The Great Gherkin
A high-precision interior gives this law firm the best of London's newest icon
Kieran Long -- Interior Design, 11/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Addresses in the city of London don't come any more A-list than 30 St Mary Axe, the affectionately named Gherkin by Foster + Partners. So when the London office of a U.S. law firm took over 25,000 square feet on the 22nd and 23rd floors of what is indisputably the most significant new building in the City for a generation, the obvious choice of design firm was Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. International pedigree aside, SOM shares Chicago roots and a long association with the clients, having designed their offices since 1973. The firms also share a taste for the modern. SOM interior design principal Jaime Velez says that these attorneys have never been the kind to ensconce themselves in heritage mahogany: "A pristine, nontraditional aesthetic has become ingrained with them."
For an interior designer, the Gherkin's floor plates are euphemistically known as a "challenge." In fact, it's one of the trickiest problems in office design: how to cram cellular offices into a circular plan while using the inefficient doughnut of space between the curved facade and the elevator core in the most intensive way possible. The Gherkin's intoxicating curves are doubly problematic, because the building's cigarlike shape means that each level is a slightly different size. A series of five-story perimeter atria only adds to the confusion. As a result, Velez had to be relentlessly pragmatic about organization. Around the outer edge of the floor plate, he placed attorneys in offices with glass partitions—the best views reserved for these important men and women. Administrative hubs of assistants and secretaries, who serve small groups of attorney offices, are situated near the atria windows, a luxury previously denied to support staff. The innermost ring contains printing and mail rooms and other services.
There are some subtle but clever design moves at work here. As visitors step off the elevator and approach the expansive reception area—occupying some of the highest-priced square footage in London's financial heart—the rounded oyster-white leather-covered desk stands just to the left rather than facing arrivals on axis. As a result, one's eye is drawn straight ahead, through the glass partitions of the conference room, and out to the view of the city stretching like a carpet into the distance. Velez established a very light palette here, with blond anigre veneer and silvery travertine setting a tone that suggests a hotel's spa as much as a lawyer's office. There was one material, though, that he needed to use a bit of gentle persuasion to get away with. "The glass of the office partitions is very new to them," he says. "I think their first reaction was skeptical, but in the end I convinced them of the importance of bringing outside light to the core and creating a transparent environment." For offices along the atrium, blinds provide the necessary privacy.
While this is certainly a contemporary interior, it is in no way informal. The atmosphere is absolutely luxurious and intentionally impressive, communicating the bullishness obvious in the firm. A prim office manager explains that the distant sounds of construction are for another floor, above the existing two. The firm is growing in London, and this office is a status symbol.