MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Flight from symbolism?

We are developing a proposal for a major new project in which the word "symbolism" emerged as a value to our client. I do not believe I have heard this word from a client as a key criterion in all of my career. I am delighted!

It reminded me of a very interesting event in my experience. I had been working on this project for close to a decade, and now had about 3.5 million square feet under construction.

In addition to my role as design lead, I had also been directing the master planning of the project. We had always protected a place in the landscape for the corporate headquarters of this organization (this was their technical center, as well), and it was now time to define just what headquarters should be.

Based on a sensed set of priorities and principles of the Chairman and his CEO, we prepared two models to insert into the larger model of the overall complex.

One model was a 3-story building with a number of internal courtyards--a very special executive domain, internally reflective and, except for these internal gardens, like the rest of the complex.

The other model was a slender, cylindrical, 21-story tower. It was actually a number of 3-story buildings stacked on top of each other, making a very different kind of high-rise prototype, made more of interconnection than separation and hierarchy.

We presented to the executive committee, a 6-person team of the chairman, the CEO, the CFO, and other key executives. We had a large 6-foot by 6-foot model of the larger complex, currently under construction, on a side table in the Board Room and began our presentation at it. The models of the alternative headquarters buildings were at the side.

I spoke of values for the company. I spoke of perceptions about its singular purpose versus a potential future of a more diverse enterprise. I spoke of the role of the company in the larger context of its industry. I spoke of the very local context of the dramatic turn-around of this company from a bankrupt manufacturer to its rebirth as a leading design organization. I spoke of its current as well as its future culture.

Did I speak too long?

The Chairman, relatively short and unassuming man, but very powerful and visionary, standing at my left shoulder, reached out and picked up the 3-story model and placed in in its spot in the larger model. He spoke of its harmony with the rest of the complex--3.5 million square feet in 3 stories--and the importance for the executive team to be indistinguishable from the 10,000 other people who would work in this complex. This egalitarianism, and sense of common purpose, and culture of dedication to great product would be the future of the organization.

The President, a very tall and charismatic individual, with a 21-story cigar in his mouth, removed the 3-story model and put in its place the 21-story model. He spoke of the importance to announce the new organization with a powerful statement, and establish its place with a new landmark. He spoke of the need to change the "topography" of the complex, to differentiate corporate strategic vision from the more tactical development of product that characterized the rest of the complex, to use the figure of the headquarters as a representation of the design focus of the enterprise.

I found myself pressed in by both of these individuals as, at least another two times, at my shoulders, each removed the other's preferred model and placed his preferred model in place and spoke of its values.

Nothing in our relationship with these men, preceded, of course, by the very laborious process of design vetting by their VP's and facilities people, had anything other than functional and economic considerations in the conversation. To have talked about symbolism would have been to enter into the realm of the absurd.

But now, in this place at the emergence of what would become one of the largest industrial organizations in the world, here were two men using architecture--as symbols--to express their beliefs about the priorities, values, cultures and futures of their organization.

In one of my first lectures in architecture school, I remember an historian talking about how the colonnade represented community---individuals standing together in common purpose. In this current project context, we have a community choosing an historic rotunda--a domed place defined by columns standing in community--as the centerpiece for a new government complex.

What is it that keeps us, in our modern, efficient, cost-conscious, objective age from engaging discussions, and encouraging interpretations, about form as representation of what matters to us...especially with these realizations that our clients, and communities, read what we do as symbols of their shared values?

Hmmm....That picture? It's of the Cleveland Trust Rotunda embraced by a tower by Breuer, only one part of which was built. We are proposing on a new government center for Cuyahoga County on this site, and here is some local discussion:

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Steve Litt