An Empty Space for NAREIM – New HQ in Chicago Profiled
Can space change the way people behave, interact, and ultimately think? Is it possible for an environment to help create thought?
“This is not a typical association office,” exclaimed a recent guest after walking into the new offices of the National Association of Real Estate Managers (NAREIM). It is an open format environment, simply and elegantly furnished, on the third floor of the iconic Wrigley building. Out the windows are views of Michigan Avenue below, the Chicago river and some of the most exciting 20th century architecture in the world. This is less an office for association staff and more a gathering place for those making new connections, challenging their thinking, and learning how to run their businesses better.
In only a few months, the space has proven to be a flexible stage for strategy sessions, association meetings, and roundtable discussions—and has even served as a location for a student job fair. NAREIM members routinely use the space as a temporary Chicago office, holding meetings with colleagues and clients. And a good number of meetings in the 2014 NAREIM schedule are already planned to take full advantage of the new facility
The Wrigley Building was the first office building to be built north of the Chicago River in the early 1920’s, concurrent with the bridge connecting North Michigan Avenue with the Loop business district south of the river. Designed by the architecture firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, the grand new headquarters for the Wrigley chewing gum company was modeled after the Grialda tower of Seville’s Cathedral with white glazed terra-cotta ceramic tile cladding and ornate towers on top of the two office blocks. It was old but new from the beginning. Despite its elaborate detail and old-world inspiration, it had the most modern conveniences of the time and was the first air-conditioned office in Chicago. It stands almost like a gateway to the avenue, turned slightly off the grid of the streets and open to views and light on all sides. At night, bright spotlights light up the façade to glow like a beacon on the river. It may very well be the most recognized building in Chicago – and certainly seems to be the most photographed, as on any day looking down from the office windows, one can see a constant queue of photographers—profession and amateur alike—in the plaza below.
Owned by Wrigley throughout the 20th century, it was sold in late 2011 to a group of investors that include the Zeller Realty Group—managers of the building to this day. One month after the sale, NAREIM signed an agreement to lease space on the third floor of the north tower and move in once renovations were completed.
Here was a rare opportunity to create a stage for discussions—a place where members could connect, think in public, and work through the issues affecting their industry and their businesses.
The celebrated theatre director and author Peter Brook wrote in his 1968 book, The Empty Space, “A stage space has two rules: 1) anything can happen; 2) something will happen.”
Is it possible to create a place where anything can happen and something would happen when NAREIM members came together? With the build out of the new office, we intended to find out.
As a favor to the association, Donna Powers Branson took on the task of overseeing the build out and design of the interior. Drawing from her experience in the theatre, in retailing, and as an independent film art director, Donna had a considerable challenge with an oddly T-Shaped corner space that had not been occupied since the mid 1970’s. Fifteen hundred square feet that encompassed four separate office spaces, finished with thin veneered cabinets and radiator covers, gold-colored carpeting, and a dropped ceiling of acoustical tiles. Long abandoned paint peeling and flaking off the walls, ceiling tiles missing or dropped on the floor, and electrical wiring hanging ominously from the ceiling, it initially felt less like a headquarters for an association and more like the setting for a horror movie.
It was time to start from scratch. Everything was stripped bare—walls and cabinetry removed, the remaining ceiling tiles taken away. The morning’s light lit the entire office, burning clean the gloomy darkness that once hung in the air. It was immediately apparent; this bright, open light was what we would build around.
According to Donna, “To retain the best aspects of the space, we decided to keep it as open and spare as possible. NAREIM is all about new perspectives, flexible thinking, and looking forward. The space needed to reflect that.” No solid walls were built inside the space; no drop ceilings installed; no cubicles or dividers. Instead of covering up the radiators—they would be kept open, cleaned up, and given a fresh coat of paint. The nicks and scrapes that a building acquires over 80 years of use would still be visible, but made fresh and clean.
Since the ceiling was perhaps the roughest surface—and crowded with everything from conduit and fire sprinklers to HVAC ducts—most tenants would have simply installed another drop ceiling. Instead, to create the visual effect of a more finished ceiling below the mechanicals without blocking air-flow or lowering the height, lighting pendants were used. Reproduced from a design quite common in 1925 when the Wrigley Building was first constructed, the hanging fixtures mix modern with old with sculpted fluorescent bulbs that echo the shapes of early Edison filaments.
Furnished with simple and moveable furniture, the intent was to allow each meeting to adapt the environment as needed. At the same time, the environment needed to stimulate new thinking. According to Donna, “The last thing we wanted was ‘conventional’ furnishing. Instead of traditional office furniture, we used a mix of clean mid-century and industrial pieces with some historical references to Wrigley’s history. The addition of art added an occasional pop of color as well as wit.” The mix of mid-century and industrial is well represented by the meeting tables made from reclaimed barn wood set on wheeled legs of galvanized steel and simple chairs, copies of the classic 1957 Arne Jacobsen Model 3107 chair that were stained a deep indigo blue.
Instead of carpeting, the floor was laid with vinyl tiles made to look like wood planks—easily cleaned and maintained at a fraction of the cost of true wood floors. Using a hard surface created an uncommonly high level of energy as the acoustics became much more lively. The dead acoustical effect common in modern offices created through carpeting and drop ceilings can be very useful for audio recordings or conference calls as there is no echo when people speak. However, those kinds of acoustics can also have a deadening effect on individuals’ energy levels—and make it difficult for someone to be heard across a larger room without amplification. When people hear their voices bounce back from hard surfaces, it not only provides a boost to energy levels, it also helps the speaker intuitively moderate their voice to be comfortably heard by others.
That is why most public spaces built before microphones were commonplace have a similar acoustical signature. The environment functions as a literal amplifier of sound and energy—and in the process allow speakers to be more intimate and spontaneous than they would if handing around a microphone to speak.
Simple, easy to adapt, and loaded with visual wit, the new NAREIM Headquarters has arrived. Members now have a meeting space in Chicago to drop in on, engage in discussion, and connect to their colleagues. This is a place where anything can happen and something always does.
This is not a typical association office, but perhaps it should be.
NAREIM Members who wish to use the space should contact Monica Lockhart at 312.884.5182
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