Cube with a View
Working with a limited budget and a tiny space, Michael Van
Valkenburgh Associates contends that small is beautiful.
By Susan Hines
C/O Paul Warchol
You find a space in the parking lot of the single-story
brick office, a building surrounded by other low-slung structures, all fronting
onto a typical suburban office park streetscape in New Jersey. Walk down the
sidewalk past shrubs clipped into submission that flank the entryway. The
setback allows for a conventional area of mowed and blown lawn.
Push through the glass doors and head for your cube,
however, and you are confronted with an entirely different version of nature.
Gone are the sidewalks and asphalt and tended floral displays. The view from
inside is of a small forested landscape with a mossy lawn. Ironically, this is
a landscape more responsive to the seasons and the weather than the paved and
manicured world outside.
“When we get little projects that have the potential for
being jewels, it is fun. Small projects are the petri dish for everything. They
can be a great exploration,” says Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, of his firm’s
work transforming 225,000 square feet of windowless suburban warehouse into a
work space centered on an ever-changing display of natural scenery.
Using just 1 percent of the available square footage, the
firm inserted two glass-enclosed courtyards/atria, totaling just 2,000 square
feet, near the arrival area but within full view of the majority of cube
dwellers. Removing the roof above exposed the rectangular courtyards to the
elements and captured a wealth of natural light. At the same time, the
surrounding glass walls disperse the light throughout the interior while
creating unique microclimates within each of the courtyards.
“Another joy of the small projects is the small team,” Van
Valkenburgh says. In fact, the team for the Tahari courtyards consisted
primarily of Van Valkenburgh and his junior staff member Brian Hirsch. “When
you are in school you are kind of hoping to do something like this,” says Hirsch.
“Then you go through a lot and pay your dues and finally you get it.”
For Van Valkenburgh it was also a chance to construct a
project for a client with whom he had long wanted to work. Several years prior
to his purchase of the New Jersey warehouse, fashion designer Elie Tahari hired
Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) to design a series of looping gardens
around his headquarters building on Fifth Avenue in New York City. That project
never moved forward, in large part because of the landmark status of Tahari’s
SOM-designed building. When it came time to retrofit this New Jersey warehouse
to serve firm accountants and warehouse workers, Tahari commissioned MVVA.
It isn’t surprising then that, according to Hirsch, his boss
was already “champing at the bit” to get started when the staff returned from
Christmas break. In fact, Van Valkenburgh started working on it over vacation.
And in keeping with the small site and small construction budget of just
$125,000, the time frame was also compressed.
“The schematic design was really fast—just four to six weeks
in all. It is very unusual that this design came together so quickly. Then it
was built that spring,” Van Valkenburgh remembers as he and Hirsch show the
design model to Landscape Architecture
in the firm’s New York City offices. It did move fast, Hirsch confirms, noting
that he used twigs cut from the office Christmas tree to simulate the locust
log path that extends through each of the glass gardens and is interrupted only
by the length of office floor that separates the two enclosed spaces.
The idea of symmetrical atria had already been suggested by
Voorsanger & Associates Architects, the firm charged with designing the
building’s retrofit. They were inspired by existing recessed computer panel floors.
The architects felt these areas, which were already cut down into the concrete
floor, would make natural focal points and had suggested dual water features.
Fortunately, they were extremely amenable to the landscape
architects’ very different approach to the spaces. Through his prior experience
with Tahari, Van Valkenburgh had noticed the fashion designer’s appreciation of
natural materials. In addition, he says, “Elie really likes the juxtaposition
between the austerity of contemporary architecture and the really verdant. So
we went for that look right away.” While the firm considered a few other
alternatives, they were confident enough about this design solution that they
presented only a single alternative to the client.
Tahari embraced the concept immediately. “There was office
space [in the existing warehouse] and it looked punishing,” the designer says.
“We wanted to create space that made people feel they were working in a
garden.” When he saw MVVA’s model, he remembers thinking, “This is radical, but
it will be able to deliver the light, airy feel.” He ordered the ceiling
opening to be cut, and from that point on, he says, many architectural and
interior design decisions were made in response to the courtyards.
Anticipation was high as Van Valkenburgh and Hirsch set out
for the New Jersey site with Landscape
Architecture in tow. Although he had reports from his office staff, two
years had passed since Van Valkenburgh visited the gardens in person. Hirsch
hadn’t seen the site since completion, although during his morning commute on
the nearby highway he has watched the trees climbing higher and higher above
the building’s roofline. “Projects are like your children—you get so invested,”
Van Valkenburgh reflects. “And it is not always as gratifying as it is visiting
this one, by the way. Public projects can often fall apart.”
“I think ugly is an understatement for this building,” Van
Valkenburgh remarks as we arrive. As he had suggested earlier, the project is
contained within a sprawling, windowless, five-acre building, a combination
warehouse and accounting office.
Enter the building and the world of suburban New Jersey
feels very far away. The interior design is sleek, contemporary. The gardens
seem like twin terrariums that provide a soothing organic counterpoint to all
the modernity on display. The two spaces are treated as one, making them feel
bigger than they are despite the fact that the arrival space hallway divides
Indeed, the firm fought the symmetry imposed by the architectural
division of the space. “From the very beginning we worked against what we felt
was rigid and artificial,” Van Valkenburgh explains. Initially they considered
extending the locust planking across the hall that divides the two gardens, but
instead they kept the division intact and arranged the locust slabs to draw the
eye in a continuous and dynamic flow through the space.
A minimal but effective plant palette is used throughout
both courtyards. River birch and bamboo provide, respectively, a deciduous and
evergreen tree canopy. Although the foliage of paper-white narcissi (Narcissus tazetta) remained evident,
autumn ferns (Dryopteris eythrosora)
and hellebores (Helleborus orientalis
‘Alba’) dominated the understory at the time of Landscape Architecture’s June visit. Meanwhile the soft texture and
jewel-like color of moss (woodsy Plagiomnium)
serves as a ground cover, punctuated by a pathlike scattering of locust slabs
interspersed with subdued drifts of river rock. The materials are natural and
textural: peeling bark, lacy bamboo, velvet moss.
The seasons are marked not just by falling leaves and the
appearance of flowering bulbs but also by the way the sun interacts with the
space. Sun and shadow vary in each of the garden spaces according to the time
of the year.
Hirsch was responsible for researching the climatic
conditions imposed not just by sun and wind but also by the extensive use of
glass. “We worried that the light reflecting off the glazing would affect the
moss,” he says. He worked with a company called Sticks and Stones to determine
which species of moss would thrive best; the choice, woodsy Plagiomnium, is one of the most common
“The soil arrived impregnated with spores, and moss was also
brought in on flats. It looked like indoor/outdoor carpet,” Hirsch says. “It
really had to look good from the get-go,” Van Valkenburgh emphasizes. In places
where it was clear the moss would not thrive—beneath the thickest bamboo, for
example—river rock covers the ground, adding more subtle color and texture to
All the plants have thrived, from the birches that now rise
high above the building’s roofline to the mossy ground covers. Subsurface drip
irrigation as well as pop-up heads keep the moss and trees watered. Any
volunteers carried in by birds or wind are weeded away, and trash is
nonexistent. Selected for weather resistance, the locust slabs have developed a
patina but show few signs of wear.
And what of the cube dwellers whose work spaces actually
include narrow windows looking out on the gardens? “It is very comforting,
light, and airy,” says one employee. “It is better than working in a dark,
cube-filled warehouse environment.”
“When people are happy they have fewer complaints,” says
Tahari, who also reports that the new environment has had the added benefit of
attracting more highly qualified people to work for his company. Although the
designer himself doesn’t share the work space with his accountants, he looks
forward to visiting the courtyards. “People appreciate it and they take good
care of it.”
Yet, contrary to the original intent, the worker bees are
not allowed to enter the atria. While they can bask in the natural light the
courtyards provide, lunch at the stylish tables arranged along the perimeter,
and marvel at the landscape on a snowy winter day, the glass doors remain
locked to them.
Van Valkenburgh is visibly disturbed by this discovery made
during the site visit with Landscape
Architecture. The landscape is artistic, even sculptural in appearance: “a
distillation of nature,” as he puts it; however, he insists the courtyards were
not intended to be for display purposes only. Although money has been spent and
care taken to make this a very special workplace, Van Valkenburgh points out,
“This isn’t making [Tahari] any money. He doesn’t show it off to clients. I
think he realized that it would make life more enjoyable for the people who
worked here. I wonder if Elie even knows about the doors?”
Contacted for comment, Tahari admits this is the first he
has heard of the lockout. “I’m still investigating,” he says, going on to
explain that building management told him they made the decision based on high
electricity bills. “People began leaving the doors open on nice days, and then
the bills started coming in....”
Apparently, you can put nature in front of accountants, but
you can’t change the nature of accounting.
Landscape architect: Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, New
York City (Michael Van Valkenburgh, FASLA, principal; Brian Hirsch, project
manager). Architect: Voorsanger & Associates Architects, New York City.
Landscape contractor: John Mini Distinctive Landscapes, Congers, New York. Moss
consultants: Sticks and Stones Farm, Newtown, Connecticut. Black locust
supplier: Next Generation Woods Inc., Hiwassee, Virginia. Specimen river birch
supplier: Red Hill Nursery, Holmdel, New Jersey. Bamboo consultant: Susanne
Lucas, Plymouth, Massachusetts. Lighting consultant: L’Observatoire & Halie
Light International, New York.
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