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Architects Using Offices as Calling Cards

“I don’t know how many years I can love this thing, and keep on having fun with it,” Frank Lloyd Wright remarked about the design of Taliesen West, his new studio in the desert in Scottsdale, Ariz., in the late 1930s. “But I want to create a place where young architects can be refreshed, get direction, encouragement, and find out (about) this thing we call organic architecture.”

Taliesen West, with its distinctive rough stone walls, sloping wooden beams and light canvas roof, created a powerful image. Its design compressed everything Wright meant by “organic” architecture, a kind of design in which buildings look so much in tune with their site they seem to have grown from the ground like acts of nature.

In the design of his desert studio, Wright’s intention was to impress everyone with the originality of his genius, and so attract the most gifted assistants and the most adventurous patrons.

Like Taliesen West, contemporary architects’ studios are marketing tools, a direct means of expressing the designer’s style or “signature.” The atmosphere these spaces convey can range from the sleek to the sloppy, from the corporate to the casual. All of them are, in Norman Mailer’s famous phrase, “an advertisement for myself.”

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“There is a weird and wonderful variety of calculated messages the firms are trying to communicate,” editor Herbert L. Smith Jr. wrote in 1987 in Architectural Record magazine. “Doubtful prospective clients must be quickly and visually made aware of what kind of practicality or artistry they can expect.”

One extreme of the studio-as-message spectrum is epitomized by Frank Gehry’s new offices on the second floor of a converted Santa Monica warehouse.

The Gehry studio is an amiable jumble of exposed ductwork under open timber trusses. The high-ceilinged space, awash with drafting tables drowned in overflowing blueprints, is crowded with cardboard and balsa wood models. Its almost kindergarten air of messy creativity is a perfect mirror of Gehry’s design persona.

“Caution--playful artists at work!” is the message Gehry seems to want to convey. “Enter at risk of your pomposity.”

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The rumpled boss himself, sitting secluded in a glass-walled office in the midst of this crafted confusion, gestures toward the busy studio scene and murmurs: “For me the bad word is precious. Preciousness is the opposite of true elegance.”

A few miles away, an entirely different message is delivered by the new offices Solberg & Lowe Architects designed for themselves at Santa Monica airport.

After crossing a Tarmac filled with parked private planes, you walk through Solberg & Lowe’s glass front door and enter a world of muscular sleekness.

Raw checker-plate steel sheets brown with rust wrapped around the reception desk roughen the gloss of smooth granite surfaces, glistening glass block walls and cool black, gray and white color tones. In the circular conference room, a table fabricated from a slab of armor-plate glass cantilevers forms a metal framework welded to a structural steel column.

Solberg & Lowe’s previous offices, located in a converted gas station across the road from the Santa Monica Civic Center, served as a set for the advertising agency studio featured in a pilot of ABC TV’s yuppie-oriented series, “thirtysomething.”

‘Energetic and Unstuffy’

“The old office was funky and creative,” Richard Solberg explained. “It was our first studio, and Doug (Lowe) and I wanted to express a young persona that was energetic and unstuffy without being too off-the-wall. So we used strong color and exposed structure, exploiting the gas station’s muscularity.”

The gas station studio was so appealing it drew in some clients who saw it while driving by.

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“We had people come in right off the street,” Lowe said. “They may have been drawn by the neon T-square lightning bolt we put in an antique gas pump as a sign of our profession. Whatever it was, it worked well for us. In less than five years, we’ve built up a thriving practice that now employs 30 people.”

In the design of their new studio Solberg and Lowe want to send prospective clients a more mature signal, “like we’re really in business,” Lowe said. “After all, both Rick (Solberg) and I have grown up a little. We’re now on the verge of fortysomething.”

In between the imagery of Gehry’s creative chaos and Solberg & Lowe’s really-in-business mode lies a wide range of architectural studio ambiance.

Getty Center for the Arts designer Richard Meier, known for a crisp “white” architecture featuring enameled steel surfaces, has a suitably white studio on the top floor of a Westwood Village office building opposite UCLA. The air of cerebral calm Meier’s suite of offices conveys reflects the considered intellectuality of his creations.

An Aging Hippie

Jon Jerde, who cheerfully describes himself as an aging hippie, is in the process of moving his 80-person staff from a converted Pacific Electric substation on Sunset Boulevard to the new Venice Bathhouse overlooking Ocean Front Walk.

“We do mega-sized commercial projects very much in the spirit of the 1980s, but I like to look out of my window and see the beach bums and leftover 1960s ‘heads,’ ” Jerde said. “It’s a wild mix that works for me, my staff and my clients.”

Many architects of the Jerde Partnership’s size and volume of work prefer to assume the anonymous corporate look of their major clientele.

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Gensler Associates’ offices in a Century City tower could serve as a location for “L.A. Law.” Gensler, which has a large interior design department, specializes in high-end commercial architecture for corporate clients. The cool gray partitioned spaces of the firm’s layout accurately reflect the practice’s efficient design style and practical ambition.

One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s clients, describing a visit to Taliesen West, said that entering the famous architect’s studio was “like gaining admission to a temple to genius--you knew to leave your money and your mean mind at the door.”

The client recalled that Wright lectured him on the meaning of the word Taliesen: “A Welsh knight of King Arthur’s Round Table whose name meant ‘Shining Brow’ and whose role, Wright emphasized, ‘was to sing the glories of fine art.’

“Few visitors to Wright’s Scottsdale studio ever came away without the master’s powerful song ringing in his head.”


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