July 1, 2011

Money Talks…Quietly: Peace Pervades a Chicago Trading Firm by Perkins + Will

When I think of a bull pen, the sort occupied by the players of the financial markets, my mind immediately goes to the dark paneled interior where my Don Draper of a dad held court among brokers talking sports and steak while watching an LED tape tick the day’s trades. At the back of the room, the firm’s silver-haired Roger Sterling, a name partner, evinced the effects of his lunchtime martinis by barking occasional responses, as the lengthy ash from his nearly unsmoked cigarettes fell dramatically to the carpet beside his perfectly polished wing tips.

This nostalgic scene of course predates 2011’s 12,000-volume closings, and I’m well aware that the manly patter—with the burning tobacco—has been replaced by the quiet buzz of highly focused, toxin-free professionals accompanied by the drone of global business news from flat-screen TVs. Still, the 256-desk bull pen in the 75,000-square-foot office that Perkins + Will designed for this Chicago firm left me a little breathless.

Although each trader’s spiny task chair and LCD monitors, up to four of them, lend the room a distinctly NASA air, any technology-fueled financial anxiety finds a serene antidote in such fluid details as the tapering structural columns that rise into glowing cutouts in the maple-veneered acoustical canopy. “The client gave us very clear direction about being organic,” managing principal Tom Kasznia says. Senior designer Tim Wolfe adds, “A single-level floor plate really allowed for that.”

That unbroken floor plate was made possible, in turn, by the building, a massive 1970’s structure on the Chicago River. A mere escalator ride from the lobby takes traders up to the tempered-glass doors at the office threshold. Beyond, the reception area is backed by a weeping limestone wall that appears to drain into a koi pond crowned by a bonsai sculpture. “Natural elements, for example how water flows, gave us ideas for shape and movement,” Kasznia says. To reach the bull pen, traders turn left to follow a corridor where, against another limestone surface, Japanese spirit stones sprout from the sand of a narrow Zen garden. (The floor beneath the sand was reinforced with steel to support the stones’ weight.) Walls farther along were troweled with a plaster-concrete mixture, creating a patina that softens fluorescent lighting from a ceiling cove and recessed pucks. When the walls peel softly apart, and the slate floor gives way to pale gray carpet, you’re in the bull pen. 

Due to its corner location, traders enjoy two window walls with river views and abundant afternoon sun. Perkins + Will placed legal, administrative, and IT groups at the other end of the floor plate and an enclosed executive island in the center. Specifying the same 120-degree clustered desking system for all open office areas “allowed for one aesthetic to create a visual flow,” Wolfe says. “The full system addresses the traders’ needs specifically. Then we could pull pieces away to create work­stations for other employees.”

The CEO’s office, in the executive island, has a view right down the center of the sea of trading desks—unless the CEO sets the office’s smart-glass front to frost over. Enclosed meeting spaces along an internal wall are partially fronted by acid-etched glass panels that incorporate iPads for conference scheduling. Perkins + Will combined the glass with wood veneer and clear-lacquered raw steel. “Richard Serra’s steel sculptures were another key influence,” Wolfe says. In an additional nod to Serra, raw steel frames the whiteboards inside the rooms, a marked contrast to the luxury of the marble-topped tables and leather-covered chairs.

“Our goal was to make full-time employees as comfortable as possible during the long hours they put in,” Kasznia says, calling this strategy “the complete opposite” of the current trend to treat large offices as a temporary base where a traveling workforce can touch down. Witness the kitchen’s staffed grill and sandwich counters and full-time barista. Even more awe-inspiring is the fitness center, with its elegantly appointed changing rooms. A place to catch one’s breath in this fast-paced environment is the lounge, where movies—or news, if you must—can be watched on four screens mounted in a steel-lined niche in the wood paneling. Pale leather-covered seating makes the lounge seem less like a men’s club, more like a day spa where shoptalk might be punctuated by personal chat about beach vacations or college visits. Perkins + Will has replaced 20th-century trappings with a refined elegance, enabling traders to master today’s financial universe.


Paul Hagle; Eric Mersmann; Sarah Kuchar; Ady Chu; Rocco Tunzi; Andrew Wright: Perkins + Will. Schuler Shook: Lighting Consultant. Avant Garden: Garden Consultant. Golden Triangle: Art Consultant. Sound Specialists: Audiovisual Consultant. Pease Borst & Associates: Structural Engineer. WMA Consulting Engineers: MEP. Parenti & Raffaelli: Woodwork. Venetian Art: Pasterwork. Executive Construction: General Contractor. Project Management Advisors: Project Manager. 

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