That’s Bull!

PROJECT Red Bull Canada Headquarters, Toronto, Ontario
DESIGNER Johnson Chou Inc.
TEXT Leslie Jen
PHOTOS Tom Arban

Despite the pervasive in-your-face presence of Red Bull in the media, the company’s Canadian headquarters in Toronto is surprisingly difficult to locate. On a heavily pedestrianized and busy retail stretch of Queen Street West littered with high-street brands like the Gap, H&M and Zara, the two-storey office space can only be accessed through an unmarked, slightly distressed steel door and up a stark and spartan flight of stairs.

After being shot into the reception area through a red tube–cinematically lit by LEDs with the sound of steel clanging underfoot–things start to make a little more sense. Upon first glance, the headquarters for this global energy drink company is predictably dynamic–more nightclub than office. Immediately in view is a long granite bar on one side, and on the other, a helical staircase of perforated steel leading up to the third floor. In contrast, a cozy waiting area/library beckons with elements of kitsch: flocked wallpaper, a chandelier, a bookshelf lined with sports magazines, and a small refrigerator containing–what else–Red Bull. The overall effect is amusing, a bit like viewing a diorama or a stage set.

It’s clear that this is no ordinary corporate office of soothing, muted shades and seamless understatement. Which makes sense, as Red Bull is all about living life full-on. Targeting a demographic of primarily young adult males, the company has aligned itself with all that the infinite spectrum of pop culture offers–art, music, sports, gaming. Aside from its well-known “Red Bull Gives You Wings” campaign, the company’s aggressive marketing strategy includes the sponsorship of a variety of extreme sporting events–from mountain biking to snowboarding to Formula 1 racing, a massive hit with its testosterone-addled target audience. It has even launched its own record label, Red Bull Records, and the generous spatial fluidity of the Toronto headquarters makes it a popular venue for album-release parties. 

According to Johnson Chou, the gifted designer behind the Red Bull space, the vision of the client is a critical part of the success of any project. Former Vice President of Red Bull Canada, Jim Bailey, was such a dream client. Corporations and their leaders are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the design of their workspaces, recognizing the need for the work environment to reinforce and be identified with the all-important brand. A fan of Chou’s design for nearby advertising firm Grip Limited (see CA, June 2007), Bailey sought much of what Chou brought to that office. He requested an incubator for creativity, but also a physical manifestation of what Red Bull represents. 

For Chou, the conceptual driver of the project was the “notion of spaces as vessels for transformation…both as a significant event in the lives of the participants and experientially with engaging, interactive architectural elements.” This is readily apparent in the two-storey space: as in the offices for Grip, there is a sense that the office is comprised of an assemblage of discrete elements, of objects contained within the space. 

Captivating with their curvilinear forms and iridescent silver surfaces, three elevated “floating” pods on the third floor were initially constructed as a suite of recording studios at the initial launch of the Red Bull Canada headquarters, to establish the company’s mentorship role as a music producer. To accommodate the growing needs of the office, the pods were eventually converted into two meeting rooms and a lounge. Lit from below and lined with blonde maple veneer, the end walls of the pods are fully glazed to permit light to flood in while encouraging a sense of visual connectivity within the office. The effect is all very space-age funky.

Conceptually, even a chandelier becomes a vessel. Chou’s clever innovation of a deconstructed chandelier takes the form of an array of clear glass tubes, horizontally suspended and filled with loose crystals which are then illuminated from a halogen light source above. Dangling over the black granite picnic table in the lunchroom, the glittery result delights.

It’s important to note that because of the restricted budget, the design team worked with what existing elements they could: floors were not replaced but merely refinished and stained, and ducting was left exposed. Inexpensive materials like painted drywall and colourful vinyl are employed to maximum effect. But for the recently completed second phase of the project, there is a sense of increased sophistication along with greater material and textural contrast. A sizeable expansion of office space was created on the second floor to accommodate a consolidated accounting division. The largely open workstations are given some sense of enclosure and privacy from other zones in the office via cage-like separations. Here, Chou specified a chunky expanded metal mesh screen similar to the cladding used for the New Museum in New York by 2010 Pritzker Prize-winning firm SANAA. It forms a handsome contrast to the presence of heavily grained tamarack wood–sawn by local Mennonites from reclaimed barn beams–that ramps up from the ground plane to form the horizontal surface of the open workstation desks.

Collaborating once again with industrial felt artist Kathryn Walter (see CA, September 2010), Chou has transformed the server room into another vessel, a massive hulking sculpture within the space: horizontal striations and variegated shades of grey felt strips wrap the bulky organic form, recalling the natural contours of a mountain and also the muscular heft of a bull’s powerful body.

But the most striking addition to the ever-evolving Red Bull headquarters is the new second-floor boardroom, yet another vessel–defined this time by curved tamarack beams that originate vertically from the ground plane, arcing over to form an open ceiling. Tamarack strips of different lengths are positioned horizontally in a seemingly random fashion, forming a textured abstract lattice screen. The impressively long boardroom table is hewn from a single slice of a massive cherry tree felled on millworker D.B. Johnson’s own property in Grey County. It’s a seductively dark, womb-like space that evokes memories of a modern, stripped-down Canadian cabin, enhanced by Walter’s acoustically absorptive grey felt end walls.

Having won a Best of 2010 Award from Interior Design magazine, this workspace clearly appeals not only to the design critics, but to Red Bull’s lucky employees. While there, I witnessed a bit of skateboarding in the atrium, and was told by a female staffer that frisbee is also a rather popular–if not disruptive–way of blowing off steam. No doubt this is an office for the young, and maybe even just the young at heart–with the aid of a turbo-charged energy drink, naturally. CA

Client Red Bull Canada
Design Team Johnson Chou, Silke Stadtmueller, Can Bui, Heather Shute, Anne Ehlers, Dorna Ghorashi, Shant Krechelian
Structural Halcrow Yolles
Mechanical Toews Engineering
Electrical HCC Engineering
Contractor Renovate All (Phase 1); Torcon (Phase 2)
Area 11,000 ft2
Budget Withheld
Completion July 2010 (Phase 1); June 2011 (Phase 2)