I’ve been holding onto this post for a while, writing and rewriting it to help me to understand my relationship to architecture. Time to stop thinking, and commit to a final version before I’m lapped by Doors Open 2011.
Architecture was the theme of Doors Open 2010. My visit to the McKinsey & Company office was an unusual opportunity to hear both sides of an architectural story, through the chance to speak to the architects who designed the building and the employees who work there. After a guided tour of the ground floor, our group was left to wander or ask questions.
I had a brief conversation with an architect from Taylor Hariri Pontarini Architects, the firm that designed the building. He told me that the client gave him a lot of freedom to work with details and materials of his choice—exciting prospects for the firm’s first large project. The building is as elegant inside as it is from the street. The gathering spaces that dominate the ground floor are filled with light, and are simultaneously intimate and expansive.
I love the premise of Doors Open—a chance to peek inside a world that belongs to someone else. My favourite conversation that day was not with the architect (as I’d expected), but rather with a woman who has worked for McKinsey & Company for many years (since before this building was opened in 1999). She shared with me stories about the first decade in the life of the building.
She really likes working here. She told me how the space is used, and the personal connections employees have to the place. She spoke a lot about the communal areas, particularly the courtyard.
Training sessions are held in the main boardroom. Midway through a long session, the large sliding doors that lead out to the courtyard are opened to refresh the participants. Her colleagues use the courtyard and the adjacent indoor lounge to meet clients, and as an alternative place to work. The courtyard also plays a role beyond work. It has functioned as a place for celebration, an employee was married there recently, and as place for memorial, a tree was planted in the garden for a staff member who died during a company retreat.
After hours use of the building is fairly common. The woman I spoke with has access to the parking garage on evenings and weekends. This allows her and her husband to take advantage of the great location, close to shopping and cultural activities. Her husband enjoys relaxing with a coffee in one of the several seating areas in and around the atrium. For her, as nice as the space is, its still her workplace and not a spot to unwind.
What didn’t she like? The stairs were the only thing she mentioned. To an eye trained in architecture, the stairs are a key design move in the atrium, the place where all of the employees gather for weekly video meetings. But people have fallen on the stairs so she no longer uses them. Instead, she takes the utilitarian elevator, which is hidden away in the corner.
Too often we judge a structure by its looks, frequently via a photograph, without ever having stepped inside the building. This Doors Open visit made clear to me the power of stories to tease out how a place works (or doesn’t).