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2007 April: Utopia Regained

These bold government offices by Morphosis help the American workplace to reconnect with a sense of civitas

Shaped by a seemingly relentless quest for efficiency, the workplace in the United States was perhaps first most effectively defined in the design developed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his client, Darwin Martin, for the Larkin Administration Building. Planned for secretaries, clerks, and executives, equipped with specially designed furniture and built-in filing, and organised around an internal conservatory with inspirational texts, food services, staff training, musical concerts and specially conditioned air, it was contained within a single enclosed room.

Thirty years later, when asked to design another office, Wright created a second memorable daylit yet resoundingly internalised space for Johnson Wax and, together with the exquisitely sealed corporate boxes subsequently realised by Mies van der Rohe and others, an influential model for the American workplace was established. It was removed, introverted and hermetically sealed.

This model has been radically reconstructed by Morphosis, designers of the new Federal Building in San Francisco, recently completed on a site at the intersection of Seventh and Mission Streets. Commissioned around the time that Herzog & de Meuron, Piano and Libeskind were being invited to design new landmark museums in the city, the Morphosis team was also presented with a request for design excellence.

However, the project offered an arguably less remarkable brief - to provide inexpensive office space for approximately 1500 people working in six different federal government departments on a site located at a conspicuous fringe of the central business district. Yet this was also a commission inspired by an impressive tradition of federal buildings that had been constructed across the country over more than a hundred years, a tradition highlighted by US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former Presidential Advisor and advocate for the General Services Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence Program, when he noted the need to create a new generation of ‘federal buildings that are not only monumental but open, welcoming and accessible’.

Subsequent events, particularly 9/11, introduced new concerns that continue to reshape buildings and cities worldwide, but in the United States the GSA has persisted in its quest to create openness and accessibility in the design of new buildings to house the federal government.

Aware of these conflicting histories, the design team sought to make this particular project the basis for a new workspace geared to performance. One major aspect of that performance was to realise the potential of the large site and a substantial new public building to create a civic focus in the city. To do this the architects first identified those spaces that would be most frequently used by the public and organised them in a four-storey building with an entrance on a new square and frontage on Mission Street.

In addition, they pulled the staff restaurant out from the body of the building and made it a freestanding pavilion open to all, located on the corner of Mission and Seventh Streets. Similarly, a conference centre and daycare facility are given identity and sited on the square. Accessible to both office staff and the public alike, these planning initiatives have inspired an urban design strategy that defines this new public square as a decidedly civic place.

Alongside this informal cluster of buildings, the offices are stacked up in an 18-storey high slab that defines the northern edge of the site. Also designed to achieve high performance, the organisation of this slender building, measuring a mere 65 feet from wall to wall, has clearly developed out of studies of recent European practice and built projects. With experience designing offices in Austria and France, and having worked closely with engineers Arup, Morphosis responded enthusiastically to the client’s interest in creating daylit works paces for their staff in San Francisco.

In addition to improving working conditions, this initiative was developed to reduce what is customarily the largest energy cost in an office building. Consequently the two long faces of the office block are glazed and, together with overall floor-to-ceiling heights of 13 feet, provide good natural light that penetrates deeply into the building. Combined with artificial lighting operated by sensors, these moves have been designed to reduce the amount of energy used for lighting by more than a quarter.

By capitalising on the temperate climate of the Bay Area, this project also presented the opportunity to design a major urban office building which forgoes mechanical cooling and in a substantial part of the tower it is replaced by natural ventilation. Working closely with the environmental engineers, and using sophisticated building modelling systems, the narrow band of office space was designed to make it feasible to provide openable windows above the fourth floor and to utilise the thermal capacity of an exposed concrete structure to condition the interior environment.

This integrated concept prompted the design team to develop high performance skins for the two long elevations of the office tower. In a stark contrast to the generic wrappers that enclose office buildings across the country, the north-west face of the new Federal Building consists of an outer leaf of fixed translucent sunshades attached to an external maintenance catwalk. These break the sun’s path and shade the glazing. On the south-east, a perforate metal screen protects the inner leaf of glass from excessive solar heat gain.

The increasing influence of real estate developers with their requirements for short term returns on capital, combined with contracting methods formalised around specific trades, increasingly define the shape and form of architecture in the United States. As a result there have been few opportunities to develop the truly integrative designs pioneered by SOM and Saarinen for enlightened corporate clients in the ’60s.

At the same time, with little genuine interest in the long-term performance of buildings, so-called ‘value engineering’ has been directed solely to realising short-term savings in construction costs. However, new digitally based building information management systems, coupled with the federal government’s long-term investment in buildings, have made integrated design a feature of the Design Excellence Program and a clear inspiration for this project.

In exploring the design of performative skins, the architects went on to investigate the potentials of their layering and delamination. In addition to designing facades that orient the building for both users within and the citizenry outside, they have also been able to create a series of distinctive spaces between. Some of these provide zones for access and maintenance while others expand to make habitable rooms.

The main entrance into the office building is a long lofty lobby defined by structure and fitted out with amphitheatre seating, which successfully captures the grandeur, optimism and civitas of earlier generations of federal buildings without resorting to superficial pastiche. Higher up in the building the layered skin pulls back to reveal a series of spectacular sky lobbies at lift entrances and frame views out over the city from huge projecting windows. On the 11th floor the skin is cut back to reveal a sky garden which is also the setting for a specially commissioned light installation by James Turrell, emphatically registering the building in the skyline.

But these undulating diaphanous skins are most dramatic when they pull completely free of the office building to form a series of folded canopies that define new public spaces, shelter the cafeteria, conference centre and daycare facility and extend to the street edge. The generous spaces covered by these glassy roofs supported on energetic steel structures recall those egalitarian urban rooms defined by glazed market halls and railway station concourses in Victorian cities. Here, such a device is combined with a conspicuously shaped ground plane and designates both square and building as important new destinations.

Not only is the Federal Building a notable new landmark in San Francisco’s rather sedate formal milieu, but it is also significant when considered in the broader context of new modern architecture in North America. Presenting an impressive and viable alternative to the banal, hermetically sealed workspaces inspired by Wright’s prototype, it is a spectacular demonstration project and exemplar for the future.

Led by an inspired client and an architect committed to working closely with innovative engineers, the design team has created a building with a modest budget of $240 per square foot that projects a compelling vision of openness, utility and civitas. It articulates a radical shift from the norm across North America and restores the inspiring utopian view that long characterised the New World, but which has, more recently, been so assertively obscured.

Architect Morphosis, Los Angeles
Executive architect Smith Group
Structural and services engineers Arup
Landscape architect Richard Haag Associates
Photographs Nic Lehoux, except nos 2 & 3 courtesy of the RIBA Library Photographs Collection

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