Clive Wilkinson, the Los Angeles architect widely known and awarded for his innovative workplace design—notably internet ad agency Barbarian Group’s Superdesk, Google headquarters (Googleplex) in Silicon Valley—recently brought his talents to Austin, at least for a little while. With support from local architects STG Design, he and team designed the now-completed transformation of 41,803 square feet of office space in a Congress Avenue tower. The two-story work space was created for the expansion of professional learning platform GLG (Gerson Lehrman Group), based in New York City.
Wilkinson’s most well-known spaces are arguably ones that embody the concept of activity-based working, first developed by Dutch consultants Veldhoen + Company and an approach that is becoming more and more common. Rather than having assigned personal workspaces, the (often mobile) employees at activity-based offices can move around the office to different kinds of spaces: private meeting and collaboration spaces, conference and training spaces, or a staffed coffee bar. The idea is to offer more flexible places that make sense for the work that many people can now carry almost anywhere on a laptop, as well as more opportunities for collaboration.
Wilkinson said the approach "came very naturally" to Austin, where the GLG staff will mainly be the "tech brains of the company" who already have a high level of mobility. As far as adapting the 15th and 16th floors of 301 Congress, he said, the issue was (and almost always is for these kinds of projects) how to take a conventional building and amplify its qualities. In this case, he focused on the great views, opening up the space to take advantage of the long banks of windows.
The architects connected both sides of the building with an in-house cafe. They gutted two floors and cut a hole to build dramatic, two-story atrium, which Wilkinson called the "social center of the building," all of it to reference and connect workers to the best views of Lady Bird Lake.
With GLG’s Austin space, Wilkinson had a head start. "I had the good fortune of doing GLG’s offices in the past couple of years," he said in a phone interview Tuesday. Going from a conventional office to a mobility-based workplace took a "leap of faith" by GLG, he added, but the result was a big success.
Other local touches include a raised platform with stairs, encountered just after you enter, which is "meant to reference porch life in Austin," he said. They used local wood and the rougher finishes that, while not unique to the city, seem to be a big part of its style at the moment: industrial metal, natural finishes, steel metal mesh, rough wood for the bar is used instead of the "sleek wood" one finds in GLG’s New York office in. "There’s a casualness about it," he said. "New York is more buttoned up."
Wilkinson said that activity-based workplaces are already on the rise, and he sees them becoming more predominant. "With the rise in co-working, with small businesses and such, I think that will filter back into permanent workspaces. It’s very collaborative and mobile, and you can work everywhere."
Another advantage for companies is that flexible spaces make it easier to expand in the future. "The [GLG] space was originally designed for 1,000 people, and there are now 1,200," Wilkinson said. "All they have to do is buy 200 more chairs."
"It’s a very evolved way of working," he said, adding that half his firm’s projects are not activity-based. Citing One Shelley Street building in Sydney, Australia—his first big activity-based workplace design—he concluded. "Australians are way ahead of North Americans, as are the Dutch."