Monday, January 15, 2007

Kudos to Ken

My brother's work for the Orbitz headquarters in downtown Chicago was the subject of a full-page feature in the Chicago Sun-Times on Friday.

I took a tour of the facilities this summer just before it was finished and was impressed by the "egalitarian" nature of the design, with uninterrupted sightlines along all the main corridors. I also thought it funny that the "exposed metal nuts and bolts" used to hold composite wood panels together are the same type used to hold my rooming house bunk bed together. I found the overall design very futuristic, both in its gleaming idealism and post-industrial clutter.

Bravo, Ken!

Click on this link or read below:

Orbitz design takes off

January 12, 2007

BY KEVIN NANCE Art and Architecture Critic

In the old days (which, come to think of it, weren't so long ago), most urban workplace design was governed by a pair of simple, easy-to-follow principles:
Keep the bosses happy by giving them private offices that hog the natural light and views along the exterior walls. And keep the employees happy, or at least less unhappy, by making the overall environment as swanky and polished as you can afford.
But as Orbitz's new corporate headquarters in downtown's Citigroup Center suggests, there are new ways of thinking about commercial interior architecture that don't rely on hierarchies, that express the more egalitarian ideals of younger generations of workers, and that dispense with restrictive notions of luxury in favor of a stylish but casual simplicity and modernity.
In short, the new home of the online travel agency at 500 W. Madison, smartly designed by Ken Locascio of Chicago's OWP/P Architects, is not your daddy's workplace. Alternately sleek and spare, refined and raw, it's a series of canny juxtapositions of design elements that convey the coolness and techno-savvy of its twenty- and thirtysomething workforce and, at the same time, the company's identity as a grown-up dot-com and travel industry leader.
» Click to enlarge image
Interior of the Orbitz headquaters in the Citigroup Center. (Rich Hein/Sun-Times)
Airport references abound, from the molded-panel observation ports with apertures like giant jet windows to the terminal-lobby benches on the main reception floor (which, by the way, has no reception desk; visitors contact their parties via an automated staff directory in the wall). The long halls on either side of the elevator banks are "runways," and the central command center, from which workers monitor travel conditions across the globe, appears to have been transported intact from NASA.
And instead of the showy finishes that have become cliches of commercial interiors since the 1950s, Locascio uses accents of recycled aluminum (whose nubbly, crumpled surface makes for a grungy sort of Internet-age travertine), composite wood panels held in place with exposed metal nuts and bolts, and polished concrete floors that turn out to be the original structural slab surfaces, ground down and polished but still showing the original cracks. Rarely has shabby been quite this chic.
In the ceilings, likewise, heating and cooling ducts remain in full view, along with electrical fixture hangings, metal conduits, cables and other functional necessities. The obvious analogy is that of a loft, but it's also no real stretch to imagine these spaces as the inside of a computer -- a bit messy and coldly industrial for some, a 21st century vision of transcendent beauty for others. Certainly Le Corbusier, for whom the most perfect thing he could imagine was almost always a machine, would have loved it.
The floor plan's distribution of space is scrupulously democratic and worker-friendly. The rank and file get their fair share of primo acreage along the exterior walls, with their impressive skyline views; when managers -- including Orbitz president Steve Barnhart -- manage to score their own digs, the walls are of floor-to-ceiling glass, so as not to deprive a single underling of the same light and views the boss enjoys.
The hallways are studded with huddle rooms, called "huds," for scheduled and impromptu conferencing, with huge, bulbous lighting fixtures lending both illumination and an eye-catching design focus. Universal wi-fi lets restless employees keep working on the move. Overhead lighting above workstations is hung in a skewed configuration that cuts down on glare. There are child-care facilities, free snacks in the cafeterias, a pull-down projection screen for movie nights, and an all-purpose room mostly used by Muslim employees for prayer.
It's a model modern office setting, at least from the view of the average computer jock from Generation X, Y and beyond. I'm a little older than that, but I could get used to it.
knance@suntimes.com

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