by Shirley Chen
"Look, we -- that is, my firm and I -- work in a completely nondescript building in Rotterdam. It couldn’t be plainer. It’s from the 1960s, and it’s an open room with a nice view. We are almost ecstatically happy. Why? We can do anything there. We can imprint our personality onto the building."
An architects’ studio is a unique space for them to foster creativity and to begin to distill those ideas into real buildings. Successful design of an architecture studio can create a vibrant studio culture and reflect a firm’s positive perception of itself. As Koolhaas pointed out, primitive and spare spaces can often generate a richer spatial experience when compared to a complex, more-developed space. The simplicity of a big open room promotes an atmosphere of shared experience, mutual respect, and non-hierarchical exchange. It also allows architects to “imprint” their individual tastes on the space.
This approach can be taken at architectural firms of all scales: for example, the large OMA Rotterdam Headquarters and up-and-coming SO-IL’s smaller offices for the design group LOGAN.
OMA, one of the world’s most influential contemporary architecture firms, has designed a number of high-profile buildings, including the Seattle Central Library, the Casa da Musica in Porto, Portugal, the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin, and the Wyly Theatre in Dallas. Despite its size, the firm is often described as a “cult” due to its unique studio culture, which is closely tied to the design of its working spaces.
In an interview with ARCHITECT Magazine, OMA partner Reinier de Graaf explained how the physical layout of their offices, counter-intuitively, aims to cultivate a feeling of normality.
“To some extents, the setup of our office just instills the notion of a place to work. In the sheer normality of the working condition, it facilitates the forgetting of everything people in the outside may think of you.”
An open, active space helps the architects set aside their established fame and harvest new ideas from all sources. The layout also, more importantly, puts cooperation over hierarchy. Shared desks and giant glass screens eliminate the boundaries among people with different areas of expertise and create an “orderly chaos” where a senior partner and an intern can both contribute to the architectural process. The cycle of refining, evolving, and combining those ideas maximizes the creative thought put into each project.
However, transparency and precision is not only key in studio design for big firms like OMA, but also for young offices still in the process of development and expansion, such as, the up-and-coming group SO-IL.
Co-founded by Florian and Jing Liu in 2008, SO-IL is a Brooklyn-based design firm, a large part of whose team consists of mobile consultants that join on a per-project basis. Such a dynamic business model requires a very flexible space that can accommodate the needs of many different design processes.
Instead of personalized working stations, a 65 foot continuous custom work table accommodates each of the space’s two symmetrical and rectilinear offices, creating layers of transparency among completely shared work spaces. All steps of the architectural process, from design and production to client meetings, can be executed in this space with any size of working group. The end section of each continuous table is divided by glass walls, allowing for acoustically private offices and meeting rooms to share the same work surface.
Besides the glass walls, SO-IL also employs seamless, floor-to-ceiling translucent fabric walls to separate these central work areas, breaking down the space but still allowing natural light to penetrate. A luminous ceiling made of stretched PVC provides totally even, shadow-less lighting which reduces the unintended interference of light and shadow.
All these factors, the continuous shared table, translucent fabric walls, and PVC ceiling, generate a sense of abstraction and scalelessness, freeing those working in the space from typical expectations of use. The minimized design echoes with Koolhass’ description of the ideal working space for architects -- a place where one can “imprint” their personality onto the building.
Despite their size differences, the OMA Rotterdam and SO-IL Logan offices have both embraced elements of transparency and openness within their work-spaces. Such qualities of space cultivate environments with swift and easy exchange of ideas, where creative thinking is encouraged. As suggested by Philip Johnson’s famous quote, “All architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space”, the architecture studio shall shelter and aid the creative minds of architects.