Nine lives

Pedigree counts, even when you’re down on your luck. A few years ago, the Confederation Building, located on the prominent southeast corner of McGill Avenue and Rue Ste-Catherine, had seen better days. But the 11-storey office building constructed in 1926 was by Ross & Macdonald architects, which designed such Canadian icons as Toronto’s Union Station, Winnipeg’s Fort Gary Hotel and Montreal’s Art Deco Holt Renfrew flagship. A complete renovation has now returned Confederation to its earlier solid if prim-and-proper elegance, a transformation enhanced by the success of its owners in attracting prominent full-floor tenants, such as Google Canada.

Most recently, Palm + Havas, a Montreal-based but internationally connected public-relations firm, moved into custom-designed digs occupy the fourth floor — the work of Champigny Raymond Studio. Stripped back to its raw but now white-painted concrete frame and ceiling, contrasted against mainly dark-toned walls, the office is 16,000 square feet of open, flowing space punctuated with multiple splashes of intense colour. Coupled with an assemblage of independent, transparent volumes, along with some whimsical but totemic objects, the result exudes the feel of a marketplace of creative vibrancy.

Planning of the new space started a few years ago with Palm Arnold Communication, an independent Montreal marketing and communications agency. According to Marie-ve Lvesque, now director for strategic brand strategy and integration, “Co-founder Pierre Mercier wanted a space that was very different from the existing office up the street, where even members on the same team were often far apart and shut away in individual offices.” He wanted open spaces that would allow complementary teams from different disciplines to interact and share information. “By doing so,” she explains, “we could avoid time-wasting duplication.” During our tour of the facility, lead designer Pierre Raymond reiterates this theme: “What drove the design process was the desire to ensure management, employees and even clients would continually cross paths.” But while the space was to be open, there had to be a multiplicity of meeting areas for meetings and consultations — formal and informal, large and small.

When the 80-employee Palm Arnold was bought out in 2008 by Paris-based conglomerate Havas Worldwide in the middle of the recession, some belt tightening ensued but the core concepts survived. To understand how the design works as a grid of crossing public spaces organizing a series of largely open or transparent working zones, it is useful to understand the unique pattern of the inherited floor plan. Imagine a fat, graphic number nine with its large loop on the south, its spine running along McGill and its tail fronting Ste-Catherine before curling inward to almost enclose an open light well (see page 22 for the floorplan).

One enters directly into Palm + Havas’s lobby, a linear space between two elevator banks spanning across the bottom of the upper loop. Dark-toned walls with bold black graphics — a frequent motif in the design — are offset by a brilliant-red runner along the polished concrete floor. Equally colourful banquettes divide the space. Terminating its east end is one of several glass “fishbowl” boardrooms. On the west, a glossy white reception desk sits in front of a red wall cleaved horizontally by a line of high-definition video screens. Curiously, the desk appears to be bracketed by two steeplechase jumping hedges. And in this case, as we shall see, appearances are not necessarily deceiving.

The desk breaks up the 165-by-13-foot gallery that stretches down the centre of the number nine’s spine. This polyvalent circulation space, with a series of low stages down the middle, frequently serves as a display area or occasionally as party central. But it is the whimsical presence of four Moooi Horse Lamps, that provides the pretense for the steeplechase jumps.

A third key axis, an open staff lounge that also serves as an informal staff or client meeting space, stretches across the tail of the figure-nine plan and overlooks Ste-Catherine. Its black, white and grey scheme includes a large Stripes table by Italy’s Fantoni (also used for desks in the work pods), as well as Marco Viola’s cheeky Humour Chair with its infectious smile cut out of its white plastic bucket seat. In contrast, the long kitchen bar features a vibrant-green, graphic-covered base.

Along and around these public areas, which double as circulation routes encouraging frequent and causal interaction, the various departments are arrayed in largely open configurations. Indeed, transparency permeates the Palm + Havas office. Even the executive corner offices overlooking Ste-Catherine have floor-to-ceiling-glass interior walls without blinds. Likewise, the firm’s largest boardroom sports glass walls but in this case is moderately tinted. “We used darker glass,” says Raymond, “because from the lounge it permits a high level of transparency and even helps emphasizes the exterior view out through the room’s two generous windows. At the same time, when inside, the tint works with the dark walls surrounding a high-gloss white table recycled from the old office to generate a sense of focus and intimacy.”

Intimacy is not an adjective that applies to three brilliantly coloured meeting pods scattered around the office. These freestanding steel- and wood- framed “containers,” as Raymond calls them, have the look of small cargo crates that have had their ends replaced by glass, with only the ubiquitous large number graphics to mediate transparency. Each is divided across by an acrylic light wall to create two small meeting areas. Their interior walls, clad in high-gloss Arborite — in fluorescent orange, green or blue — make the containers appear to glow. If these enclosed containers offer an audio, if not visual, retreat for staff, creative personnel are grouped around desks that circle two round, half-walled “drums” containing colourful beanbags for creative thinking.

Despite the office’s openness, slick surfaces and stripped-back frame, there is nothing minimalist about the design. Colliding colours, multiple textures, reappearing typographical detail, freestanding forms — even a wonky bookcase and, of course, the hard-to-miss horses — work with the unusual plan to provide visual richness, busy but satisfying. Lvesque believes the mix is ideal: “We are about creativity and this space gives off the right vibes.” Its communication flow “has converted into an invigorating flow of energy that came as a pleasant surprise.” In sum, she concludes, it is space that supports the brand. CI