May 30, 2014

Shout it Out: Yelp’s San Francisco HQ by Studio O+A

Walking through the terra-cotta archway at the entrance to Yelp’s building in San Francisco, you can’t help but look up, your eye caught by the carved and crimson-dyed plaster unicorns and phoenixes cavorting across the lobby ceiling. Look around some more, and you’ll spot the golden bell motifs above the elevators. Built for Pacific Bell in 1925, the art deco tower just underwent a head-to-toe renovation, during which Yelp leased 106,000 square feet and engaged the designers of its current office, Studio O+A.

To transport you to the reception area for the online ratings site, elevators whoosh up nine stories—and a century back in time. The office doors open to leave you standing outside what looks like a shop window, marked General Store. Through the glass, you can see that the reception area is stocked with an old-fashioned amalgam of candy, paint cans, and books. At one end, a vintage brass cash register sits on the reception desk. At the opposite end, a pair of small meeting rooms are fronted by doors bearing the random numbers 1704 and 2518 in cracked paint. Portals to the past, they migrated here from elsewhere in the building.

O+A principals Primo Orpilla and Denise Cherry left much of the building’s charm intact and didn’t hide the modern retrofits. Old columns stand proudly unpolished, new seismic girders unhidden. So while Red Bull cans, Nerf guns, and other techie signifiers do abound, they litter a landscape that’s warmly human. Consider Silicon Valley’s open-plan cubicle farms, where a foam ball might whiz unnoticed over the heads of diligent programmers. Here, you feel it could nick mom’s heirloom lamp, and that’s partially a matter of scale. Floor plates are small and E-shape, without endless sight lines, so the atmosphere is cozy. “Some entrepreneurs feel they need to see everything. They’re concerned that, if you section people off, they won’t cross-pollinate,” Orpilla says, adding that the result can be an endless sea of identical desks distinguished by arbitrary touches. “It’s like, ‘This is the orange section.’ We made distinctions based on materials. It’s more sophisticated.”

Amid the workstations, meeting venues are named for the types of places Yelp rates: Creperie, Butcher Shop, Jazz Bar, Ski Resort. Because most Yelp powwows are small affairs, not requiring big-screen TVs and tables the size of aircraft carriers, there’s even more space for variation. “We have metrics that tell us how many private spaces an open office should have. Usually it’s one for every 10 employees, but Yelp has one for every five,” Orpilla continues. Cherry chimes in, “Engineers like to pick up their laptops and go sit on a couch, while salespeople need someplace to talk without interruptions.” Getaway spots on the engineering level are therefore a bright energizer for monitor-dazed brains, versus the softly lit and acoustic-paneled phone rooms in sales. Standing in one of the latter—not the one with the massage chair—Orpilla draws attention to the almost unnerving silence and underscores an obvious point: “Having a door on something that’s not really soundproof is worse than having a loud, open space. You expect it to be confidential, but it’s not.” Private spaces here are literally private. And the crashing tide of voices that make up Yelp’s online community figuratively ebbs.

At the opposite end of the privacy-sociability spectrum, the office’s most open space is the level that houses the café, the coffee bar, and the training facility. The café buzzes with convivial energy at the lunch rush or during impromptu GarageBand tourneys, and the coffee bar keeps Yelpers on their toes with ’spros from a rotating cast of guest roasters, from FourBarrel to Verve. Still, Orpilla wondered about the quieter moments: “If it’s all going to be open, how do you bring in some intimacy when it’s not packed?” A rustic chandelier made with looping rope and booths with diner-style comfort help. Beer does, too. Yelpers bellying up to the high-tech bar can browse tap-list touch screens and see what their friends drank—and, of course, how they rated it.

Like Yelp’s site, the office is a mix of ideas, a boisterous community of opinions. Take the whiteboard that O+A principal Verda Alexander, Orpilla’s wife, had embellished with an expressionistic drawing of the city. Then a doodling staffer modified it by adding shark fins in the bay. “If they feel at home enough to personalize, we were successful,” Cherry says. The next whiteboard bears a near-indecipherable glimpse of engineering jargon. In the Internet age, when ephemeral likes and click-throughs, stars and hashtags, often outshine the thing itself, O+A has built for Yelp staffers something truly special—a place to get real, a place to be themselves.

Project Resources>>

Project Team: Perry Stephney; Clem Soga; Elizabeth Guerrero; David Hunter; Kroeun Dav; Alma Lopez; Renee Laput-Mendoza; Sarunya Wongjodsri; Jeorge Jordan; Olivia Ward; Chase Lunt; William Chu: Studio O+A. Vaziri Consulting Engineer: Structural Engineer. Amit Wadhwa & Associates: MEP. Novo Construction: General Contractor.

Recent Projects