almost everybody shares.
Formerly, the firm's 500 London employees occupied three different buildings, all with labyrinthine layouts. "You often didn't see people for six months at a time," says Proudler. At present, four practice groups spread over levels two, three, and four. Administrative functions occupy the rear of the ground level. The top level, eight, functions as Olswang's public face, with the firm's own reception area, conference rooms, client dining rooms, etc. Levels six and seven are rented by other companies, and level five is currently empty—although Olswang is thinking of expanding there.
Taking client movement into consideration, Gensler built in flexibility from the start. Ceiling tracks allow partitions between meeting rooms to slide away into the walls, and "intelligent" lighting responds accordingly. "When you get rid of a partition, you just program in that 'room X needs to talk to room Y,'" explains Iarussi.
Maximizing employee communication, office doors of clear glass put attorneys in visual contact with support staff at workstations in the corridors. At the heart of each level are the flexible meeting rooms and an informal break-out area. An angular staircase cuts through the core of the floor plates to unify practice groups that straddle two levels.
At the top level's staff cappuccino bar and restaurant, says Proudler, "People from different departments bump into one another all the time, which is great for team spirit." Employees also interact in the adjacent training room, which gives onto a terrace big enough for Olswang's annual summer party, weather permitting.
Most of the top level, however, is devoted to clients. "Instead of the standard, high reception desk, Olswang's is lower to make it more approachable," says Iarussi. Throughout reception, the 11 private dining rooms, and the six conference rooms, Iarussi aimed for the atmosphere of a Pall Mall gentleman's club—with a bit of a buzz rather than hush-hush quiet.
Further client entertaining takes place in the second level's "hospitality suite," set up like a stylish apartment. In the living area, Gensler grouped a tailored white sofa and black leather-covered seating cubes; the dining area features a custom walnut table and Soft Pad chairs by Charles and Ray Eames. The suite's bedroom and shower facility are available to attorneys working into the wee hours. Most important, though, these sleeping and bathing accommodations satisfy a municipal regulation that all new buildings in the heart of London include residential space. So Olswang stays on the right side of the law.
At the Gensler-designed headquarters of Olswang, a London law firm, backlit onyx defines the main reception area.
Jose Sirera's curtain wall resolves rights-of-light issues, while swaths of Portland stone tie in to the flanking buildings.
A floor-to-ceiling glass wall separates the main reception area from Starbucks Coffee.
Conference rooms back the top of the glazed facade.
Olswang's own top-level reception area features an onyx focal wall, a leather-wrapped desk, and a laptop-ready lounge.
A glass balustrade permits an unobstructed view of the internal stairwell's wall of etched laminated glass.
The training room offers seating for 60 and access to a wraparound terrace.
The stairs connect levels two and three. Treads are granite.
For the hospitality suite's dining area, Armando Iarussi grouped Soft Pad chairs by Charles and Ray Eames around a custom walnut table.
Custom mohair-covered benches fill niches in the corridor near the client conference and dining rooms.
Hannes Wettstein seating clusters across from a break-out area's granite snack counter.
A beam clad in brushed stainless steel slices through a conference room, where wool carpet tiles allow easy access to wiring and mechanicals beneath.
Low-emission woven Tek-Wall wraps the MDF panel at the back of a conference room. The table and cabinetry are quartered figured walnut.
Virtually all attorneys' offices measure 10 by 18 feet. To accommodate either one occupant or two, modular work surfaces click into three different configurations.
A conference room with a custom walnut-topped table overlooks a 1914 building recently converted into the Renaissance London Chancery Court hotel.