April 1, 2010
Mix It Up
200 Fifth Avenue—an old and venerable building in New York’s Flatiron District—gets a stunning modern makeover by Studios Architecture.
Tor Myhren laughed.
He sat in black slacks and yellow sneakers in a glassy meeting room. Manhattan’s 23rd Street lay just below. It was mid-February, and he had been explaining his ideas for the splashy new headquarters of Grey Group, the advertising giant that gave the world “Choosy Moms Choose Jif” and Playtex bras on TV. Three months earlier, the company had moved into a downtown landmark building formally known as the International Toy Center, after spending nearly half of its 93 years in a midtown skyscraper straight out of Mad Men. “This was a totally, totally raw space, and I said to the architects, ‘Let’s keep it as open and as close to this as possible,’” says Myhren, Grey New York’s chief creative officer, his legs neatly crossed in a vintage Wassily chair. “At one point, I was getting really mad at them, saying, ‘Why did you put a wall here?’ They were like, ‘It’s a bathroom, Tor.’”
His laugh was quick and dry. Myhren is a hands-on boss, the sort who signs off on everything from the latest Super Bowl ad to which band plays the company party. He sees the agency as an extension of his personality and has been known to pass out copies of The Fountainhead to creative staff. Around him, his vision had sprouted to life: exposed ceilings, floors scrubbed to their original reddish concrete, glass every which way. So much glass it could have been a display case or a panopticon, depending on whom you asked, and instead of private offices, workers sat at communal tables. “Our business is all about collaboration, sharing, taking an idea, playing on it, layering another idea on top of it. That was physically impossible in the old space,” Myhren says. “Here, you walk in, there’s light, energy, the neighborhood, the street.” That the headquarters became a tribute to collectivism from a fan of Ayn Rand, the poet laureate of individualism, is clearly not lost on Myhren or on the building itself. On an exposed wall behind him, someone had scribbled the first line of The Fountainhead: “Howard Roark laughed.”
These are tricky times for the industry. Ad agencies are under tremendous pressure to distance themselves from Madison Avenue, as the old methods for the hard sell—the sensational print ad, the 30-second TV spot—collapse under the weight of the Internet. Razzle-dazzle offices are a relatively cheap way to telegraph to clients that “We’re with it!” without necessarily being with it. They’re the new office-party ice sculpture.
Some agencies throw Astroturf on the walls. Others decorate with carousel horses. Grey’s headquarters in the heart of the Flatiron District blows them all away. Spread over the lower floors of a 15-story monolith that was all but boarded up three years ago, it’s a triumph of urban preservation in a neighborhood defined by its architectural heritage. In a few masterstrokes, Studios Architecture transformed a creaky old building into an airy, loftlike confection tethered effortlessly to its surroundings, and thus provided Grey the best possible self-advertisement: its own offices. “Let’s face it, it’s a business of cool,” Grey’s CEO, James Heekin III, says. “The move was an affirmation of where we wanted to take the agency.” Don Draper, it seems, has gone beatnik.
Earlier that week, 200 Fifth Avenue looked gorgeously radiant. Snowy light from a window facing east onto Madison Square Park flooded the second-floor lobby and slipped over the Hans Wegner chairs in the waiting area and the curious wall art: three gold monkey heads exploding from the canvas (a Myhren touch). The light continued through a freshly rebuilt courtyard, then seeped into the other side of the building, where creatives busied themselves shilling stuff to the American public. “This is the main space,” Tom Krizmanic, a Studios principal, announced. “It’s still connected to the park, so it’s got this amazing New York feel. And now it’s looking to the future with this modern addition.” He gestured to the courtyard, which cozily framed the snowfall. Damned if it didn’t look like an advertisement.
Four years ago, Grey was the Talbots of advertising—big, reliable, and terribly dowdy. It had convinced America to glut itself on Olive Garden breadsticks and lather up in Pantene for hair so healthy it shines, but buzzy campaigns—the sort that get noticed in a crowded media landscape—weren’t its bailiwick. After the communications conglomerate WPP bought Grey in 2005, Heekin, the newly minted CEO, set the agency on a different course: new people, new branding, new headquarters. Those efforts are finally paying off. Last year, Grey landed 17 of 18 new pitches, including campaigns for the NFL and T.J. Maxx, and fattened its operating profits by 44 percent, at a time when other ad firms were picking pennies off the ground. The creatives produced good work along the way, managing to make a financial-services company interesting with some sassy talking babies, and turning footage of the Saints running back Reggie Bush diving into the end zone into something approaching art. “That was what was going on, but all in the old boxy building,” Heekin says. “So to move down here was incredibly symbolic for us.”
In the old toy center, Grey found its architectural soul mate. Designed in 1909 by Maynicke & Franke, the Fifth Avenue building appears as a squat fortress beneath some of Manhattan’s earliest skyscrapers. Daniel Burnham’s bow-shaped Flatiron Building is kitty-corner to the south; and just east across Madison Square Park, the gilded cupolas of the Metropolitan Life and New York Life towers rise majestically over the trees. When it was built, 200 Fifth Avenue was considered wildly innovative. Floors formed a U around a white-terra-cotta inner courtyard that threw light indoors, recalling the Beaux Arts buildings of Europe. Most of its days, however, were spent in the dark, its showrooms blacked out and little used. By World War II, the building had become the New York nerve center of major toy manufacturers worldwide. But like the slaughterhouses of the Meatpacking District and the clothing manufacturers of the Garment District, the toy companies dispersed years ago. The last tenants left the toy center in 2007, deepening the neighborhood void.
The developer David W. Levinson purchased the building that year, after visiting it with Studios’ CEO, Todd DeGarmo. Together they set about restoring its place in the Flatiron District. As DeGarmo saw it, 200 Fifth Avenue had plenty of built-in assets: the original facade, the terra-cotta courtyard, the views of the park, the unprecedented amounts of light. It just needed some tweaking. “We could see, by doing a few simple big moves, we could change the perception of the building and create something really unique,” he says.
The first step was to close off the U, which left dead ends on floors along the building’s west side, choking circulation. By shortening the courtyard on the lower levels, then filling it with floor space, they turned the U into a doughnut. That created a vast, column-free expanse on the second floor, which Grey uses for big confabs and calls the “town hall.” Three landscaped terraces around the courtyard usher in the outdoors, and a balustraded rooftop deck affords views of the city’s marquee architecture. A 15-story glass curtain wall thrown up on the inner eastern wall dispatches light straight through the building, completing the architectural set piece.
These “few simple big moves” work to connect the inside and the outside. The city appears from just about every spot in the building, whether you’re standing in front of the old arched windows looking out onto 23rd Street, or in the recesses of the ground-floor lobby. What’s more, passersby now have unobstructed views into the building for the first time in decades. At press time, a chichi Italian marketplace had signed on for 32,000 square feet at street level, completing the transformation of 200 Fifth Avenue. “It was kind of a black hole,” DeGarmo says. “This was the key missing piece in the renaissance of Madison Square.”
DeGarmo immediately marked 200 Fifth Avenue for an advertising company. His firm had designed interiors for Bloomberg and IAC and knew the key ingredients of a corporate-creative office. “The peak of activity at an ad agency is around the pitch for new business,” he says. “Essentially they want to grab the attention of potential clients the moment they walk in the door and manipulate it the whole time.” WPP agreed to lease six floors and sent in 1,200 employees from Grey and its marketing and PR companies. In the old building, the agency had 21 floors. (Grey insists the decision wasn’t financially motivated, but it’s hard to imagine that money didn’t at least play some role in a move that shed 110,000 square feet.)
Working with floor plates as large as football fields, Studios made a heroic effort to humanize the place. Desks never stray far from windows, and work areas are littered with break rooms and whimsically placed furniture—beach loungers in front of a window, a bed in a glass conference room (for, um, inspiration?). Many of the midcentury pieces were recycled from Grey’s own warehouse in New Jersey, a decision that will help the building earn LEED Gold certification. A vast collection of lighting fixtures and reclaimed oak planks slapped onto walls, reception desks, benches, and tables keep the headquarters from looking like an insurance agency. Generous kitchens make it feel like home.
There were battles. Myhren hated anything overtly corporate, including fluorescent lighting. Instead, he pushed for incandescents. The problem: they would have violated New York state energy code, so Studios scattered fluorescent tubes over work zones, like pickup sticks, for an artier aesthetic (see “Lighting,” page 85). Myhren also hated carpet. Again, too corporate. Studios insisted the space would be terrifically loud—and costly—without it. Myhren was firm. “There were about four meetings in a row where we’d end the meeting and say, ‘Guys, next time you come back, it has to be concrete,’ ” Myhren says. “They’d come back, and they’d have carpet. We’d be like, ‘What the F? What’s going on?’ Finally, we put our foot down. There was yelling in the final meeting.” He added, “In the end, I think everyone won the right battles.”
But as it turned out, the architects were right. Sanding down the floors proved so expensive that Grey didn’t have enough money left over to finish the ceilings. Aesthetically, it’s fine—great, even. The exposed pipes look fantastic against the concrete floors; as Myhren himself might say, they’re totally, totally raw. But aurally they’re a mess. Chatter in the bullpens mushrooms into a shout, and parties in the nearby town hall—and there are many—sound like a Slayer show. “Now that we’re in open seating, we have really good headphones,” Josh Rabinowitz, Grey’s director of music, says wistfully. Such complaints are inevitable when privacy is compromised. But the spontaneous nature of advertising might be particularly ill-suited to open-floor plans and the work habits they supposedly nurture. “Collaboration and transparency are the enemy of creativity,” says George Lois, the illustrious adman. “You could put five great art directors and five great writers in a room together, and you know what you’ve got? A shit fight.”
There’s a cautionary tale in the annals of ad-office design. Back in the 1990s, TBWA Chiat Day was an agency desperate for rebirth, so Jay Chiat turned the workplace into a “virtual office,” stripping employees of desks, drawers, and pretty much any sign of personal space. It was supposed to convey the firm’s unfettered modernity. Instead, it turned into a latter-day Stanford Prison Experiment. Employees became paranoid and defiant, and their productivity plummeted; within three years, the whole thing fell to pieces. Grey’s no Chiat Day, but the new headquarters approaches that murky zone where great architecture might not equal a perfect place to work. I asked Todd Tilford, Myhren’s second-in-command and himself a Rand devotee, about the seeming contradiction of espousing objectivism, then thrusting employees into a space where they’re expected to behave like they’re on a kibbutz. “If I have my idea,” he says, tapping his own shoulder, “and you have your idea”—he tapped my shoulder—“we can combine them. Improve them. Produce an even better idea. See what I mean?” But what about the virtues of the singular vision? He tapped his shoulder again, then mine. “I have an idea. You have an idea. We feed off each other …”
Myhren, in fact, worked at Chiat Day after the mutiny. Which might explain why he readied his staff for the new building by yanking them out of their private offices and forcing them into bullpens on the second floor of the old building years before the real move. And it also might explain why he informed them via a video later posted on YouTube, in which he horridly sang his own version of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” shaved head and all. (Sample lyric: “I know that leaving your big office is sometimes hard,/but the thing is, you don’t really have a choice.”) And that might explain why Grey contacted a business psychologist about a plan to give the staff “space therapy.” Sessions would focus on “mourning the loss of the old offices,” developing new “rules of engagement” (like bans on smacking gum and eating tuna), and “leveraging the advantages of the new space,” Grey’s psychologist, Joel Mausner says.
At a housewarming party a couple of weeks later, the space was being plenty leveraged. Supermodels and journalists and vaguely familiar TV personalities quaffed vast quantities of Ketel One vodka (a Grey client) as San Francisco’s “hottest DJ,” to quote the invite, presided over the turntables and a couple made out in an open photo booth. Upstairs, anyone who wanted to check a coat passed three actors in a vitrine watching a TV screen in their underwear. Performance art. A brass band appeared. They zigzagged around a snarl of people in Buddy Holly specs, the crowd drunker now, rowdier. It wouldn’t be long before Grey’s casting director began coolly twisting alongside a clutch of models. Outside, snow fluttered to the ground. The old toy center groaned under its glassy new sheen. In the courtyard, visible from just about anywhere in the building, an ice sculpture glittered in the party lights. It said, “Grey.”
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