Dramatic Cantilever Sets the Tone for SOM-Designed JT International Headquarters
A colossus in the world of office design, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill developed a fittingly huge, sweeping gesture for the Geneva headquarters of JT International. The nine-story, 400,000-square-foot building is an enormous acute triangle with a “heroic cantilever” in the words of SOM interior design partner Stephen Apking, an Interior Design Hall of Fame member. It’s as if the triangle’s point, which ascends at an angle, has been lifted off the ground by an architecturally minded giant.
SOM beat out other major firms to win a competition for the headquarters, to be built on a wedge-shape brownfield site in a prime location, with dramatic views of Lake Geneva and the Alps. The goal was to consolidate the four previous local offices of JT International, formed when Japan Tobacco acquired the right to manufacture R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company cigarette brands outside the U.S.—think Camel and Winston. Functionally, there would be a lot to combine: The finished building holds no fewer than 66 meeting rooms, 31 break-out areas, and 23 “coffee points.”
While Apking led the New York–based interiors team, SOM’s London design director Kent Jackson helmed the architectural side of the project. “The cantilever derived from the size of the site as well as having to navigate very specific Swiss zoning and building regulations,” Jackson says. “Our response was to take a traditional European courtyard typology, triangulate it, and lift two of the three sides, which resulted in exposing the garden.” Its greenery and reflecting pool, Apking adds, “invite the public in.” Not necessarily typical of tobacco conglomerates.
Another plus, the courtyard brightens the interior. Not only was that a personal priority of JT International’s client management team, but there’s also a Swiss law known as “right to light,” stating that employees must sit within a certain distance of sunshine. Naturally, given that regulation, glass was the material of choice, and the curtain wall’s strong diagonal mullions make the building look like it’s rocketing upward. The quadruple-glazing furthermore features air and roller blinds between the layers, among the building’s many eco-conscious touches.
An expansive planted roof terrace adds to the residential feel. “People get the sense that this is really home,” Apking says. His use of “home” reflects the idea that the headquarters is a place where people live for part of the day, rather than a mere office building. Without a doubt, the design is sleek, but it’s not slick—an achievement that may partly derive from the fact that SOM built an elaborate 5,000-square-foot mock-up on-site to test every element for function and friendliness. “We try to do mock-ups as much as possible, when we have the time,” Apking says. “It was tremendously helpful in terms of working with the contractors and in the procurement process.” In particular, this walk-in model helped SOM develop the project’s many bespoke materials. For instance, the European walnut veneer used for paneling in the auditorium features micro-perforations to soften the acoustics.
With a project on this scale, a coherent materials scheme was key. The walnut adds a warmer contrast to the pervasive white marble and silver tones. Ceilings are anodized aluminum, water-cooled to reduce energy use. SOM also sought to introduce color. “Not in a gratuitous way, though. It had to be part of a disciplined approach,” Apking says, explaining how a major art commission from Liam Gillick did the trick. “Rather than simply buying something and putting it on the wall, we worked with Liam as a member of our design team.”
Apking sees the installation’s ultimate form, a series of multicolored powder-coated panels, as a “continuous landscape” that follows staircases and corridors to define circulation paths from the reception area, all the way up through the office levels, to the cafeteria. “You experience these double-height ‘canvases’ as a single composition because of the continuation from level to level.” The verticality of the panels, ebullient but orderly as they slice through the building, also balances its dominant diagonals. “The whole diagonal concept for the interiors came about as a support for the architectural move of lifting the building’s corner,” he points out. The building’s play of geometries finds a considerably quietecomplement in work by the great conceptualist Sol LeWitt. His “wall drawing” comprises a large gray square, circle, triangle, etc., lining a corridor between the lobby and the elevators. “The LeWitt creates viewer participation, as opposed to just focusing on something in the distance,” Apking says. The installation is visible from the street as well.
Taking the time to integrate important art elements, SOM was fortunate not to be rushed along—the project’s gestation period was a full three years. “Everything was in step along the way,” Apking reports. How very Swiss.
Project Team: Anthony Vacchione; Jeffrey McCarthy; Ursula Schneider; John Pickens; Cynthia Mirbach; Lauren Kosson; Yasemin Kologlu; Martin Grinnell; Julia Skeete; Daniel Silva; Linnea Isen; Nicholas Muir; Paolo Rossi; Jerome Le Dorze; Katherine Pink: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Burckhardt + Partner: Architect of Record. Interversion: Art Consultant. Ingenie: Structural Engineer. B+S Ingénieurs Conseil: Civil Engineer. Mab-Ingénierie; Weinmann-Energies: MEP: Implenia: General Contractor. Knight Frank: Project Manager.