Play by Play
How HLW designed a Los Angeles campus for video-game company Electronic Arts
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 10/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
At Electronic Arts, employees might wear flip-flops and dress in clothing that's just a tad more covered-up than beach attire, but don't be deceived by the laid-back togs—this staff works long hours. So, to lure and retain top talent in the fields of designing, producing, manufacturing, and distributing video games, EA required a new Los Angeles headquarters with a cool vibe and big-time recreational facilities: a gym, a game room, an outsize cafeteria, and outdoor lounge space. Sort of like the studios that HLW had previously designed for Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, and Universal Studios.
When HLW came on board at the programming stage to evaluate EA's growth potential, the company initially estimated it would need 50,000 square feet—mostly work areas, perhaps with a state-of-the-art screening room thrown in. It soon became clear, however, that this amount of space would fall woefully short. HLW managing partner Michael White recalls suggesting that "200,000 square feet was more like it." Ultimately, site selection led to the Playa Vista neighborhood, where Gensler had designed a pair of spec office buildings, one four stories and the other two.
The surrounding 6 1/2-acre plot, a mile from the Pacific Ocean, followed the basic outline for a 21st-century studio. But the script would have to undergo extensive reworking. Reprising landscape elements 'from the original Paramount complex, completed in Hollywood in the 1930's, HLW began by establishing a procession: an allée of palms, a ceremonial aluminum gate, etc. Then, after mapping out a regulation-size soccer field and courts for basketball and volleyball on the grounds near the entry, the designers turned to the plaza between the two buildings.
"We saw the plaza as the epicenter," explains White. It was also a way to add 10,000 square feet of outdoor lounge space to the 210,000-square-foot overall count inside. What the plaza lacked, though, was a sense of place. HLW solved that problem by building a large keyhole-shape concrete-walled fountain and extensive runs of ipé boardwalk, then planting beach grasses and palms to soften the composition.
"Natural leitmotifs," White comments, carry through to the interiors. Chanting a mantra of Comfort, Not Corporate, he devised a scheme centering on beech, cherry, and maple. No steel, no chrome. Durable furniture, nothing opulent.
Of the major organizational thrust, he says, "Neither building is dominant." Want to get a double espresso at the coffee bar or—in the name of research—play in the game room, complete with foosball? Head to the four-story building, which also houses the main reception area, the boardroom, the training center, the screening room, and a store. The equally vital cafeteria and gym draw personnel to the two-story counterpart. Nonhierarchical work spaces for 1,000 employees are divided between the two buildings.
Many of HLW's themes come together in the double-height main reception area. The desk—partially fronted by a glowing resin panel encasing vertical strands of sea grass—stands in front of full-height silk drapery in pistachio green. Woodwork is beech, particularly gutsy examples being a saltwater aquarium and a slatted, canted screen that separates reception from the game room. The swooping backrests of Charles Foster Kane's wool-upholstered lounge chairs make it almost impossible not to relax.
Quasi-reclining in one of those chairs, visitors catch a glimpse of the workplace above—as specifically requested by EA. 'Forget a grid of gray cubicles. Instead, ocean-blue carpet tiles anchor octagonal workstations, while cork articulates meandering circulation paths. Along those paths, four color-coded team areas provide work-lounge alternatives in the form of generous armchairs covered in cotton canvas. The circulation paths also separate open work space from the interior offices of the 25 percent of staff requiring privacy. (Senior executives, sound-effects specialists, and human resources.)
In completing the job, a seven-month time frame posed HLW's chief obstacle. That translated into 24-hour scheduling, made possible by the participation of the firm's Shanghai office. Says White, "One of the new challenges of dealing with the entertainment industry is the expectation of turnaround." It's a fast game.