Shlemmer Algaze Associates (SAA), an architecture and design firm that principal Steven Drucker admits once specialized in “fairly prosaic” commercial work, has in recent years made a strong push to become a more design-driven firm.
The ultimate expression of that move—and an advertisement to clients—is the company’s new downtown Los Angeles office, which it opened in December at City National Plaza, a 1970s modernist office complex that is also the new home of design firm Gensler, whose huge new headquarters recently opened around the corner.
Strategizing a space within a space
Unlike Gensler, SAA (which Drucker jokingly compares to “David” versus Gensler’s “Goliath”) didn’t have a lot of space or a lot of money to work with. The new offices are in fact a testament to what can be achieved within incredibly tight parameters.
The office, located in a formerly underused lobby space on the first floor of City National’s north tower, totals 3,752 square feet. The budget was close to $1 million and the building’s owner, Thomas Properties, demanded that the firm not touch the tower’s elegant Miesian steel and granite shell. Working within these constraints, the firm’s strategy was to create a building within the building and a city within the city.
The building within the building: a long, curved, 17-foot-8-inch-tall drywall-clad core to the south of the narrow space. The freestanding white structure—supported with metal stud framing and pre-engineered metal panels—contains a conference room, a kitchen/break area, copy/printing areas, and a small library/materials area dotting its length.
The city within the city: a row of sleek, low profile bench desks connected to the urban environment outside via an existing double-height glass wall. They sit above a unique custom carpet—an urban tapestry, literally—designed as an abstraction of the 1748 Nolli plan of Rome, while a unique partition made of milled MDF displays an abstraction of the Piazza Novona. The plazas and “streets” encourage interaction inside, as if one were actually in the city outside. “It’s a weaving of urban design, interior design, and architecture. Everything fits into place, with no wasted space,” says Drucker. “For a while we joked that it was like a submarine.”
Openness and views are key
Despite such little room for error, the office doesn’t feel cramped at all. The existing core, its lightweight steel framing, 27-foot-tall ceilings, and massive glass walls certainly help. The design maximizes the visual connection to the outside, making the space feel light in every way. Intermittent backlighting gives off a warm, spacious glow. Bright orange paint, which is judiciously added throughout (but not to the extent that it overwhelms), jolts the space with a sensation of brightness. Even the large conference room has a window, connecting it to the rest of the office and to the city outside.
“We wanted to place our people and the day-to-day work environment out on the street—so the perimeter studio is a key element contributing to openness,” noted Drucker.
Progression from one space to another is informal. The entrance area, for example, contains a raised table and chairs for meetings; rooms in the core are glazed for visual continuity. The space shares its mechanical/HVAC system with the adjacent lobby, to which it opens from above; large bronzed, mirrored-glass walls separate the two spaces where they intersect.
Meticulously finished but avoiding extravagance, most surfaces are plaster, MDF, or laminate. Since the building’s overhead illumination couldn’t be touched, most of the space (besides the splashes of backlighting) is naturally illuminated. Desk-mounted task lights do most of the work at night, giving the architects’ office sort of a nightclub feel, laughs Drucker.
The ultimate cost-saving element: efficiency. Weekly meetings between the owners, architects, engineers, and contractors solved questions of project costs, construction, logistics, and procurement in real time. In the end, no significant changes were made between the initial space plan and the final built design, minimizing change orders and saving precious time. The build-out was designed and completed in just four months, a timeline dictated largely by the firm’s lease agreement. “Business parameters can be a great motivator,” Drucker sums up.
Key Design Highlights
- Using the exterior glazing and 27-foot ceilings to its advantage, SAA created an open setting to visually expand the narrow floor plan it had to work with.
- Keeping the spaces open greatly reduced the need for artificial lighting.
- The 1748 Nolli plan of Rome is a design element both on a wall near the entrance and on the office carpet.
Shlemmer Algaze Associates
Designer Shlemmer Algaze Associates
Client Shlemmer Algaze Associates
Where Los Angeles
What 3,752 square feet on one floor