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Office as Oasis

A once-drab building’s metamorphosis marks a new day in workplace design.

SLIDESHOW

Outside an office building, six stories above street level, a lone ginkgo tree acts as sentinel and symbol.

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A terrace on the building’s Harrison Street side offers views of the Bay Bridge.

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TEF’s interior design strategy emphasized communal workspaces with generous amounts of natural light.

Photo: David Wakely

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“We wanted the railing around the atrium to be as open and transparent as possible without inducing vertigo,” says architect Gerry Tierney.

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A triple-height library serves the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

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The glowing reception desk is made up of wood recycled from the Transbay Terminal pilings. The faceted silhouette offers a counterpoint to the boxy geometries of the former military warehouse.

Photo: David Wakely

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Since the 1940s, the uninspiring concrete box of 375 Beale Street has been a perfunctory container for the necessary, rather unsexy businesses that have churned through its interior. Originally constructed as a navy supply warehouse during World War II, the fortresslike structure has since served as a mail-sorting facility, a server farm, and a drug evidence lab (OK, that one’s kind of sexy). So when Gerry Tierney, associate principal architect at Perkins + Will, was tasked with turning the eight-story edifice into an airy and inviting multiuse office space, he knew the transformation needed to be radical. “It was gloomy, almost abandoned,” he recalls. “We didn’t want these workers to feel like they were being sent to prison.”

The top four floors of the building were slated to be the holistic new workplace for the Bay Area Headquarters Authority, a contingent of regional planning agencies including the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the Association of Bay Area Governments. Perkins + Will teamed up with interior design firm TEF to convert a bleak mail-sorting center into a setting conducive to innovation and collaboration. 

They had their work cut out for them. Each of the eight floors spans 64,000 square feet—roughly the size of Union Square, says Tierney. With such a wide footprint, natural light never reached the building’s shadowy core, which was dark and uninviting. So Perkins + Will made the obvious move: It punched an eight-story atrium through the center of the structure. The effect was transformative, flooding the tomblike interior with light and luring employees from all the various agencies into new wood-bordered terraces surrounding the office’s core. “We think of it as the warm, wooden heart inside this very muscular, concrete building,” says TEF principal Bobbie Fisch. 

Recycled wood was introduced throughout the building to temper the severity of the original concrete. A four-story staircase linking the top floors incorporates repurposed wood from bumper rails that previously protected the walls from careening mail carts. Wooden piles from the old Transbay Terminal were salvaged and integrated into the space in the form of accent walls, reception desks, and conference tables. Clever design strategies across the four floors personalize the space and reinforce the organization’s mission. For example, an aerial image of the Bay Area measuring 42 by 20 feet provides a striking, four-story backdrop to the central staircase. On each floor, conference rooms are distinguished by color-coded topographical maps etched onto glass, referencing the Bay Area’s cities, waterways, and open land.

Around the corner from the new glass-fronted entrance, six stories up, a live ginkgo tree rises in the open air above Harrison Street. Over time, the tree will grow and be visible across three floors. After 75 years as an unremarkable workhorse, 375 Beale Street now showcases a facade befitting the landscape-altering work that’s happening within. “This isn’t simply another tech company—these people are thinking about open space and fair land use and air and water quality,” says Tierney. “What better way to symbolize that than a tree growing out of the side of the building?”

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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