June 1, 2011
A San Francisco firm known largely for its conceptual work redesigns a workplace on a shoestring budget—and then is invited to move in with the client.
Entering the ground floor of Obscura Digital’s San Francisco office is like walking into a garage where projects destined for the Burning Man festival are in progress. You can step inside a giant geodesic dome and be immersed in a planetarium-style video presentation, hit a ball on a “pool” table and create virtual ripples, or browse through a collection of rock-star memorabilia projections on a big touch wall. On a recent visit, two guys tested the swivel action on an immense projector cage, while in a corner lab, a technician wearing a safety mask played with infrared lasers, calibrating their sensitivity to finger gestures. A row of street-legal dirt bikes belonging to employees were parked next to a grand piano with a sign that read, “Not a Desk.” (The company produces its own audio.)
Overlooking this activity on the level above are the offices of the architects Lisa Iwamoto and Craig Scott. Like Obscura Digital, IwamotoScott is familiar with the sci-fi realm. Best known for its conceptual projects, the firm has conjured up a 2108 San Francisco with a forest of undulating towers to contend with sea-level rise (winner of a History Channel competition) and designed a hypothetical house that glows as it irradiates rainwater and another that funnels fog into a viewing gallery at its center. One of IwamotoScott’s first built works, the Obscura Digital offices are a vivid illustration of how these young architects navigated the constraints of a commercial renovation—from an extremely tight budget and exacting fire codes to the input of a feng-shui consultant—and still realized their aesthetic goals.
In 2008, Obscura Digital—which has projected video images onto facades of the Guggenheim Museum, in New York, and the Sydney Opera House—began contemplating a new work space. For its first ten years, it toiled in a warren of ad-hoc offices inside a 1907 brick-and-timber warehouse in the South Park neighborhood. “It was scary for visitors,” says Travis Threlkel, Obscura’s cofounder and chief creative officer. “It was dirty, dark, and there was no organization. We were separated from each other. It was hard to work, because we’d be like, ‘Wait, where’s James?’ and the response would be ‘Oh, he’s in the back corner of the third floor, programming.’ We were ready to come to the end of our chaos era.”
Threlkel and cofounder Chris Lejeune found a recently modernized, 36,000-square-foot warehouse in the Dogpatch, an up-and-coming industrial neighborhood in the southern part of the city. The 1940s building had the benefit of copious natural light and a recent seismic upgrade. The founders asked Iwamoto and Scott, who had become their friends during the course of working on other projects, if they’d make the building work for Obscura’s needs—and asked them if they’d like to move in as well.
The architects suggested an exchange: they’d do the work for free in return for rent-free office space, in a time-honored tradition of barter between friends. “It wasn’t a formalized agreement but a pretty casual thing,” Iwamoto says. “Obscura by nature is collaborative. The hope is that by sharing space, we’ll have the advantage of seeing their process and what can be done with digital media, and they’ll get an idea of the architectural possibilities.”
Even though sleek images are the firm’s stock in trade, Obscura Digital’s old offices had been low-budget DIY, so the company had to readjust its notion of what the renovation would cost. “The budget was challenging,” Iwamoto says.
“It still ended up being only about $28 a square foot, which usually just gets you new carpet and paint for an interior renovation.” Adds Scott, “We tried to be strategic and put the design effort into just a few moves.” The architects left the existing carpeting and finishes alone, reused metal railings, and specified inexpensive materials for their additions. From their work on installations for design institutions—prestigious commissions with meager honoraria—they knew how to make things that would provide a lot of visual pop for the dollar.
To give the offices a focal point, IwamotoScott added a stand-alone conference room, a black cube with a black interior. But instead of making it a perfect geometric shape, the architects gave it a sharp cut on one side, as if the wall were a sheet of foldable paper. Inside the conference room, visitors get a view of the company’s 30-foot-wide geodesic dome, sitting on the ground level. Among their few big moves, the architects sliced a large opening on the main floor, making room for the tall dome as well as creating a clear visual connection between the business side and the prototyping work below.
In its initial plan, IwamotoScott placed the partners at the back of the main level, an area that had the most natural light. But Obscura Digital brought in a feng-shui consultant, who advised that management be closer to the front of the building, since that was the direction of the tallest hill in the area and energy would then flow downward from the partners. “So we ended up in the brightest space, which was nice for us,” Iwamoto says.
The management’s offices are partitioned off with translucent PolyGal, which draws light in from the main space but still provides privacy. The architects also kept in mind the company’s casual culture by making the offices large, between 300 and 600 square feet, so they could function like mini meeting rooms and have more flexibility than conventional offices. “You could start a whole company in one of these offices,” says Threlkel, whose own office is in the back next to IwamotoScott in order to “vibe off of them.”
The rest of the main level is largely open work space. The mezzanine level had to be enclosed once the floor was opened because of fire regulations. However, this move turned out to be a boon, since the art and programming staff needs a quiet and controlled environment. “The new space is similar in size to our old offices,” says Lejeune, the chief operating officer. “It just became a lot more usable space.”
After moving in about a year ago, the company founders say, the difference is like night and day. “It’s been a massive transition that has completely affected our organization. I don’t even know if we were exactly an organization before. It was too dark to know what was going on,” Threlkel laughs. “Communication has been much more effective. You get a cohesive sense of what everyone is doing,” says Lejeune, who also mentions that company morale is noticeably better.
The two firms’ initial collaborations give them a sense of how they can work together, and their mash-up of cyberpunk and design smarts does seem ideally suited to generating new types of entertainment venues. For their first project, they created a glass-floored theater that would let well-heeled visitors fly over the fantasy paradise of the unbuilt Palm Deira in Dubai. “It was like an immersive time-machine and real-estate simulator,” Threlkel says. Recently, the companies have been noodling around on a design for a mobile performance theater that employs inflatable tubes.
And now that they’re in close proximity, they have the flexibility to experiment. “As opportunities come up, we can fit them around our other projects,” Scott says. “It’s easier with this more casual style of working together.” Will this organic collaboration lead us to expect more from our buildings, as digital bedazzlements become integrated into the architecture itself? Threlkel thinks so. “OLEDs and other technologies to create illuminated pixels are going to be on more typical surfaces, allowing information to be painted on architecture,” he says. “This is the territory that has just started to be explored and where we hope to go a lot farther with Craig and Lisa.”