Tired of the open office? Try putting rooms within rooms, instead

Designers around the world are driven by similar impulses and draw on a common vocabulary of forms, materials and spatial strategies. So it’s no surprise to find that a film-production company in Southern California, a dance studio in London and a media headquarters in Tallinn share a common feature: tiny rooms within a soaring void. The concept can be traced back to antiquity and the aedicula that enclosed the altar in a temple. A richly modelled baldachin focuses attention on the high altar of St Peter’s in Rome, and architect Charles Moore used a minimal variant to make his tiny house in Orinda, California, seem larger. Grand or modest, singular or multiple, these inner rooms establish a hierarchy of scale, layering space and adding complexity.

In Tallinn, Arhitekt 11 was commissioned to design and realize new offices for Äripäev, Estonia’s largest business newspaper, radio and publishing company. It’s housed within the soaring volume of Luther’s Machine Room, a landmark structure of reinforced concrete that two Russian architects designed as a plywood-furniture factory in 1912. ‘The building inspired us, though initially we were a little afraid of it,’ said lead designer Hannelore Kääramees. ‘We wanted to preserve the character of the original while creating a feeling of spontaneity.’

We wanted to bring employees together… and that was a challenge, because Estonians are not very social

The company had formerly occupied a four-storey building in which each department was segregated from the rest. Its goal was to put all 280 employees on the 2,330-sq-m main floor. Rows of workstations are ranged around the perimeter on three sides, and enclosed spaces define a central gathering area beneath the roof vault, which rises to a height of 12.6 metres. ‘We wanted to bring employees together,’ explained Kääramees. ‘That was a challenge, because Estonians are not very social.’

Arhitekt 11’s box-filled spatial strategy in the Estonian capital unites Äripäev’s 280 employees on one floor - Photos by Tõnu Tunnel

The boxes that house meeting rooms and other activities are clad in plywood, and the names of business leaders from the first era of Estonian independence are etched onto the glass. Corners are rounded and stepped so people passing by can perch there, as casually as pigeons on a ledge. Natural light flooding down from the glazed vault is carefully filtered, and the library at one end of the room is canopied to block direct sunlight. The suspended light fittings were pared to a minimum to reduce the load on the century-old concrete beams. Carpets and acoustic panels absorb sound, and felt-lined phone booths resemble doll’s houses. A soft grey palette around the perimeter becomes more colourful in the central zone, which functions as a café and an informal work area. The designers reserved their best moves for the toilets. One evokes swimmers half submerged in a pool of blue water, and another is muralled with an image of the first moon landing.

Innovative co-working space Here East is a creative business and technology resource for East London and an incubator for start-ups. It occupies the 120,000-sq-m Press and Broadcasting Centre built for the 2012 Olympics and is the new home of choreographer Wayne McGregor and his company of dancers. He commissioned three studios from the firm of We Not I and gave them Peter Brook’s two imperatives: ‘Anything can happen’ and ‘Something must happen.’ Their response was ‘to do as little as possible as best we could.’

Freeland Buck’s redesign of a warehouse space occupied by Hungry Man Productions combines flexibility and privacy - Photos by Eric Staudenmaier

A timber tower clad in plywood – black on the outside, natural within – rises through three levels with a camera obscura on the rooftop. In contrast to the raw steel shed, it’s a refined composition that changes form as you move around it. Works of art, including a floor based on a design by Anni Albers, enrich meeting and gathering spaces. As bodies swirl gracefully around the white studios, the tower serves as a fulcrum, rotated 45 degrees and imbued with a sense of drama.

Hungry Man Productions invited bicoastal design firm Freeland Buck to reconfigure the generic warehouse it occupied on an industrial estate in Culver City, California. As co-principal David Freeland explained, ‘they wanted to strengthen their identity and create a more exciting place in which to work and for their movie-making clients to experience. They had to move out while we made the changes, giving us only 12 weeks to complete the job.’

Choreographer Wayne McGregor’s new studio space is its own piece of mini architecture within the 120,000-sq-m Press and Broadcasting Centre built for the 2012 Olympics - Photos by Richard Davies

The task was to reconfigure 800-sq-m on the main floor and an angled mezzanine gallery to realize an ideal working environment for ten permanent employees and up to 20 temporaries hired to work on different productions. Freeland conceived what he calls ‘tumbled cubicles that playfully challenge the regularity of the typical office space.’ Most of these white MDF cubes are clustered across from the mezzanine and orientated inwards to create visual links between the core staff. The result is a diagonal axis of open space for circulation and informal gatherings, with more enclosures for meetings, visiting directors and digital editing located on and below the gallery.

We’ve discovered that the open office is not very productive

To infuse such an expansive space with energy yet avoid any sense of emptiness, the designers rotated the cubes and milled their surfaces with patterns of lines that echo the corrugated metal of the roof and suggest another set of rotations, as though the whole complex were in a state of arrested motion. Cubes are piled atop cubes, and the designers proposed a display of props, projections or cartoonish foam-core furniture. A single chair was ordered, which further enlarges the potential of the cubes – work below and play above.

‘Our business is about teamwork, bouncing ideas off each other,’ said Marian Harkness of Hungry Man. ‘The new layout gives you the sense that you’re working in one room while allowing you to retreat to a quiet space.’ Freeland agreed. ‘We’ve discovered that the open office is not very productive. Here, we’ve divided up the space to accommodate different-sized teams and achieve flexibility, while carefully calibrating different degrees of privacy.’


This feature is part of Frame 121. You can purchase a copy of that print issue here.

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