The new headquarters of American Telephone & Telegraph Company Eastern Region Long Lines in Fairfax County near Oakton looks like a friendly flower factory.
In a forthright manner, it also comes to refreshing terms with two tough architectural problems: suburbia and office design.
Suburbia used to be the place where people who could afford it would settle to bring up their children away from the wicked city and close to the bosom of Mother Nature. The dream instantly found its architectural form -- a dull, green sea of small, single family houses, which are meant to look as varied and as cozy as possible and surrounded by as much lawn and shrubbery as the mortgage allows.
When buildings other than subdivision homes intrude, they never know how to dress or behave. Townhouses in the country look silly. Apartment and office high-rises are painfully aware that they are despised and out of place. Industrial plants wrap themselves in self-advertisements.
Like insecure people who feel awkward about having crashed a party, these buildings shamelessly show off and make themselves far more obnoxious than necessary.
The AT&T Oakton building, designed by New York City architects Kohn Pederson Fox Associates, in one of the few attractive large suburban office buildings I have seen. Most office buildings in suburbia look as though they were designed for New York's Fifth Avenue but accidently dropped on a cow pasture. They sport a predominant street facade (although there is no street), a prominent entrance and lobby (although everyone enters from the parking lot) and seem hell-bent on getting attention (although there is not competition for miles around).
The AT&T building, however, makes itself comfortably at home in its suburban surroundings.
Its architects acknowledged they had lots of space (34 acres), so their building spreads out and rambles a bit. They acknowledged that suburbia still pretends to a "residential character," so they broke up their 427,000-square-foot building into a complex of varying small units. They also use the same brick as an adjoining subdivision.
Nor is there a front or a back. The building is handsome from all sides. Its configuration changes surprisingly as you drive around it (whoever walks in suburbia?). And its dominant features -- a huge glass vault and rounded, glazed porch -- are reminescent of a greenhouse, a veranda and soft, suburban virtues.
William Pedersen, chief designer, also did much to maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages of its suburban location.
The suburban advantages are green views and an abundance of daylight. Pedersen has so designed this office that most workers can tell what the weather is like without leaving their desks. The corridors, lounges and cafeteria under those glass vaults and glazed veranda are as bright as outdoors.
The disadvantages is isolation. Downtown office workers can break their work routine by lunching at different restaurants and/or using their breaks to run errands, or sit in the park and feed pigeons. Suburban office workers must be given pamphlets listing all the civilized attractions and services within 15 minutes driving time.
AT&T printed such a pamplet, but its building also tries to make up by providing as much environmental and visual stimulation as an office building can reasonably be expected to provide. A glorious "galleria," almost as impressive as the famous one at Milan, forms the spine of the building complex.
Substituting for a city street, it has benches and ficus trees and is still awaiting an information kiosk. Everyone in the building has to use it to go in and out or from one wing to another. It is designed to lead to spontaneous encounters, a little diversion, a sense of feeling part of humanity rather than of a work force or "company team."
The galleria also allows easy expansion of the complex. A new wing or "pod" can simply be added to this central spine like another arm, without disturbing work in the existing wings.
The company cafeteria, which seats more than 500 people, is a crescent-shaped, two-level, glass-enclosed hall whose simple door could compete with any expensive downtown restaurant, except that AT&T's view is better. The crescent makes the space look smaller and more intimate than it is.
I don't know about the quality of the food, since I visited on a holiday, but I was encouraged to see real chine and flatware.
The building is less successful in solving the bane of suburbia -- the macadam desert. There was money only to surround the vast parking lot with conifers, but not enough to hide the cars. A tree-lined, ramrod-straight walkway, such as you might find in Versailles, divides the parking lot and leads to one of the entrances. But this formal walkway does not properly connect with the parked cars, so people will either trample its grass edge or ignore its well-meant nobility.
As to office design -- most design skills these days are devoted to making offices look impressive and function efficiently. But neither marble and tapestries in the lobby, nor the clever arrangements of work stations and water coolers contribute to the comfort of clerks, who spend more time in their offices than they do in their living rooms. I doubt that -- social benefits and shorter hours aside -- the average American white-collar worker enjoys substantially better working conditions today than he or she did 100 years ago. sIs staring at a flickering computer terminal all day an improvement over wielding a quill?
The nearly 2,000 employes in the AT&T Oakton building, who take care of the long-distance telephone network in this area, work, nevertheless, in an enviably calm and friendly atmosphere that reminds me more of a library than an electronic management center.
People work in carrels made of low oak partitions and oak furniture arranged in orderly rows. The layout seems to me a happy compromise between the flexible chaos of the "open office," or "office landscape," and the rigid regimentation of office stall. People see one another above the low partitions, but they also have some privacy.
The colors are muted. The computer gadgets are inconspicuous. I suppose AT&T is so immersed in technology that it need not tout "high tech" in its surroundings.
The working stations seem spacious, yet the architects tell me that the building allots only 263 square feet per person, while other, more sumptuous office buildings provide 300 and even 500 square feet. This attests as much to the architects' skills as the beauty of their glass-enclosed exterior stair towers and the startling effect of seeing structural columns behind glass, like mannequins in a display window.
What is lacking are legitimate opportunities for individual self-expression at the workplace. Employes are not allowed to bring their own African violets or ferns -- at least for the time being -- for fear plant diseases might infect the company's plants. Pinups, or even tape-ons, are also verboten because they might mar the furniture. We still need a corporate architecture that allows "personnel" to be persons, too.
But that is a small complaint about a most attractive work of architecture and a cheerful working environment.