When it comes to designing their own workplaces, architects are in a unique position, inhabiting the roles of both designer and client. Logic dictates that, barring schizophrenic episodes, the practice should end up with something resembling the original plans. Pull it off and the workspace becomes a life-size portfolio showing off the company’s expertise and style. Fail, and there can be no buck-passing onto an unsympathetic client.
Running the gauntlet earlier this year was newly formed Chinese practice LYCS Architecture, headed up by Princeton alumni Hao Ruan. Through a friend, Ruan discovered a derelict lift plant space perched atop an office tower in Hangzhou. The architect was quick to see the building’s potential: “I was very impressed by its non-professionalism – it was just built in the most efficient way,” he says, likening such methods to the ad-hoc approach adopted by the garden designers of ancient China. “A lot of things were worked out on site, and that is in the spirit of the traditional Chinese way of building. In Chinese gardens, the architect is more like a scholar. He drinks a little wine and paints a rendering…”
Despite debris strewn throughout the space, the concrete structure, added to the building’s roof some time in the 1970s, was sound. The main issue was that the floor was actually the original roof and featured a slant to match. “I thought we could make an interesting juxtaposition by adding another layer on top,” says Ruan, so he and his team constructed a new floor 0.8m above the old one. Not wanting to sever the connection between the rough-and-ready original, Ruan cut out five voids across the floor, covering them with removable glass panes. Creating a visual link to building’s history, these voids double up as under-floor display cabinets for architectural models.
LYCS’s neat design solution for allowing access to the lift shaft if needed was to include a small stairway underneath the glass floor. “We thought about putting a fish tank under there, but we couldn’t work out how to make sure it didn’t leak into other parts of the floor,” says Ruan. Although generally a quiet office, the floor has been covered in rubber tiles to further dampen the acoustics.
The practice retained the concrete columns supporting the roof and painted the rest of the space a surgical white. Against this backdrop the columns appear to be ancient menhirs. “We wanted to create a museum-like space, but it is not a pure, delicate white space. We painted over the original walls, for example, so it has this cracked texture.” At 350sq m this is an expansive floor plate and the whiteness only serves to increase the perception of its dimensions. It seems almost too large for LYCS’s ten staff, but with ten projects on the go in a booming city, the practice is expecting to expand.
The workspaces are aligned on the north and south facades, making the most of the large windows (to the south is Hangzhou’s West Lake, a World Heritage Site and the most beautiful lake in China, according the travel brochures). The open-plan layout is extremely flexible and Ruan enjoys the fact that members of his team can see what one another are working on. Breakout and casual meeting space is placed near the entrance, with a more private meeting room at the far end of the office; a decrepit red iron door that originally led onto the roof has been redeployed as the “guardian” to the meeting room. This sort of reuse of materials is a peculiar move for China, a country that is fully embracing the new, but it is an emblem of LYCS’s philosophy. Ruan is critical of the speed of development: “You go into large Chinese practices and it is like a factory or a production line.”
Although he is far from anti-modern, Ruan is more appreciative of the industrial processes that have led China to where it is today. For instance, the practice went to great lengths to display the lift machinery, inserting four windows into the curtain walls so the building’s heritage was not hidden away. The move again taps into LYCS’s notion of an office as an exhibition space, documenting what has gone before.
As time went by the project became a collaborative process between architect and builder. For the lighting, the architects initially opted for spotlights, but were convinced to incorporate strip lights into the steel beams on the ceiling, which throw the light upwards and reflect it back down into the space. The effect is a calming atmosphere, but the project was not all plain sailing: “It was hard because the construction workers could not imagine what the eventual aesthetic would look like,” says Ruan. LYCS also had to battle a building management team that was perplexed by the mix of old and new and wanted something “a little more fancy”. Ruan says that “it took a while for us to explain that this is one of the ways we can do that.”
The timber-topped desks, designed by the architects, express their chosen materials in a straightforward manner and consequently sit well within the space. But the pared-down aesthetic points to a more practical shortcoming: storage. “If I could do it again I would have created some cabinets embedded in the wall or something,” says Ruan. “But we never thought it would be fully completed once it was finished. I thought that when we needed something, we’d just add it on.”