Space Man

Chris Coleman reimagines the workspace.

A revolution of sorts is taking place in office spaces all over the world, and Chris Coleman, AET ’81, has been one of its pioneering forces.

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Photo: Josh Touster

“The walls are coming down. It’s kind of like Berlin, if you will,” says Coleman, Wentworth’s 2013 Spring Commencement speaker, who recently stepped down from his role as director of global design at Google to lead real estate and office services at cloud-storage leader Dropbox.

As office workspaces shift from grids of compartmentalized cells to open spaces that promote “casual collisions,” Coleman is aware that change must sometimes be slow—and always well-planned.

“When those walls come down, you need to be aware of acoustics and privacy, and you need to keep in mind that half your population is made up of introverts,” Coleman explains.

“What we’ve done over the years is to provide a plethora of spaces for people to be comfortable and productive, designing optimal experiences for companies, cultures, project teams, and individuals.”

The most successful of those spaces, Coleman says, are, in some way, recognizable to users—and not necessarily from the traditional workplace.

“There is a familiarity to the architecture that we’re giving people from their normal, everyday lives,” Coleman says of the living-room style lounges and funky diner-style booths that can be found in Google buildings around the world.

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Photo: Peter Wurmli

A look at Google’s Zurich office, a project led by Coleman, reveals inspiration from less everyday sources, as well: Refurbished gondolas converted into conference-call spaces, a “jungle room,” overrun with leafy green plants, and egg-shaped conference pods in various states of décor are but a few of the remarkable interior touches.

Beyond workspaces themselves, Coleman spends a lot of time thinking about how people travel between points, and how they interact with one another along the way—“engaging in diverse activities and promoting collegiality, interaction, and fun while maintaining a healthy work-life balance,” as Coleman puts it.

“You’re only at your desk 30 to 40 percent of the day, on average,” Coleman says. “You’re always going somewhere to do something. We try to map that out. We’re careful to look at the routes of what’s happening, and we create respites where people who haven’t seen each other in a week can connect. It’s the water cooler idea, in a more sophisticated manner.”

Functional spaces will always be paramount when designing offices, but Coleman also likes to talk about something he feels corporate architects sometimes neglect: Mood. “It’s a sense of scale,” he explains. “It’s kind of like a boutique hotel. They
don’t have a lot of space, and they’re on a budget, but they create these places that are intimate and warm. Everything is thoughtful with respect to scale, while creating different possibilities that delight the occupants.”

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Photo: Peter Wurmli

If Coleman has learned one lesson, it’s that his work is meaningless without buy-in from the space’s occupants. “In far too many offices, designers and architects are making decisions in a bubble,” he says. On successful Google projects in New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Sydney, and Zurich, Coleman created committees composed of end users that interviewed architects and made decisions throughout the project.

“Through this unique and simple process, end users take full ownership of the project,” he says. “It’s never about the architect or me.”

–CALEB COCHRAN

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