Judging by most commercial office space, it would seem that designers have just two options for accommodating clients—hard-wall offices and systems furniture. Upper-level personnel get windows, walls, and doors at the perimeter, lower-level staff go to the cubicle farm at the center, and architects get their kicks, if any, tinkering with requisite visual punctuations out near reception. The dot-com boom and the recent economic bust did little to alter this state of affairs and as a result commercial office spaces tend to garner little in the way of disciplinary interest.
For Arup’s new 2,500-square-foot outpost in downtown Los Angeles, Zago Architecture conjured a potent variation on this sadly only slightly exaggerated caricature. A supplement to the engineering firm’s main Playa Vista offices, the space provides a home away from home for itinerant Arup employees and gives the firm a presence among the growing number of clients now based in downtown LA.
With just one Arup employee permanently stationed in the space, the clients requested an activity-based working (ABW) model, in which dedicated workspaces are traded for an array of non-territorial environments, including individual quiet areas, informal collaboration spaces, discreet meeting rooms, and casual lounge spaces. Dispensing with the traditional mix of hard-wall offices and cubicles allowed the architects to explore formal and spatial possibilities unavailable with more conventional approaches.
Upon entry, one finds a collection of skewed planes clad in lacquered plywood, Richlite (a paper-based solid-surface product), and upholstery. Glass-fronted meeting rooms form the boundary beyond, erasable wall surfaces accommodate sketches and the occasional scribbled calculation, and ample teleconferencing equipment links the space with collaborators worldwide.
Colors range from near black and dark blue to sea foam green, with “ARUPdt” incised into an upright surface near the entry. A halo of perforated metal orbits overhead, while bright red and yellow bands mark the edges of otherwise grey vinyl flooring.
The planes’ contortions make an array of surfaces available for office activities. Large horizontals stretch out to provide worktops at heights appropriate for sitting and standing. Other strands merge to create quasi-conference tables. Some planes twist vertically to define semi-discrete spaces on either side and to allow power and data to discretely feed embedded ports. Cubbies provide homes to briefcases and mobile gear, while integrated drawers and cabinets hold office supplies and tackle for evening social events.
Architectural Lighting Works
Oakstone Glass Corporation
The overall effect is curious. The central elements appear at once too big to be taken for furniture, too small to constitute a building, and too overtly functional to pass for sculpture. Vertically, they seem not quite to fit the space, the crinkled forms suggesting too much content for not enough container. By contrast, the ensemble seems a little too small in plan. The vinyl flooring stops several feet shy of the adjacent walls, making the ensemble appear to drift uneasily on the bare concrete slab left exposed at the perimeter.
Such studied ambiguity and intentional awkwardness has been a hallmark of Zago’s architectural ambitions for some time. As he puts it, the awkward “goes to the core of a persistent dilemma: how to employ mastery in a profession that finds traditional display of such expertise untenable.” Technical mastery, he opines, can take an architect only so far. Beyond a certain point it can even become a hindrance. (For the sake of professional decorum, think of Liberace, then imagine architectural equivalents for yourself.) For Zago, calculated awkwardness sidesteps both easy expertise and clichéd expectations as it reinvigorates the potency of masterful execution.
Look again at those unsettling forms. They collide with a precision that borders on fetishism, as if Busby Berkeley had choreographed a train wreck. This marriage of deliberate dissonance with fastidious calibration produces an unlikely grace that works not to reinforce traditional hierarchies but rather to consecrate the viability of both unexpected configurations and the novel social arrangements they might engender.
Such an attitude explains the lack of structural exhibitionism one might expect to find in an engineer’s office. There are no exposed fasteners, no articulated details, no mappings of structural forces or confident displays of their resolution. For many among us, such kneejerk obviation of how something stands up, like Liberace’s boring virtuosity, just is not very interesting anymore. But Zago’s elegant awkwardness at Arup suggests one way that commercial offices might just become interesting again.