Canadian Architect

Feature

The Fun House

An Advertising Agency's Creative Juices Flow in a Playful and Inspiring Office Environment.

June 1, 2007
by Canadian Architect

PROJECT GRIP LIMITED, TORONTO, ONTARIO

DESIGNER JOHNSON CHOU INC.

TEXT LESLIE JEN

PHOTOS TOM ARBAN

In the frenetic Queen West district in downtown Toronto, a clever design for this advertising agency’s new office incorporates serious fun into the work environment. Grip Limited’s recent success and rapid growth from 22 to 94 employees over the past few years necessitated a move from their previous office space a mere block away on Queen Street above the now-defunct housewares retailer Caban. This was Grip’s second commission for designer Johnson Chou: pleased with his first design for the Queen Street office in 2003, they hired him again for the new space located at the northern tip of John Street. Beyond a typical program of workstations, offices and boardrooms, a variety of interesting impromptu breakout/meeting spaces was desired. The wish list also included the less tangible notions of a heightened awareness and engagement of the space with particular focus on circulation and movement. Chou was more than happy to comply with their demands, as they enabled him to further develop the ideas and concepts begun in the previous office.

The site is pretty much a downtown hotspot, just steps away from the City TV/MuchMusic media headquarters, stylish restaurants, countless trendy retail enterprises devoted to the slavish followers of youth culture and fashion, and other indicia of mass-market gentrification such as Starbucks and lululemon. Yet this bit of John Street just north of Queen Street West is marked by a certain sense of tranquility, largely due to the presence of pastoral Grange Park practically across the street from the office, whose parameters are defined on the east by Will Alsop’s colourful and iconic Ontario College of Art & Design, and on the north by the Art Gallery of Ontario, currently undergoing a renovation and addition by Frank Gehry.

Grip’s office space occupies 18,000 square feet on the entire fifth and sixth floors of a fairly anonymous brick building, giving staff clear views of the neighbourhood–plus an additional 3,500 square feet on the ground floor. Though the functionality of the office would appear to be compromised from being broken up over three floors, the program was skillfully organized such that the more peripheral functions are housed on the ground floor, while workstations, boardrooms and private meeting areas are kept on the upper floors. Furthermore, Chou’s carving out of the sixth-storey floorplate to create a vast double-height atrium translates into one large volume into which all sorts of design features facilitate the creative process and a sense of play for employees.

Reflecting the fast-paced dynamic arts and media culture of this precinct, the interior spaces for Grip contain a number of unusual elements that provoke the senses. As such, the office can be read as a delightful box of treats, designed objects or features which are largely inspired by Grip’s client list. Much more than a novelty, this collection of “themed” discrete objects throughout the office form critical spaces and components necessary for the function and continued inspiration of this cutting-edge advertising agency.

The less day-to-day routine functions take place on the ground floor, where a photography studio, screening rooms, showers, and an additional kitchen and lunch area can be found. Perhaps the most notable feature here is the “hot tub,” a circular meeting area for presentations that was designed to literally evoke the experience of sitting in a hot tub. Inspired by a major client, Labatt, this element references the highly social act of relaxing with friends drinking beer–there is even a beer cooler in the middle of the tub to accommodate a generous stack of frosty bottles. This orange-upholstered seating pit containing up to ten people is carefully detailed to replicate the experience of a real hot tub or whirlpool through material choice–clinical white mosaic tile defines the tub’s enclosure, and aluminum stairs replete with handrails are required for one to climb up and into the tub. More than anticipated, the hot tub has shaped human behaviour in an advantageous way, so that even the most difficult and obstinate of clients have been disarmed and delighted by the experience.

Moving up to the fifth and sixth floors, where the majority of the workspaces and meeting areas are located, the massive carving out of the atrium was intended to maximize daylight and to visually and functionally link the two principal floor areas with a double-height space–within which the primary vertical movement occurs. In addition to elevators and a standard stair providing conventionally acceptable vertical circulation, alternate forms of movement are provided by–Whee!–a slide and fire pole connecting the two floors.

In addressing the client’s demands for a playful work environment along with a pronounced sense of movement and flow, Chou worked with fabricators to design an acrylic slide sheathed in stainless steel to provide the exhilaration of a speedy but smooth descent. As a metaphor for the importance of life’s journey, the slide is fun, inspiring and engaging, and has become an integral part of Grip’s office and its employees’ creative process. After some trial and error in the design and installation process, the slide is ultimately an elegant construction, suspended from the ceiling with wires which gives it a weightless floating appearance.

Lately, the slide seems to have captured public imagination in an unprecedented manner. Sweden-based German artist Carsten Hller’s recent installation Test Site in the Tate Modern’s cavernous Turbine Hall in London attracted tens of thousands of visitors, offering a series of five twisting and turning slides of various heights up to 55 metres. More than an alternative and efficient mode of transport, the slide introduces a sense of exhilaration and delight into public space. Moreover, Hller claims that the slides help to reduce the deleterious effects of stress on health. Even fashion empire matriarch Miuccia Prada was so taken with the concept she commissioned Hller to design a stainless steel slide linking her upper-level office to the ground-floor car park at Prada’s headquarters in Milan, allowing her not only an efficient means of egress but also the ability to monitor the work of her employees through views into the building’s windows on the way down the slide.

Complementing the fun-house feature of the slide, a fire pole is perhaps an even more daring way to transport oneself down to the fifth floor. Referencing Grip’s auto industry clients, the use of black rubberized material for the landing pad at the pole’s base evokes the material from which tires are made, and the pad’s circular form serves nicely as an ottoman for additional seating.

More large-group seating for “town hall” office meetings and film presentations is provided in the form of the bleachers adjacent to the stairs. Recalling the youthful energy of high-school pep rallies, the bleachers are constructed of folded hot-rolled steel and stained walnut veneer, and also serve as an alternative and impromptu workplace for those equipped with a laptop.

Beer and other related metaphors make another appearance in the “fridge” or the formal boardroom, and the “ice cube” or the private meeting room, both on the sixth floor. The boardroom is designed to resemble the chilly vessel of a large-scale refrigerator, clad in stainless steel and lined with white synthetic AstroTurf to mimic frost, which also has the added functional benefit of sound absorption. An antique refrigerator door handle authenticates the effect. Similarly, the meeting room’s interior and exterior is wrapped with the same frosty white AstroTurf, complemented by high-gloss white Verner Panton chairs and a silver globe pendant lamp, all contributing to the icy ambience.

Verner Panton resides elsewhere in the office, with more of his signature molded polypropylene
chairs in glossy white evident in the sixth-floor waiting area, otherwise known as the “beehive.” Referencing again Grip’s auto industry clients, the translucent white nylon fabric stretched into a spherical enclosure easily reminds visitors of the airbags installed in virtually all vehicles these days. A baroque chandelier and old-school black dial telephone in the beehive add a cheeky anachronistic flourish. Completing the experience are the video screen monitors upon which the agency’s own advertisements flash by on a continual loop.

Perhaps what is even more remarkable than the end product is the speed at which the spatial transformation took place. With an extremely tight deadline of two months between project inception and occupancy, Chou’s team essentially gutted the existing space, poured new concrete floors, and installed new mechanical and electrical systems. Miraculously, the atrium was created only after Grip’s staff moved into their workstations. The monumental task of carving a massive chunk out of the sixth floor to create the central double-height space had to take place before and after business hours to minimize disruption for staff, which meant very early mornings and very late nights for the construction team. Despite the project’s challenges, Chou has infused Grip’s office with considerable wit, creating a memorable architectural promenade among the thematically amusing elements that animate the space and maintain the creative flow of the agency.

CLIENT GRIP LIMITED

DESIGN TEAM JOHNSON CHOU, SILKE STADTMUELLER, MARK OJASCASTRO, BRYAN JIN, PHILIP CATES, RONEN BAUER, HEATHER DUBBELDAM

STRUCTURAL BLACKWELL BOWICK

MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL NUNN WARDEN DESIGN

INTERIORS JOHNSON CHOU INC.

CODE CONSULTANT DAVID HINE, HINE REICHARD TOMLIN INC.

AREA 21,500 FT2

BUDGET WITHHELD

COMPLETION MAY 2006




Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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