Emerging Firms 137Kilo Architects And Beza Projekt Create An Open-Plan Office—The Likes Of Which Warsaw Has Never Seen.
Upon entering the Warsaw offices of Bausch + Lomb, visitors are confronted by the sight of a vegetal mosaic composed of ferns, orchids, and broad-leafed tropical flora. It’s hardly the first such green wall—today a commonplace, eco-friendly concept, it was first introduced 20 years ago by the French botanist Patrick Blanc—but no one has seen such a sensitive feature in a Polish office building before. Nor has anyone encountered a receptionist framed in a half-shell made of an inflated vinyl cushion. These are among the many playful devices created by Polish firms 137kilo Architects and Beza Projekt that signal a change in sensibility in a city better known for its toughness.
Warsaw lost 85 percent of its buildings and 200,000 inhabitants toward the end of World War II, to be followed by four decades of drab settings created by a communist regime. Since democracy took hold in 1989, the city has awakened to consumer capitalism, with its excesses of advertising and glitz—most tellingly, the Communist Party Headquarters was acquired by the stock exchange, then became a Ferrari dealership, and now boasts garish billboards. The Bausch + Lomb office pursues a different tack, emphasizing the quality of one’s experience rather than imagery.
The company “wanted to supply a new, healthy vision for our office, making it a place of creative interaction,” says Marta Wielondek, country manager of Bausch + Lomb in Poland. “We were certain that the young designers we chose from a limited competition were the only ones who could translate our goals into reality.” The headquarters is one of the first completed projects by 137kilo Architects, whose 33-year-old principal, Jan Sukiennik, collaborated with the designers of Beza Projekt. (The two firms are intimately linked—Sukiennik is married to one of the partners of Beza.) He admits that their team would never have been able to work so creatively without the encouragement of Wielondek, who, for example, requested to install a swing and a park bench in her office to put people at ease.
Starting with the brief for an open-plan scheme, the architect eliminated all of the non-load-bearing walls on the top floor of a prime office building designed by Marek Swierczynski in the mid-1990s, tearing out the hung ceiling to expose snarls of HVAC and wiring, which were then spray-painted white. They conceived the workspaces as clusters of four desks set in a cruciform pattern (which also happens to trace the company’s logo), placing a ficus tree at each crux. Transparent glass partitions enclose the conference room and the offices of Wielondek and her assistant, and thus the entire team, except the accountant, remain in full view. Sukiennik and his team devised a series of nomadic solutions for the material and social needs of the office, including two oval bubbles that can be used as consultation rooms or retreat areas. Reminiscent of the inflatables from 1970s counterculture (think Haus-Rucker-Co or Ant Farm), each semitransparent shell, made from two layers of vinyl with a 20-centimeter air pocket in between, is pitched like a tent over steel hoops. The lenslike quality of the forms, which intimates the company’s principal product of contact lenses, comes from the regularly placed disks which are used to anchor internal white cords that bind the outside layer of vinyl to the inside layer, similar to the structure of a mattress. The inflatables were first thought of for their ease of assembly, and in addition offer the potential to be easily moved.
Other features include custom-made crates, inspired by those used for storing apples, and vertical space dividers that resemble the wooden pallets used for transporting goods in warehouses. The designers tipped the crates on their sides and attached them in staggered patterns to one of the walls to serve as shelving for the office’s library. The vertical flats, which are constructed from blanched pine stakes, can be used for hanging coats, or they can be rolled into place to serve as a privacy partition.
Currently the open-plan office is enjoying a revival due to the Google generation who seeks ever-more flexible workspaces (see the Google offices in Tel Aviv and London). The earlier versions of this phenomenon, perhaps first seen in Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1904 Larkin Building in Buffalo, N.Y., had clear panoptic intentions for surveying workers; more recent versions appeal to office democracy and coworking. And despite the openness, the Bausch + Lomb offices still provide the employees with places to remove or even shelter themselves. One such space, known as ‘the fun room,’ has a foosball table and a round couch surrounded by a tall upholstered parapet where office workers can discretely take (sanctioned) catnaps. Another flexible space is the kitchen—not a tiny counter for making coffee, but a full kitchen with lots of storage and a large dining table with 12 wooden chairs. “We like the creative feeling that comes from the kitchen,” Wielondek explains, “and it really brings us all together in casual ways.”
The entire office has superb daylighting and spectacular views to the nearby St. Alexander’s Church and, in the distance, the immense Palace of Culture and Science, Stalin’s skyscraper “gift” to Poland, which was completed in 1955. Surrounding it is the chaotic addition of new high-rise structures in glass wrappings, each competing with the next for image recognition. The cockeyed Zlota 44 tower, designed by Daniel Libeskind, AIA, is a vindication of his heritage, and offers a prime example of style over comfort. But Sukiennik’s wife, Zofia Strumillo-Sukiennik, summed up the difference in their design approach: “Our generation is the first in a long time to be free, but we often don’t know what real freedom is, and remain content with the so-called pleasures of consumer culture,” she says. “In our projects, we are seeking something that goes beyond imagery, that offers a quality that will enable people to make their own freedom.”