Over and Above: Studio O+A Designs HQ For Uber
Quick. Name a top enterprise in San Francisco. Tourism. And what was inexplicably difficult for tourists to find, citywide? Yep, taxis. Try hailing one, no matter the time of day. Name another top enterprise? Technology. It was therefore inevitable that some genius would dream up a ride-sharing app. Uber was predestined for local success.
Uber has since spread aggressively, to 100 cities in 45 countries. Headquarters, though, remain in San Francisco—a vast space by Studio O+A. The build-out of 90,000 square feet in a former Bank of America data center was driven by an “ethos of populist luxury,” principal Verda Alexander says. Her husband, principal Primo Orpilla, adds, “It reflects the maturation of a start-up.” A third principal, director of design Denise Cherry, cites the in-depth involvement of CEO Travis Kalanick: “Nothing is there just for the look. For Travis, everything was about the Uber story.”
That story’s high-low plot line connects to Uber’s tiered car options. “The brand is sexy and mysterious on the outside but totally transparent inside,” Cherry continues. O+A solidified that notion via materials and construction. At the high end, equivalent to Uber’s Cadillac SUVs and Lincoln Town Cars, are marble, walnut, copper, and leather. Skewing more mid-level, like a Toyota Prius, are smoked polycarbonate and raw steel. Both the leather and the steel furthermore lent themselves to transformation into mural-size, stylized maps of the cities where Uber operates. The City by the Bay and the City of Light, for example, appear in perforated leather. Kalanick’s hometown, Los Angeles, is steel cut by water jet.
Uber is also a tale of process inverted. Customarily, O+A tackles the logistics of space-planning first, then layers on the design elements to support the client’s vision. Not so here. Kalanick insisted, right from the outset, on design, design, design—to play to the 700 employees as much as to visitors. The elevator lobby’s gleaming black walls, floor, and ceiling are pure glam. In the reception area, that transitions to a pale gray polished concrete floor and brilliant white walls. We’re still in high gear, though: The reception desk is a thing to behold, its walnut base supporting a live-edge slab of violet-veined marble. Behind, backlighting forms a halo around the steel letters spelling Uber.
Seguing into the “creative workplace,” as Orpilla describes it, a corridor extending from reception is wide enough to accommodate a run of simple but generously sized hickory tables for casual meetings, and one sidewall is punctuated by gray felt-lined seating niches for individual work. Meanwhile, the workplace proper is so dense with benching that it had to be multifunctional, with plenty of work-lounge options as well as meeting rooms. The largest is a conference venue with amenities intended to encourage staffers to camp out during intense problem-solving sessions: Lounge chairs by Charles and Ray Eames beckon from the “living area” at one end; phone booths at the other end offer upholstered benches that are practically daybeds. A nearby training room’s outer walls resemble shoji screens. Smaller meeting rooms, staggered like bungalows along a street, have fronts of weathered maple or polished copper. Size aside, most are freestanding, helping to break up the floor plate.
Out in the open, the main lounge is anchored by the “God view” wall, its interactive screens mapping Uber cars in every city served. “It’s Dr. Strangelove,” Orpilla says with a laugh. In the conference lounge, an impressive wall of monitors is dedicated to regulatory issues. (That’s a realm supervised by David Plouffe, formerly President Barack Obama’s campaign manager.) Surprisingly low-tech, even soft by contrast, is Kalanick’s own office—very much part of the workplace in general. Walls are walnut-slatted. Eero Saarinen chairs covered in wool bouclé sit opposite a banquette in a combination of a floral print, tweed, and solid wool. Carpet tile was patterned after a Persian rug. An angular chandelier by Bec Brittain floats above.
O+A installed another showstopper chandelier, this time by Lindsey Adelman, in the café. “We interviewed extensively, and everyone said they loved to work in a coffee bar. So we gave them one,” Alexander says. Counters below the chandelier are Calacatta marble. Alongside, Hans Wegner chairs line communal tables topped in raw steel. It’s all giant design steps up from Peet’s Coffee & Tea.
Speaking of fuel, Uber’s business is on turbo-charge. As we went to press, the company announced plans to build a headquarters almost five times as big. And O+A is again in the driver’s seat.
Project Team: Elizabeth Guerrero; Steve Gerten; Clem Soga; Perry Stephney; David Hunter; Reema Farhat; Olivia Ward; Jeorge Jordan; Alma Lopez; Sarah Dziuba; Chase Lunt; Alfred Socias: Studio O+A. Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design: Lighting Consultant. Vaziri & Associates: Structural Engineer. Plant Architectural Woodwork: Woodwork. B-Metal Fabrication: Metalwork. Principal Builders: General Contractor.