Different strokes

Stepping off the elevator into the new offices of NORR Ltd. in Toronto, one immediately gets the sense that this is a firm that knows its particular client base well, and caters to their aesthetics. A warm palette of limestone, rubbed plaster walls and sycamore draws the visitor into the centrepiece of the office interior, a large, open space bisected by a glass wall into two visually connected rooms, a boardroom and reception area.

The understated palette continues with sycamore applied to two sidewalls and walnut featured on the reception desk. The floating glass screen that separates the desk from the boardroom space can be folded into pockets concealed in the sidewalls to create one large room for all-hands meetings and parties.

This space clearly acts as NORR’s calling card. “It’s refined design, but it’s very businesslike,” says David Clusiau, architectural design principal at NORR. “We often include our offices on a tour of our projects when dealing with a corporate client.” It’s easy to see why many of those clients feel would at home in this space. The look is crisp, and demonstrates a very rational, Miesian approach. “On that level it is a marketing tool,” says Clusiau.

With this centrepiece acting as the front of house, the back of house, which follows a roughly triangular circulation ring around the elevator core, is the guts of the space. Because NORR is a fully-integrated architectural and engineering firm, with all divisions of the industry – architecture, interior design, mechanical, electrical and structural engineering – in one office, and because these divisions interact on a daily basis and even move around in the office based on project needs, there needed to be a generic quality to the workspaces.

Similar workstations featuring Allsteel chairs and systems are used by nearly everyone, and are characterized by an island between two stations that acts as standing-height meeting spaces and storage. Like the majority of office environments, chairs and office systems were chosen based on price point, design, and staff testing.

The firm required workspaces that would allow for rapid team reassembly based on individual project needs. To accommodate, it was established which group had the highest number of needs, and this was then used as the benchmark for the design to meet. For example, engineers typically need a lot of storage space for reference documents, so the islands and workstations were chosen to accommodate those needs. This means CAD operators, for example, who have comparably less storage needs per workstation, ended up with more than they need.

Instead of being avant garde, this space is more about balanced design that fulfills many needs. “What we’ve got is better than almost any other engineering firm, but maybe not as flashy as some architectural firms,” says Clusiau. “I think this space really encapsulates what we’re about – it’s not flashy, but it’s beautiful in a very classic, refined sense, as opposed to being a flamboyant statement.”

Other architects dispense with the corporate aesthetic, such as SMC Alsop, who recently opened its Toronto studio in an 1860s former warehouse building in the city’s entertainment district. This interior is decidedly different from the clean aesthetic at NORR.

The Toronto branch of the Will Alsop empire makes no bones of the fact that the studio is very much an extension of the man. This is a studio in the truest sense of the word; always changing, always working, the creative process laid bare, to the bones. What you see has not been cultivated, curated or cleaned. “This is where we work,” says Gregory Woods, director, SMC Alsop.

Woods doesn’t see a disconnect between the firm’s various offices around the world: Alsop’s process, as has been exhaustively documented, is a painterly one, and each office is a version of the painting shed at the back of his English country house. As such, his London office is known for sharing space with other artists, even bringing in models for drawing practice. Drawing on the collaborative energy of this cross-pollination of disciplines is vital to the company’s philosophy. In the Toronto studio there’s already a communal easel and canvas station in one corner, and jigsaws, circular saws and sewing machines scattered in others.

A long, finely detailed, bar-like structure is planned for the middle of the space that will physically and mentally separate the “clean” side of the office (the computer side) from the “dirty.”

The studio is more concerned with the process than the product, but clearly the product speaks for itself, such the Ontario College of Art and Design expansion, the Westside Lofts sales pavilion (both Toronto), and competition entries for projects in Edmonton and other cities, which pervade the space in the form of various models, making a visitor feel like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. “Models, unlike something you make in a computer, sit there and look at you defiantly. They demand you to interact with them. You can’t switch them off once they’ve been built,” says Woods.

“The ethos of the studio is about experimentation and exploration, not about absolutes,” he concludes, “so it would highly inappropriate for the studio to reflect an absolute aesthetic paradigm.”