The Office Design verdict: modern over traditional

Calgary prides itself on being a city that divides its loyalty between a nostalgic affection for a tradition-bound past and a commitment to a fast paced present on the cutting edge of a rapidly developing global economy. The Stampede remains a potent symbol of the former, a reminder of a seasonally measured culture that annually takes time to celebrate the working skills of a once predominant agricultural society. In contrast, a proliferating skyline of tightly packed glass, steel and concrete skyscrapers, soon to include Sir Norman Foster’s billion-dollar addition for the natural gas titan Encana, is a compelling reminder of the city’s emergence as a prime mover in the increasingly high-tech petrochemical industry.

The contrast between tradition and cutting edge comes into play in a recent Calgary office project by Montreal’s Id+s Design Solutions for the law firm of Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt. In this case, however, a bias for tradition might well have emerged as an unstoppable design driver given the venerable Canadian-based legal firm’s long and distinguished history. But its Calgary operation derives its major raison d’etre from the dynamic oil patch. Its partners, therefore, mandated Id+s partner-in-charge Susie Silveri to deliver a design that ensured its 40,000-square-foot office would reflect the modern, fast-paced petroleum industry culture.

It was a brief – if you will pardon the play-on-words – that fitted Silveri and her Id+s partner Joanne Imperatari, well. The pair had founded the 12-person firm in 2000 after spending almost three decades as senior designers for large firms. Their idea in striking out on their own was to create a relatively small practice with partners fully in touch with the design process, yet able to handle significant sized commissions.

The Dawson College graduates also shared the time-honoured view that “less is more,” and the concurring belief that simplicity, rather than decorative layering, produces lasting design. Within this perspective, two other concerns inform their work. One is lots of light, particularly indirect illumination if natural light is not available; when mixed with incandescent whites augmented by strong flashes of colour, either painted or from varied materials, “lightness” in its other sense also emerges. The second characteristic is a strong belief in structuring perspective.” There are seldom simply four square walls in our work,” Silveri notes.

Within these design preferences, however, the firm’s considerable success in securing major corporate work has depended on its ability to define just the right image for clients. “The challenge,” she says, “is to understand the subtle difference between a generic brand that satisfies a ‘committee’ charged with overseeing your work and a more layered image that satisfies what in the end is a group of individuals.” For Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt’s earlier Montreal office, this meant eschewing the frequently employed historicist panache of law offices in favour of clean, straight lines neatly emphasized by recessed lighting and enriched by a striking glass and steel staircase. But a limited palette of white walls with relatively dark wood panelling, along with contemporary but well-stuffed leather seating (some by Roy and Ray Eames), ensured an image of modernity that is, adds Silveri, serious, refined, and not too fantastic.

For Calgary, however, Osler partners wanted something different, a “smart-looking” space in tune with the city’s own dynamic image. Considerable previous experience with law office design had imprinted on the Id+s partners the need to understand first and foremost the office’s workflow. With Osler, conference rooms of varying sizes and flexibility play a major role in day-to-day operations, there is a need for informal meeting and relaxation space, and research assistants require easy access to documents. Standard for the sector, lawyers want closed offices, usually along the outside perimeter.

The two levels of space in the unremarkable Trans Canada Pipeline Tower, therefore, have been organized around a generous and animated reception area “wedge.” From the elevators, this space funnels southwest to a 12-foot-wide point on the exterior wall, a perspective device that focuses the visitor toward the only remarkable exterior view of the mountains to be found in a tower otherwise encased in urban density. This effect is enhanced by recessed lighting that etches out the tapered lines, by a series of large, custom-made acrylic lighting fixtures down the middle, and by a floor treatment combining light quartz (standard to Osler projects) and carpet.

Walls are a clean, fresh white, offset by colourful abstract canvases commissioned from Calgary artist Bradley Harms; the space is furnished with a contemporary Keilhauer sofa, lounge chairs from Italinteriors and glass coffee tables from Bernard. But it is the march of bright orange panels angled and inset with glass that best signal Osler’s search for a fresh image. “In Calgary,” says Silveri, “the partners were open to strong colours, they wanted a bit of pizzazz.” This lively three-dimensional wall encloses three conference rooms and the firm’s library, and offers a peek-a-boo interaction with those using these facilities.

Four progressively larger conference rooms are also accommodated by angling a corridor across the building from the reception area. Large contemporary canvases from the firm’s own impressive art collection line the inner wall. The first room along this path, however, is an informal meeting space, a “chalet-chic” living room, as Silveri calls it, with a built-in fireplace, hearth seating, a comfortable Neinkmper sectional, Herman Miller’s Coconut chairs and the classic Nucci coffee table. A floor below, down a modern stainless steel staircase with walnut panel balustrade, is a similarly informal kitchen-cum-bistro for staff. The ceiling has been removed and fitted with Steelcase bulkheads, while an island bar and stools along with crisply modern banquettes, chairs and tables, further the image of a trendy street caf.

Despite lawyers’ preference for solid wood doors, sensible economy led Silveri to recycle existing slim-line aluminum frames and their glass and metal SMED doors. Along the corridor, these have been clustered into three-door sequences; framed with silver-grey and orange material panels, they generate a deft visual rhythm. The interior wall of the open middle, which accommodates lawyers’ assistants at workstations by Haworth, is lined with shelving (preferred by Osler over filing cabinets). These are fronted by floor-to-ceiling walnut tracked doors. A system of sliding metal access ladders by Santoni, accented by small recessed lights in the bulkhead, helps turn function into kinetic art. Finally, the space’s two perimeter walls are tied together and their strong linear impact mediated by slim, upward directed light fixtures bridged across the ceiling.

With Osler Hoskin and Harcourt’s Calgary office, Id+s Design Solutions has avoided both the clichs of the law office and the city’s cowboy past. The image sought and captured is professional but bright, contemporary and in sync with the city’s emerging economic and cultural evolution.