Frank R Webb Architects Has Transformed A Dreary Aeronautics Building Near Los Angeles Into Offices For A Healthcare Provider

By Joseph Giovannini

Architect: Frank R. Webb Architects—Frank R. Webb, AIA, principal; Ken Stein, AIA, senior project designer; Robert C. Gross, AIA, project architect; Pamela Domingo, project manager; Greg Coles, AIA, Shikha Chandrasena, Sagar Chavan, Alex Garcia, Patrick Daniels, Danielle Yafuso, Yllania Francis, Keith Fine, Steve Henrich, Glann Waggner, Betty Serafin, project team Client: Kaiser Foundation Health Plan

Engineers: Brandow & Johnston Associates (structural); Westco Service (mechanical and plumbing); DPB Engineers (electrical); Paller-Roberts Engineering (civil) Construction management: Intelisyn

Consultants: ah'bé Landscape Architects

Size: 160,000 square feet Cost: $16,000,000 Completion date: 2004

Sources

Masonry: Orco Block

Metal curtain wall: U.S. Aluminum

Glazing: Trident

Insulated plastic glazing: Polygal Standing-seam roofing: Marin

For more information on this project, go to Building Types Study at www.archrecord.com.

The desolate mammoth that the nonprofit health-care-delivery provider Kaiser Permanente found in an industrial wasteland of expired aeronautics factories in Downey, California, was so off-putting that the employees, based in Pasadena, at first refused even to consider the move. Abandoned for five years, the building was a cold, characterless, 160,000-square-foot concrete bunker designed circa 1970 by engineers for Rockwell, an aerospace company whose demands for secrecy precluded windows and skylights.

Program

Kaiser Permanente called on the Los Angeles firm of Frank R. Webb Architects to transform architectural dross into a humane office environment fit for 24/7 occupation. At less than $100 per square foot, the budget was restrictive and demanded conventional building materials and considerable ingenuity.

Solution

Principal Frank Webb, AIA, and project designer Ken Stein, AIA, looked inside the ungenerous box for an architectural point of departure. Above the suspended ceiling on the first floor they found it in the form of coffered concrete ceilings, supported by columns with formerly concealed monumental conical capitals worthy

Joseph Giovannini, a critic, has a New York-based design practice.

of Karnak. Although the second floor did not have the same architectural heft—there the structure changed to thin steel columns supporting tapered steel girders—they decided to expose the heroic concrete structure, with loftlike interiors open to the ceilings.

If the architectural idea came from within the building, the parti grew out of the paved path leading from the parking area to a new entrance, heralded by an airfoil canopy erupting out from the east facade. The path continues inside along a south axis leading straight through the building to the front guest entrance on the west side, housed in a handsome pavilion that was the only architectural artifact worth saving from the original building. The architects enhanced its de Stijl—style composition by adding more planes and an airfoil canopy.

The pedestrian street between the two entrances sets off an asymmetry that alleviates the rote symmetries of the original shell, which the architects sustain in the fortress of the right angle by slashing a diagonal path across the floor, much like Broadway plowing

The east elevation of the aeronautic structure (top) and the west elevation (above) looked hopeless.

through the New York City grid.

They also burst through the box vertically: At the employees' entrance, the architects carved a two-story interior courtyard that rises through the height of the building, breaking through the original roofline so that natural light floods the space via new clerestory windows. In this atrium, employees are brought together by the elevators, a monumental staircase that angles through the middle of the space, and an adjacent cafeteria.

By revealing the columns and coffered ceiling, Webb and his team used the existing tectonics to organ-

Glazing Box Architecture

The south side of the building, once concrete with louvers (inset), is now given a sculptural depth with steel panels over a steel frame. Behind it is an open-air mechanical yard that parallels a long east-west pedestrian street inside.

1. Visitors'entrance

2. Mechanical yard

3. Case coordination center

4. Pharmacy

5. Medical transport

6. Conference area

7. Atrium

8. Employees' entrance

10. Facilities

11. Employee courtyard

12. Training

13. Claims center

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1. Medical transportation center

2. Cafe

3. Atrium

4. Case coordination center

5. Conference center

6. Employee entrance

The cavernous structure concealed its concrete coffered ceiling and its Karnak-like capitals over the con-

crete columns (right). The architects exposed the structure, and created a two-story lobby (above and below right).

1. Medical transportation center

2. Cafe

3. Atrium

4. Case coordination center

5. Conference center

6. Employee entrance

The cavernous structure concealed its concrete coffered ceiling and its Karnak-like capitals over the con-

crete columns (right). The architects exposed the structure, and created a two-story lobby (above and below right).

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The sculptural play of stainless-steel panels articulates the guard/ reception desk of the visitors' entrance (above). A diagonal swath cuts across the ground floor, where office areas (below) with freestanding canted walls are open to the ceiling coffers.

The sculptural play of stainless-steel panels articulates the guard/ reception desk of the visitors' entrance (above). A diagonal swath cuts across the ground floor, where office areas (below) with freestanding canted walls are open to the ceiling coffers.

ize the plan—the columns mark the space around which the architects placed conference rooms and offices on the vast floors. Passages expand and contract as these offices and conference pavilions grip and release the interior streets. These small structures within the larger one create a village scale, catalyzing the open-office field with a lively interior urbanism.

Some of the conference rooms are articulated to become objectlike pavilions—the browed entries, canted walls of the facades, and joinery of the concrete-board fascia confer to each an individuality that counteracts the universality of the original structure. In addition, the architects kept the ceilings of the conference rooms and offices low, to give an intimate scale to the tall spaces, and to let natural light flow in clerestory cavities below the waffle ceiling.

The removal of concrete wall slabs between the structural piers at the building's edge permits generous amounts of natural light to enter the open-plan offices. In order to modulate the sunlight, the designers retrofitted sun shields, shaped again as airfoils, on the front and back facades. Inside and out, such architectonic pieces give depth and shade to the flat wall planes.

Commentary

Despite the limiting budget, the architects seized every opportunity to enrich a building that by every measure was impoverished. But what gives the design the additional edge is the energizing angularity of the geometry that comes from the parti introduced into this inert, uninfected space. On both floors, even the entire ceiling of fluorescent lights is shifted at 45 degrees to the floor plan. Walls lean and dropped-ceilings rise, as though taking off.

Deft, space-defining formal moves endow the building with an aesthetic of energy that charges formerly passive spaces. Now that the building houses a health-care company, it expresses flight in a way never achieved in its original incarnation. The architects brought energy to space. ■

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