Navigating a dark, grated catwalk as it snaked beside monumental smokestacks some 100 feet above the ground, the designers and architects who redesigned the upper reaches of the landmark Power Plant for The Cordish Company felt a sense of excitement and obligation.
“We had to look up and try to imagine what the space could be,” says Lou Ghitman, an ARCHITECT with Design Collective who collaborated with architect Laura Thomas of Marks, Thomas & Associates. “The biggest challenge was doing justice to that environment, to what it could and should become. The space felt sort of like a cathedral, and we all felt a real need to do justice to it.”
A winning retail mix in the lower floors—- Hard Rock Café, Barnes & Noble and the ESPN Zone- was the first step in transforming a hulking embodiment of failure into a bustling commercial success. Step two—the creation of office spaces and a fitness center—was quieter, but no less impressive, as is evident from the first step off the elevator into the Cordish lobby. Golden sunlight dances off the wood floor, and a custom-designed reception desk arcs gracefully across the space. Behind the desk, four glass walls enclose a dramatically lit smokestack, a remnant of the building’s past that the architects treated like a priceless artifact in a museum exhibit. To the right, another glass wall looks into a formal conference room whose stately arched windows frame views of the World Trade Center and Harborplace. And to the left, another smokestack is hugged by a stainless-steel stairway that winds its way into a lush executive lounge complete with a fireplace. The lounge steps out onto an outdoor terrace that affords a breathtaking view of the city.
Work spaces are laid out with generous public areas for collaborative efforts. Casual conference and social areas sit near open work stations on three sides of the main smokestack, while carpeted private offices are set apart with walls of glass that allow natural light to flow into every corner.
Last fall, the Baltimore offices of Arthur Andersen LLP became the Power Plant’s second corporate tenant. Like the Cordish space, Andersen’s offices feature lots of exposed brick, metal roof trusses and old industrial remnants. But its designers, the Washington, D.C.-based design firm of STUDIOS Architecture, created more of a Silicon Valley feel, with an even stronger emphasis on communal space. Long a leader in developing alternative office arrangements, Andersen embraced a design plan that provides no regularly assigned stations for most of the company’s 200 local employees. They’re free to toil in the bustling south end one day, the quiet and isolated north end the next.
Tim Kearney, an architect with STUDIOS, employs the metaphor of a marina to describe how the work spaces unfold, with a series of central docks giving way to individual boat slips. “That’s one thing we’re really proud of,” says Andersen marketing director Michele Ressler. “You can’t tell walking through here what level a person is at by where they sit.”
Employees at both Anderson and Cordish are working out at Gold’s Gym, the third Power Plant tenant. The main part of the club occupies a sprawling single room, gleaming with new fitness equipment and aerobics floors. Internet stations will be installed atop its juice bar, giving a fittingly 21st-century accent to this century-old structure.
Old Building, New Thinking
In advertising, the game is catering to clients, and everybody in advertising knows how crazy clients can be. But when Eisner Communications decided to move into the old Bagby furniture building in Inner Harbor East, the firm’s execs suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar role of client—evaluating pitches and insisting on last-second changes. “Now it was our turn to decide: Just how many hoops can we make these folks jump through?” says president Steve Eisner. The comment is met with laughter from the project’s senior designer, Walter Trujillo of the Gensler architecture firm, and its project manager, Tim Pula of the developer Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse. Relaxing over cups of coffee in the Eisner meeting space dubbed “The Boiler Room,” after its original role in life, the three men recount their award-winning Bagby adventures. As the design unfolded, the matter of honoring the character and heritage of this National Register building was much more than a matter of doling out clever conference room names. Here in the Boiler Room, for example, the century-old brick wall was pressure washed rather than sandblasted clean to preserve the swirling remnants of old paint jobs. The wall was made the focal point, with muted furnishings playing second fiddle. “The building has such color and richness, we didn’t want to do anything that hid that,” says Trujillo says.
“We wanted to keep the age, the grit of the building,” Eisner adds. “What’s happened as a result is that every part of these brick walls is its own artwork.”
From the outside, Bagby may look like a standard old rectangular warehouse, but it’s actually a three-building site that includes a metal kiln complex originally used for storing and drying wood, a 1960s concrete block addition used as a furniture showroom, and the turn-of-the-20th century factory. “Part of the design challenge was to find a way to link them in a way that each one fit, and it really took us some time to find that balance,” says Trujillo, whose Gensler teammate on the Bagby job was design principal Chris Banks.
Eisner used the move to help implement an operational reorganization, replacing the traditional array of semi-autonomous departments with multidisciplinary creative teams assigned to handle individual campaigns from first pitch to final product.
Pula, Trujillo and Eisner lead the way upstairs to the Eisner lobby. A reception desk stands before an open wall awarding visitors a visual invitation into advertising’s inner workings. Nearby, a gleaming staircase rises onto a catwalk-like aisle where highway-billboard-style lighting helps evoke decades of advertising history.
On the two floors of Eisner’s offices (the Bagby’s upper three floors are occupied by the Sylvan Learning Systems offshoot Caliber Learning Network, which opted for a more traditional office design, also conceived by Gensler), work spaces are divided into L-shaped “neighborhoods” where creative teams work in a mix of private offices along walls and shared spaces for meetings and socializing. Sprinkled throughout are imaginative “retreat” areas, including a walled-in corner that once housed an elevator shaft but now holds a table-soccer game.
Natural light filters freely through translucent fiberglass panels screwed to wood studs, another reminder of the building’s industrial heritage. Maintaining the mood are light fixtures found in industrial catalogs. The nods to history continue along a corridor where poster displays celebrate Eisner campaigns dating to the Humphrey-Bogart-as-spokesman era and into the old kiln building which is now a kitchen with the original terra cotta walls.
A 15-foot-wide slice has been removed from the 1960s addition, primarily to provide more sources of natural light. Nearby, the railway bed leading up to an old dock has been transformed into an inviting patch of outdoor greenery set with tables and chairs. Employees can also escape to a rooftop deck offering expansive views of the Inner Harbor.
Steve Eisner has had plenty of time to overcome his initial skepticism about all the bells and whistles and playthings introduced into his company’s new home. “For years I’d say this business is all about people, and I still do say that,” he says. “But now I’m starting to think that the environment can do quite a bit to help the people, too.”