As a rule, I generally avoid discussing architecture in polite company. I will answer the few quick questions that arise, then shift the conversation elsewhere the moment I sense wandering attentions. Rarely do I ever encounter enthusiasm about buildings from non-allied fields, but such interest can show itself in the unlikeliest of places.
A month ago, an oblivious white Ram plowed into the rear of my significant other’s small red Chevy at a stoplight. As part of her treatment for the whiplash, she has recently begun seeing a massage therapist who specializes in treating patients presenting with such muscular-based injuries.
She reported having gotten lost when trying to find the office building the therapist occupies, passing the address and an apparent midrise apartment complex. She calls the office and they reassure her that the address was indeed correct; she returns and parks with skepticism. Office buildings look like office buildings, after all, with a distinct formal typology. When a building strays from that typology, it can hide itself (or, more appropriately, its function) from us in plain sight.
A lobby and elevator ride later, she apologizes to the office staff for being late. They respond with a laugh, “Happens to everyone!” They relate a story about how the architect had tried to ‘avoid making the traditional office building,’ opting for one that was ‘more home-like’ and comfortable to work in.
At this point, I was intrigued, and I assumed it was a recent build – if it was older, the occupants would likely not have known the architect’s story with such enthusiasm, right?
So, yesterday, I drove down there. And sure enough, I entirely overlook the building at first. Disbelieving the appearance, I look up. Those have GOT to be apartments!
The small-scale entry, all the while appearing like any number of subdued residential entries, opens into a lobby with couches, a stairwell decorated by a rock garden, a small wall of elevators, and a few doors and winding hallways.
A ceiling of acoustic tiles set at a low height with fluorescent panel lights.
Ride the elevator to the 7th floor, stride to the therapists office, which could easily have been a converted apartment. The kitchen would go there. Those would be the bedrooms.
Stuffy air, very obviously a low number of air changes per hour.
Most everything screamed, STANDARD OFFICE ARCHITECTURE! I dismiss the building and the architect’s intentions, thinking them to have failed. I was a little let down.
Wait – this office has two outside balconies on different elevations. That’s sort of cool…
An employee walks in and I ask about the building. A gleam lights her eyes. “Well, let me tell you!” Beyond the balconies, she admired the ‘familiar apartment layouts’ and the pool available to tenants. She’s smiling all the while as she directs me back to the ground floor, where around the corner from the elevators is a framed set of yellowed newspaper clippings dating to the opening of the building in 1971. The article claimed an immediate full leasing of the building, with happy tenants at that.
I had to look past the dated appearance, the low ceilings with fluorescent glare, and the stuffy air. The building still seemed full, and the tenants still seemed happy. Despite it all, the building apparently still works.
All they need to enjoy the architecture itself, it seems, was a story and some amenity.