June 1, 2007
Diller, Gehry, and the Glass Schooner on 18th Street
How Studios Architecture navigated between the world’s most demanding client and the world’s most famous architect
I had to ask Barry Diller about the black pencils. They are everywhere. In the new InterActiveCorp (IAC) headquarters, on West 18th Street—an interior brimming with glass-filtered light bouncing off warm wood furniture, eye-catching fabrics, multihued tiles, and bold idiosyncratic wall graphics—you can find one detail in basic black. Standing in cups, ready for action, extra-thick and irresistible, is an abundance of No. 2 soft lead pencils with the IAC logo on them in white. An employee who would not allow her name to be used volunteered that they were “someone’s obsession, you can guess whose.”
“There’s only one pencil I like using, and it’s a No. 2 soft,” Diller tells me over the phone while traveling somewhere. He sounds rushed and complains, suggesting that I may have spent more time in his new Frank Gehry landmark than he has recently. I joke that no one has an excuse for not taking notes in any of his pencil-equipped conference rooms, and he remarks that the pencils in fact deliver a different message. “Anything can be erased,” he says. “Really?” I ask. “Well, it’s implied absolutely,” he replies.
Diller has not been thinking much about erasing lately, unless it’s the details still left on his many-page punch list. “All I see are the mistakes, the screws turned the wrong way, the things that are all essentially my fault,” he says. “I’ll either find a way to fix them or get used to them.” After an exasperated pause, he adds, “Don’t get me wrong, Frank Gehry’s work is extraordinary. The building is wonderful.” He thinks for a moment. “I think the entrance to the building is in the wrong place, and I think Frank agrees.… It really should be on the other street.… Nothing to be done.… Nothing to be done.”
There is an understated power and an overstated attention to detail in this mysterious work space rising out of the postindustrial rust and brick of Chelsea. The question of whether it’s a fashionably decked-out yacht trying to hitchhike up the West Side Highway, a majestic schooner of misted glass hoisting the flag of Diller’s Internet empire, or some eerie urban ship lost in the fog is quickly forgotten once inside. Unlike most of Gehry’s work, this building actually looks better on the inside. That’s not to say that the interior looks better than the exterior, but everywhere you go in this glass house of offices the exterior is on display. The workers inside get the best view of IAC’s lines and surfaces. There are the odd angles of glass that curve tantalizingly back into view of work spaces, surfaces that easily and deliberately mix the building’s silhouette with reflected images of the city. There’s the nighttime view, which is already pretty spectacular from outside; but from inside, the mixing of the pointillist lights of Manhattan with the colorful brilliance of the interior puts each worker inside an ever-changing sculpture of glass and light.
Achieving these effects involved what designers close to the project say was a very unusual collaboration between Diller and Gehry. Studios Architecture was the lead firm on the interior, and architect Todd DeGarmo says the intent all along was to find a way to mute the overwhelming gestures of Gehry’s exterior and allow the diverse culture of IAC’s various businesses (Ticketmaster, LendingTree, Match.com, Ask.com, Shoebuy.com, and nearly 60 others) to emerge while integrating the two visions into a coherent whole. “We were brought in late in the game very deliberately by Gehry Partners, who knew that it was up to us to deliver a Barry Diller, not a Frank Gehry, interior.” DeGarmo, CEO and senior partner at Studios, began work on the IAC building in March 2005. “Gehry’s office asked if we could pull off something that Barry wanted without compromising the architect’s work.”
Studios had one big advantage going into the project: they were experienced at integrating technology into work spaces and had already pulled off a big-ticket technology-rich project for the Bloomberg building in Midtown. DeGarmo understood that working with Diller would be different than it was with Bloomberg. Studios had already seen the enormous effort designers were pouring into anticipating Diller’s tastes. Studios principal Tom Krizmanic says it was generally impossible to learn from their mistakes. “Everyone had their own idea of what he wanted, and often they were pretty off the wall and off the mark.”
“If Barry has seen it before, he will probably reject it,” DeGarmo says. “He doesn’t like things techie or iconic. There was the challenge of integrating the technology into the work space without making things look techie.” Brandston Partnership’s Thomas Thomson, the lighting designer for the project, was surprised to discover that Diller delegated very little, even on the interior detailing. All of the designers commented on how focused he was on decorative accents of all types.
“We showed Barry samples of colored tiles in various patterns, one warm and the other cooler,” DeGarmo remembers. “Barry said, ‘I’d like to do both of them. Let’s alternate floors with the patterns.’ When I said, ‘Well, that would not really work,’ it was clear the meeting was over.” Not surprisingly, the patterns ended up alternating, and the effect gives each floor a distinct identity, even if it isn’t clear what IAC businesses are grouped together or why. DeGarmo says that in his initial resistance to the way Diller liked to do things he learned a lot. “If he didn’t like something—and sometimes he didn’t like anything—he always explained why,” he says with a bit of a wince. “But he always showed up on time. If he said he needed to take a phone call for five minutes, he would be back in five minutes. He always said thank you. He was very thoughtful and didn’t need things to be overpresented. It became a more organic design process, where we were finding our way by instinct rather than constructing something according to a fixed master plan. If we had understood that earlier, it would have helped us.”
Diller’s touch is particularly evident in the bathrooms. The walls are of brightly lit colorfully accented tiles: Mondrian meets Broadway theater dressing room, perhaps. Thomson says the project didn’t feel like a corporate job at all. “This was a pretty big building, but more than anything it felt residential due to his involvement. It was way more than for a typical corporate client.”
The boss recoils at the suggestion that this was anything like a residential project. “I don’t know why anyone would say that,” Diller says. “People who care about how things turn out care about details.” In some ways, Diller’s experience in bringing this building to life can be compared to his many years in Hollywood making movies. “A building is a narrative, but it’s more complex than a traditional narrative form,” he says, reminded of his trusty No. 2 pencils. “Most good narrative comes from rewriting. But when they actually start digging, you can’t erase.” He sounds genuinely amazed about this. “You can’t rewrite. Well,” he says after a pause, “you can do some things, but you can’t rewrite once there’s a hole in the ground.”
The “some things” that may have been equivalent to rewriting seem to have taken place in the interior-design process. While Thomson worked closely with Gehry Partners on the lighting arrangement to keep the building interior looking clean and consistent with the exterior lines, Studios worked on maximizing the efficiency of a space where no two floor or ceiling plates matched. “They always wanted the closed offices to be constructed of glass to allow light to flow through the building,” Krizmanic explains. Unlike conventional workplaces, where the most important people in the hierarchy have offices nearest the windows, here Diller insisted that the broadest population of workers have access to the exterior light and the best views. The common area on the ninth floor, including a snack commissary and places to sit and work, overlooks the Hudson. In this completely wireless building, voice-over-Internet phone connections follow employees wherever they are, and a work desk can literally be anywhere in the building.
The exception is the sixth floor, where the more traditional closed executive offices are located; the effect is startling from the moment you get out of the elevators. It is something Diller regrets, even though his own office is part of the problem. “I actually think the sixth floor is totally counterpoint to the rest of the building, but there it is. It’s thoughtless. We never spent two minutes thinking about it. Someday we’ll change it, but there it is.”
There were a few things Diller liked that teetered toward the bizarre and were discarded. Gehry had a plan to shade the building with an automatic Roman shade made of fabric that would gather as it ascended and contracted. Because there was no space for the gathering at the tops of the windows, and the shapes didn’t lend themselves to smooth deployment and retraction, the whole effect clashed with the smooth lines of the exterior.
“It looked like underwear petticoats,” Krizmanic says. “Diller definitely said he liked that. I don’t know if it was the underpants he liked or just the look of it.” It was clear that Krizmanic had never asked Diller about that distinction, and I was not planning to dispel the man’s air of mystery by asking him about undergarments. In the end, the idea was scrapped because it was aesthetically unappealing. The current shades are a straight fabric that is remarkably unobtrusive, cut in different shapes and held in place by guide wires. “When they deploy and roll out late in the afternoon in their diverse shapes, some moving up and others down, it makes the building seem like it is alive,” DeGarmo says proudly.
The relationship between Diller and Gehry, which the interior team glimpsed only occasionally, was particularly fun to watch. The designers recall a meeting at one of the full-scale mock-ups in Connecticut where Diller and Gehry flew in on a helicopter. They walked around eating coleslaw out of paper cups with swizzle sticks and working the remote controls for the lighting and the shade prototypes. “I can’t think of anything to compare their relationship to,” DeGarmo says. I throw out some possibilities, and when I get to Louis XIV, he and the others on the Studios team say almost in unison, “Yeah, something like that,” although DeGarmo says it was hard to know who was king at any given moment. “And they were always very engaging and curious even if the pressure was on.”
Through that colorfully unorthodox collaboration, Diller may have accomplished something unprecedented. He’s turned a Frank Gehry building into a performance space for Barry Diller, although this is not a subject he is terribly interested in addressing. His priority, he says, was to build an open flat space with lots of light for people in his various companies to work and to get to know one another. While designers have suggested that to spend time in the building is to be among Diller’s professional obsessions, like No. 2 soft black pencils, Diller says the building conveys only one thing about him to his employees: “Certainly they would learn that I like boats. That’s about it.”