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The Architecture Is the Message
Erin Feher | Photo: Bruce Damonte | March 28, 2017
An Oakland office design takes up arms against racial and social injustice.
Editor’s Note: This is one of several stories about the future of our metropolis, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the April 2017 Urban Design Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.
The Kapor Center for Social Impact, which opened in Uptown Oakland in July 2016, has a very clear mission: to bring greater diversity into the tech industry, with a particular focus on African Americans. The organization has a broad arsenal to deploy in the fight, from a flush investment fund—Kapor Capital, which supports minority-run startups—to an education and outreach initiative, the Level Playing Field Institute, that runs a math and science honors academy for children. And then there’s the building. While a sleek and stunning new headquarters might seem more the staple of a tech company than of a high-minded nonprofit, at the Anne Fougeron–designed Kapor Center, almost every architectural move contains a message.
For decades, corner offices, cubicle placement, even elevators have been used to denote and delineate power—and to enforce a status quo that usually includes a coterie of older white males at the top. So when Fougeron was tasked with reimagining a 1920s-era office building as an innovative and inclusive workspace, she started with the organization’s core values: connectivity, openness, and democracy.
Open office design and flex spaces aim to integrate staff, partners, and visitors. “There is no sense of stratification—founders Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein work from these communal spaces alongside employees,” Fougeron says. The large auditorium on the lower level features windows that open onto the street to encourage people walking by to engage with the space. “The front doors are always unlocked during business hours, and anyone is welcome to come into the lobby,” Fougeron says. “There’s a friendly person at the front desk who is happy to give information about the building and the organization.” Some bathrooms are gender neutral, and custom artwork in the lobby features images from the Level Playing Field Institute transferred onto aluminum.
The architecture’s most powerful statement is the central circular open stair, which connects the building’s third floor with its brand-new roof terrace. The wide-open atrium is topped by a modern dome and an oculus that both floods the interior with daylight and signals to the community that the center is a beacon of upward and outward mobility for all. “The new roof terrace and café is representative of the idea that absolutely everyone would rise up to the top on a daily basis,” Fougeron says, “and connect and communicate with each other in this elevated place.”
Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco