All work & all play

Recently, 360, the innovative research arm of the contract furniture giant Steelcase, published two monographs – How the Workplace Can Attract, Engage and Retain Knowledge (2009) and Brand, Culture and the Workplace (2010) – that looked at the relationship between formal knowledge and “tacit” knowledge, the latter learned primarily through experience. Apparently, there is an uneven distribution of formal and tacit knowledge across the three dominate labour-force generations: baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. Successful creative companies, the reports argue, ensure that four work modes – focusing, collaborating, learning and socializing – operate in tandem through an appropriate “palette of place.” In the workplace, this means “a range of settings where all four knowledge work modes are supported.”  Last year, Dutch and Turkish business professors Jan Dul, Canan Ceylan and Ferdinand Jaspers reported that their empirical research found that “the overall work environment does have a direct effect on creativity: it makes all people more creative.” Unfortunately, while what the Steelcase researchers call “clan” values best support a creative work culture, they also concluded that hierarchy and silos continue to dominate the physical workplace.  

But if our academic understanding of the creative work environment still lags, albeit less and less, designers must confront directly this complex reality at the most practical of levels in their daily work. One such designer is Susie Silveri, founding partner of Montreal’s mid-sized ID+S Design Solutions. She argues that as baby boomers retreat from the dominant positions, creative office and workspaces must allow for high-intensity, individual work but also foster frequent collaboration through varied settings. The latter includes such diverse areas as stand-up “scrum rooms” for quick meetings, comfortable spaces to bounce ideas off colleagues and “decompressing” social spaces integrated seamlessly into the office. In addition, as their moniker implies, creative people like creative spaces; so, in Silveri’s words, “each area, each room needs to tell a story on its own.” Her comments open a telephone interview about the offices for THQ, an American developer and publisher of video games, for which the firm recently snared a Quebec Grands Prix du Design (2011). Silveri was the partner-in-charge with lead designer Stefania Pasto on the project.  

The 57,000-square-foot studio covers two floors in the old, International-style headquarters of the Montreal Gazette. The 400 employees accommodated include all areas of the operation, including art/design, engineering, technical and administrative staff. Selection of this very urban location on the edge of Old Montreal, near the city’s celebrated Cité du Multimédia and just south of the burgeoning arts district, all serviced by the Metro, reflects the creative class ethos of the staff, says Silveri. Montreal is emerging as a world mecca for video gaming, competing with Vancouver as well as the dominant American and Japanese centres.       

The designers were handed two floors stripped back to the building’s structural frame. Generous 12- and 14-foot concrete ceilings were also already well scrubbed and newly painted white. To the exposed mechanical infrastructure, they added a series of movable, canted metal poles, abstracted “trees” or “lampposts” says Silveri, that support the generous electrical and communication cabling trays required to supply the computer-heavy studio. On both floors, a huge white loop stretching down the centre of the floor creates a mediating, ribbon-defined form through which pass tunnel-like communal spaces. Within the loop are also closed workrooms, a supervisors’ honeycomb-shaped “command module” and social spaces. The passages link two quite different office areas. On the south but shaded alley side of the building is the artists’ black zone. When working, Silveri explains, the artists want total focus on their screens, and the very dark colours with limited natural lighting make the multiple screens (each cubicle has at least four) seem almost to float in the dark ether.

Once through the various passages, however, the antithesis appears. A bright “outdoor” space flooded with natural light contains two configurations of honeycomb-shaped workstations; based on a careful assessment of how employees work, they support both collaboration and individual work. These workstations bracket a more conventional grid of desks set on oak flooring rather than the dominant epoxy-coated concrete. This space is defined by plywood “skate park–like” platforms, a ubiquitous symbol of the X-sport generation.

This, after all, is a game development company, so the various complementary rooms take on playfully casual themes of their own. The generous open lunchroom is designed as a light-filled outdoor restaurant terrace complete with large canopies and casual seating. A screening room with a revolving door exudes a very theatrical air and boasts the whimsical Lummel chair as well as theatre-style carpets. Conference-room tables double as Ping-Pong tables, complete with nets. The last, says Silveri with a laugh, are very well used – and not for meetings! A wall of different diameter and unpainted sauna tubes serves as mail slots for employees; while unpainted particle board is used to provide rich but gritty textured casegoods. Both materials serve as honest responses to budget constraints.

The studio’s overall impact is nicely summed up by the designers: “The space emulates the very nature of the organization. Each zone plays out as series ofscreen shots underscoring the culture of the multimedia industry: work at play.”  cI