You’re at work. Your office has a three-story slide in the atrium, three-day weekends, mid-week field trips, bring-your-dog-to-work days every fourth Friday, free daily brunches—it even has breakdancing classes. The owners claim that the office is fun, and it certainly appears that way—but how do they explain the high turnover? The gratuitous amount of overtime logged? The fact that the slide is dusty? Maybe ‘fun’ at the office is a farce. Or maybe it just hasn’t been approached the right way—yet.
A ‘fun’ office isn’t necessarily characterized by quirky colors and non-sequitur management policies—it may be something that can be expressed only through design. Take the new Adobe Systems campus near Salt Lake City. Designed by WRNS Studio and interior architect Rapt Studio, the Adobe campus has the bright colors, the sweeping mountain views, the commissioned wall art, and even a regulation-size basketball court. But these aren’t contrivances drawn up by an anonymous board of directors. Rather, they’re representative of a shift in how we perceive work, and the idea that fun happens because we work—not in spite of it.
how we got here
The evolution of office design and architecture over the past century is a dynamic reflection of our perceived function as workers in the modern professional world. The genesis of this self-perception traces itself back to the Industrial Revolution, which not only reinforced the division between the laborer and the boss but also gave rise to a new class of worker—the bureaucrat, or the administrator—who, alongside the manual laborer, found the functions of his efforts increasingly commoditized. The abstract activities of the bureaucrat were made as real as the work of the meat packer.
The rise of this new class was reflected by the new architectural necessity of a ‘front office,’ which served a dual purpose by a) providing a face of the business and b) centralizing administrative function. A position in the physical office reflected accomplishment, importance, and security—especially as the modern economy tended toward commodification and mechanization and devalued manual labor. Office architecture, as a new category, rose and matured along this same self-realized (and self-aggrandized) trajectory.
As modern capitalism evolved, office buildings became the cathedrals of commerce, the forms of which are best expressed through modernist architectural iconography, as with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York or Crown Hall in Chicago; their naked skeletal framework and streamlined imposition reflects the true realization of the administrator as a desiccated, ennobled functionary. The mimesis of Miesian modernism, and its countless imitators, recognizes the irony of the administrator’s contingency by making offices cold, simplistic, and geometrically stagnant. Miesian forms do not naturally appear in the world and neither do bureaucrats.
Following the economic upheaval of London’s Big Bang in 1986, which effectively commoditized the labor efforts of the so-called ‘creative industry,’ the general understanding of ‘work’ again shifted, deflating the power of bureaucracy by expanding the white-collar labor base. The self-concept of the worker again began to change, and in response to the commoditization of the creative class, a strange architectural response has risen from the corpses of hollowed-out modernist steadfasts. The ‘fun’ office.
With their slides, flat screen TVs, and workout rooms, these offices attempt to encourage fun, but the function of the worker—and the self-perception of that function—remains unchanged, suggesting that such attempts are misguided and will ultimately fail.
To truly change the worker, and consequently the perception of ‘work,’ a more radical, organic architecture is necessary. The design of the new Adobe campus is, by all contemporary accounts, ‘fun’ but not through simple surface treatments, which are as contrived as they are condescending. It’s deeper than that, and it starts well before the ground is broken.
Location Lehi, UT
Site 38 acres
Size 200,000 ft2 (Phase 1), 80,000 ft2 (Phase 2)
Cost $100 million
Program Office campus
General Contractor Okland Construction
Client Adobe Systems
Interior Architect Rapt Studio
Architect WRNS Studio
Associate Architect GSBS Architects
Structural Engineering DUNN Associates & Holmes Culley
Mechanical Engineering Colvin Engineering Associates
Electrical Engineering Spectrum Engineers
Civil Engineering Ensign Engineering and Landscape
Landscape Architect Wallace Roberts and Todd
A New Face for Adobe
In 2009, Adobe acquired Omniture, a Utah-based web analytics firm, with the transaction value estimated at $1.8 billion. Not wishing to dissolve the Omniture business unit, which was then located in nearby Orem, Utah, Adobe saw the opportunity as a license to begin developing a new campus for itself while also expanding a new branch of its services. This was also an opportunity for Adobe to announce itself as a future major labor source for the Salt Lake City area, and by locating the campus along I-15 in Lehi—a roughly 20-minute drive south from the Salt Lake City center in an area techies are starting to call ‘The Silicon Slope’—Adobe was also able to forecast the site’s potential to publicize and broadcast the activity at the new campus.
“The project was not only supposed to be a good place to work but also a recruiting tool—and in some senses, a new face for Adobe,” says Brian Milman, a partner at WRNS and principal in charge of the Adobe campus master plan. “We embraced all of these ideas by not only wanting to do something new and vigorous and exciting, but because WRNS is a fairly new office (founded in 2005), we were also able to bring some of that energy into this project.”
The 38-acre campus, built by Utah-based Okland Construction, sits on an oblong site flanked on its southwest side by I-15 and on its northeast side by the expansive Wasatch Mountain Range. The site is planned to house three bar-shaped buildings at 200,000 square feet each with an additional 80,000-square-foot amenities building attached to the four-story central building. Both the amenities building and the central bar-shaped building comprise the first phase of construction, which was completed in 2012 and is currently targeting LEED Gold certification. There is space for up to 1,100 Adobe employees in this first phase, and although the campus is incomplete, the facilities already seem fully cohesive and functional.
Prior to the completion of phase one, a road connecting Digital Drive and Cabela’s Boulevard, the frontage roads flanking the perimeter of the site, divided the campus. In the interest of cultivating a unified campus, Adobe and WRNS developed the central building to create both a literal and metaphorical bridge over the road, which is now called Adobe Way. By extending the landscape program, which was designed by Wallace Roberts and Todd and features drought-tolerant garden spaces, the texture of the site establishes a common theme that is also intimately tied to the Salt River Valley ecology. Additionally, all three campus buildings follow an identical form—that of a bar bent at an obtuse angle, allowing the buildings on the reflex side to face I-15, and on the obtuse side to have sweeping views of the rugged Wasatch pastorals. The buildings, which feature dramatic atria, public areas, eco-spaces, and recreational amenities, also have entirely glass façades, achieving a triune function of maximizing daylighting, providing comprehensive outward views, and creating opportunistic inward views to accent Adobe’s intention of transparency and openness.
“We tried to push this building to be true to who Adobe is,” says David Galullo, a design principal at Rapt and interior architect for the Adobe campus. “We wanted to create a building that was genuine to the place it was being built; that took in the landscape of Utah and exploited it; that was genuine to its construction; that wasn’t simply designing a building and applying a bunch of materials to it to make it something else. From the moment you approach the building, the story starts to be told.”
‘Break Some Rules’
More so than other office projects, WRNS and Rapt worked closely to ensure that the Adobe campus would achieve its intent without a sense of contrivance or pretense, but rather to use the brand to inspire the design. Aesthetically, the project’s radicalism is most apparent through the finishes and aesthetic flourishes of the building interior. Street artist El Mac and tattoo artist Mike Giant were contracted to compose murals and art on the interior, using the same Adobe software that has tangentially influenced the styles of both artists. Floor-to-ceiling Pantone swatches also appear throughout the building as flourishes, further iterating the precedence of both technicality and creativity in the context of Adobe’s mission.
“The culture and brand of Adobe led us in a direction to develop a space that is powerful but also tells a story of who Adobe is and why they matter,” Galullo says. “Adobe said that its need is to always be innovating, so we made a building that reminds people every day that they can and should innovate—and they might need to break some rules to do it.”
Of the turns made by the construction industry following the wave of 21st-century ideas of sustainability, the idea of ‘integrated design’ has now been largely coopted by entities in all sectors of architecture, design, and construction. However, in the case of Adobe, the cooperation between the team members was much more intentionally capitalized upon with Adobe—as the client—posing and challenging ideas and approaches throughout the duration of the project. “You can’t build a great building without a great client, and from the beginning stages of this project, we knew it was a great client,” Milman says. “They wanted to do something new for Adobe, and for that area of Utah—and that’s not something we could have created without the client. Adobe had the message, and it was our job to communicate that message to the world.”
Certification LEED Gold
Materials FSC-certified woods, recycled and regionally sourced materials, low-VOC finishes
Energy Evaporative cooling systems
Site Alternative transit encouraged with bike racks, showers, and locker rooms
Health Basketball court, climbing wall, pool, gym
Landscape Drought-tolerant native plants
Lighting Glass façade and atria maximize daylighting
empowering company culture
Adobe’s activity in the design of its campus primarily reflects the company’s role and reputation in the creative industry. Much like Apple and Google, Adobe’s role in culture knows no referent. It’s inimitable. Adobe’s influence extends to every creative industry, from advertising and publishing to filmmaking and art, and even if this influence is not always explicitly detectable, it’s pervasive. The brand’s role as an active client in the context of the Lehi campus is an extension of its corporate mission, which suggests that a fundamental ingredient for a ‘fun’ office must also be driven by a progressive client ethos. If the client also happens to be a major employer and business driver, all the better. It has a greater potential to make something impactful.
In the case of Adobe, or any such company, it may be granted that the commodification of white-collar labor is unavoidable, but rather than exploiting this, the people at Adobe, WRNS, and Rapt asked what it meant to design a building that works inside out, and outside in.
Jonathan Francom, senior director of corporate real estate and facilities operations for Adobe, says that one of his main goals for this project was to help create a space that would help Adobe “attract, retain, excite, and enable” the workforce to do great work. “What we tried to do in Lehi was to embody what Adobe is within a workspace,” he says. “We want it to be sustainable, collaborative, and transparent.”
The art and amenities at the Adobe campus reveal what seems like a ‘fun’ place to work: a full-sized basketball court, a climbing wall, a pool, a gym, ping pong tables. There is an area for bicycle parking and locker rooms to promote alternative commuting as well as extra physical activity, which can be a hard thing to come by in the white-collar labor world. Myriad public seating and meeting areas promote collaboration, and the various requisite green features (FSC-certified woods, recycled and regionally sourced materials, low-VOC finishes, evaporative cooling systems, proximity to alternative transit) also emphasize the humanity of the campus. But, as both Galullo and Milman explain, the animated vibe at the campus is not contrived but an extension of the company culture. Fun is a by-product, not a suggestion—or an obligation.
One of the ways the campus achieves this architecturally is by giving equal treatment to the internal and external aspects of the design—Adobe actually hired Rapt, the interior architect, before WRNS, which did the campus master plan. Adobe’s location along I-15, with the mountain panorama in the background, locates the campus site in a context of wide open space—the same space from where many Adobe employees draw their lifestyle habits such as mountain biking, climbing, and hiking. Because the atria of the buildings are surrounded by the clear glass façade, it brings an openness to the interior volume. Further aided by the comprehensive daylighting, which is partly shaded in the main building with vertical aluminum fins/extended mullions, this sense of open space is observable from an exterior stance. “When you’re driving along the highway, you can see all of the inner workings of the building—the activity inside, the colors, the vibrancy,” Milman explains. He references the way the basketball court is framed by a large picture wall overlooking the highway, with the back wall of the gym, as designed by Rapt, showcasing a giant, red Adobe ‘A,’ a type of not-so-subtle but not-so-aggressive advertising for Adobe’s presence, activity, and intended role in the area.
There has been a lot of economic activity in the so-called Silicon Slope, with young tech companies capitalizing on the affordable land, advanced education of the labor force, and access to Utah’s natural outdoor amenities, and Adobe’s activity in the area sets a new precedent that counters old ideas of office construction and informs conceptions of what makes a happy office. It’s an idea that attracts the types of young tech startups who are not only relocating to the Silicon Slope but also looking to companies like Google, Facebook, and Adobe as symbols of success. “In setting the framework for this project, I told the teams that what we were about to do would be even bigger than this project,” Francom says. “We really pushed the team to think more radically. It was about transforming how Adobe views the workplace, and how we push the envelope—not only in the outcome, but in the process.”
Through the integrated, collaborative, sustainable design, the Adobe campus logs a new, radical entry in the changing perception of the worker and the work. Fun can’t be forced, but it can be designed.