A New Dynamic pix
Lehman Smith McLeish builds a headquarters where General Dynamics can train and mentor executive leaders
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 1/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Sarah Morris and four other artists used house paint for the mural that cascades down the five-story central staircase. Photography: Peter Aaron/Esto.
The steps are travertine. Photography: Peter Aaron/Esto.
In the center of the boardroom's ebony tabletop, a panel in stainless steel and leather flips up to expose power and data connections, speakers, and microphones. The focal wall is clad in leather. Photography: Peter Aaron/Esto.
Wood panels by Kate Shepherd hang outside the auditorium, their enamel and oil colors evoking the finishes inside.
All 105 of the auditorium's leather-upholstered seats are equipped with a microphone and a docking station. Photography: Peter Aaron/Esto.
The reception area of the Forum, a leadership-training center, features leather-covered sofas and a table in stainless steel and glass, all by Nicos Zographos. Photography: Peter Aaron/Esto.
The glazed wall above the lobby's reception desk was existing. Photography: Peter Aaron/Esto. Left: An acrylic mural by Sylvan Lionni challenges the perception of space in a caucus room.
In the communications department's break-out area, flat-panel plasma TVs are tuned to news channels. The Forum's business center supplies visitors with chairs by Charles and Ray Eames and lacquered boxes filled with branded stationery, pads, and pencils by Pentagram partner Michael Bierut. Photography: Peter Aaron/Esto.
Opposite: A fritted-glass screen separates the café's 175 dining seats from a banquette.
In the café, an acrylic light box runs down the center of a custom table topped in milk glass up-lit by fluorescents.
Blown-glass panels by Sonja Blomdahl are installed in front of the café's window wall. Photography: Jon Miller/Hedrich Blessing.
|To Debra Lehman-Smith, it seemed that her firm had barely completed a two-year floor-by-floor upgrade of the General Dynamics headquarters in northern Virginia when she got another call, with another big idea. The $19 billion defense contractor, which also manufactures Gulfstream jets, has 72,000 employees worldwide, and they needed a place where far-flung managers could come and be groomed for the next generation of leadership.
After CEO and chairman Nicholas Chabraja rejected the costly options of redoing the current office yet again or constructing a separate training facility, Lehman-Smith and her partner, James McLeish, showed Chabraja six stories in a spec building nearby in Falls Church. The 150,000-square-foot space had been sitting empty, so the landlords were motivated to make relocating the whole office worthwhile. They even agreed to let Lehman Smith McLeish remove huge sections of floor slabs to create an open central staircase and double-height interiors.
The pièce de résistance is a 30,000-square-foot executive leadership-training center known as the Forum. Taking up two floors, it consists of six conference rooms, numerous ' break-out areas, a staff café, and an auditorium with one long window wall and seven gently raked rows of white seats. Each seat comes equipped with a microphone and docking station, while the lectern has controls that allow the speaker to operate the rear-screen projector, the lighting, and two types of motorized window shades, both light-filtering and room-darkening.
Besides leadership training, the auditorium is used for "oral examinations," the client presentations so pivotal to the defense-contract bidding process. "It creates a very good impression," Chabraja explains. "The customer says, 'Those guys have their stuff together.'"
With the help of a workplace consultant, LSM took advantage of the relocation to evaluate and change the General Dynamics culture. For example, executives used to cluster in a single suite on one floor of the old building; now they're deployed on each floor to promote interaction among all 129 on-site employees. This decentralized arrangement also forces Chabraja to venture out from his private aerie to chat up the troops or give the occasional pep talk to guests.
What he really likes is how the new facility saves time and money. No more rushing off to a rubber-chicken luncheon at a hotel down the interstate. Instead, staff and visitors head to the Forum's 175-seat café for healthy bistro-quality meals served on china enameled with the burgundy General Dynamics logo. Nine colorful blown-glass panels by Sonja Blomdahl march down one side of the room, in front of the windows— cutting glare and providing a soothing dappled light.
Graphics are an important part of the message the minute people walk into the lobby, a double-height space with main reception at one end and a separate reception area for the Forum at the other. Suspended over both are floating compositions of the iconic General Dynamics advertising posters that Erik Nitsche designed between 1958 and 1962. The posters also provided a major source of inspiration to Pentagram's Michael Bierut, brought in by LSM to develop a graphics palette for building signage, promotional materials, corporate stationery, and Forum-branded pads and pencils. (Coincidentally, he'd been referring for years to Dynamic America, a 1960 corporate history that he considers a mid-century design bible.)
The graphics program complements the company's collection of art—whether that's "sculpture" in the form of a model of a Stryker combat vehicle, blue-chip Brice Marden etchings or Helen Frankenthaler prints, or pieces by newcomers. LSM and art consultant Lisa Austin & Associates commissioned Sarah Morris to paint a wall that runs up one side of the central stair, a source of "vertical energy," Lehman-Smith says, as well as the physical ' link between the Forum and office floors.
It took Morris and four assistants a full four weeks to map out the 60-foot-high composition of color blocks and white lines, then paint them. "It was great to have Sarah's team working while the employees were there. People got such a feeling of ownership," Austin says. "You had these pierced, tattooed artists walking around among a fairly conservative population, eating lunch, exchanging ideas."
The café features one of the least conservative contemporary artists around: It's a spot hung with six of Damien Hirst's "spin art" paintings, square canvases splattered with colorful, trippy lines and whorls. As vice president of communications Kendell Pease says with a laugh, "You don't know how many engineers we've had sitting there, trying to figure out how he did them."