Bland, soulless, and surrounded by acres of concrete parking lots, the typical office structure is stuck several decades in the past. With an exterior designed around car commuting, and an interior devoid of social gathering spaces and natural light, office parks signify much that is wrong with suburban sprawl. Now, a few architecture firms are reusing these places, incorporating ideals of smart design and sustainability.
“We are looking at this old building type and trying to bring it up to state-of-the-art standards,” says Hugh Trumbull, a principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF), one of the architecture firms that’s notably updating these buildings into icons of attractive, innovative design. “The suburbs are in the unique position: between a rural situation and an urban situation. There’s a sense of fresh air and being part of nature, while also being part of a dialogue with other people and exchanging ideas. We’re trying to figure out how to bring those two energies into a corporate office park.”
Two of KPF’s recent projects beautifully embrace this balance. Centra Metropark, formerly the epitome of a boring office park in Iselin, NJ, is now a stunning building that won a national award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Light streams in through the floor-to-ceiling swathes of glass that replaced tiny slit windows, and a rectangular ceiling opening lets additional sunlight into the center of the building. A sculptural column supports the dramatic fourth floor extension over an entry plaza “that receives you as you enter the building, while engaging in the street and also reaching back to the forest in the distance,” explains Trumbull. Energy-efficient everything allowed the project to achieve LEED platinum status, the most challenging sustainable goal to meet.
The project at 175 Park Avenue in Madison, NJ, similarly provides a new spin on what in this case was a former call center headquarters. Glass walls replace a concrete façade, allowing workers to engage with the outdoors, and letting in light along with a perforated ceiling. A closed interior now has an open lobby that extends up three floors, “engaging people in that space and creating a dynamic center,” says Trumbull. Like Centra, 175 Park also has a new entry courtyard, where sunshine brightens trees, rocks, and plantings, and provides a place for people to meet. Bioswales and plantings in the parking lot break up the concrete landscape and mitigate water runoff.
Though far from widespread, there are other examples of appealing office park redesign. Architecture firm Gensler remade an aging Sun Microsystems campus into Facebook’s young, fresh headquarters in Menlo Park, CA, infused with art and collaborative open spaces, and accessible via alternative transportation. A late-’70s office building in Arganda del Rey, Spain, was completely transformed by Herreros Arquitectos with a unique aluminum façade whose geometric perforations create an interplay of shadows and light indoors, while acting as a solar screen. Or there’s the futuristic new science and technology site in Bolzano, Italy, designed by Chapman Taylor, with carbon fiber cladding and integrated solar cells on its sleek black forms.
All of this architectural innovation bodes well for the future of suburban office parks. After all, there’s no reason why these structures can’t be remade into smart, sustainable spaces that are also appealing to the eye—and are ultimately good for worker morale and business. “The art of architecture is hugely important, and building that sense of place makes people proud,” says Trumbull. “Being able to come to a workplace where people say, ‘Wow, this place represents me,’ is a huge part of it. People need to feel like they’re part of something unique, and if a client sees that idea and vision, it allows us to make something really special.”