It’s been a while since my last post (umm, in October) and although I wanted to find some time I could devote to writing, there is a very exciting reason why. Over the last two months besides the normal workaday plateful (plus the holidays) there has been a special project I have devoted much time to, and that would be the new offices for Dungan Nequette in the English Village of Mountain Brook. On Wednesday, November the 30th, 2011 at about 10:30am I walked out of my office in downtown Birmingham, after darkening that doorway almost everyday for 12 years, (about four thousand days) to call a new office “home“. It was at once, very exciting and still admittedly a tiny lonely twinge leaving the place where were made all those memories of people patrons and projects- but time continues its headlong rush into the future, and our future is at 1906 Cahaba Road. I have thought and pondered for a while about how to describe this process and the place that has been created, there are many aspects I wish to convey, but almost so much I don’t know where to start. There is the unbelievable job the contractor (Francis Bryant and Sons) did, and the fun we had together in an easy working relationship that was just a beautiful thing. There is the part of being the architect, interior designer and the client all in one and how much fun that was. There is the stretching creatively and taking chances that would not safely be taken with a client for risk of it all blowing up in your face. Then there is the final (well almost final) product of the building- and a space that comes so much farther in making a statement of what you find interesting, what you believe in- and experience of how it elevates your daily work and your feeling of well-being. Gandhi said “happiness is when what you believe and what you do and say are all in alignment“. In a design way of understanding this is much closer to what we hold dear than our former environment ever was or could be.
The exterior was a brick facade with some little parapeted entry with the Gotham city Batman look, but overall was underwhelming while simultaneously not horrible. It had potential but it needed a little love. The lipstick came in the form of a new slate roof from leftover pieces of past projects that the builder had, along with a new limestone entrance and a small drafting room that looks as if a porch was taken in, we call the sunroom. When we were at the building just thinking about the design, it was obvious we would need more space in Louis and my office space. We saw that the footprint would allow us to come forward to the street and I remember saying to Louis that the little extra space would be like our first office, which was the sunroom of his then apartment in Forest Park. How fitting that after all the years it has come full circle. The final design of the street facade to me is of an English ancestry, as it should be if it is to take its place as a happy addition to English Village, but also its quite admittedly Flemish (see below). Which I like also, because a strict adherent to tradition I am not. Of course the detailing is critical for all the exterior pieces, and plenty of thought was given to copper roofs and rafter tails and wood paneling and so forth, when you only have a palatte of roughly 50 feet in width and its in a denser village area, you have to sweat the details, to hold the added attention and scrutiny that the exterior will receive. Lots of people will drive by and not give it a second glance, but others pay attention and appreciate the details- this is for them.
I would say we have designed at least 3 but perhaps 5 offices for ourselves- over the last 7 years, which for one reason or another- never materialized. Maybe all those other layouts prepared us and helped us think through how we would like to live and what kind of a space would help us live that way better. At any rate a building became available owned by a friend in the real estate business, and it was perfect location but the building was not quite the cats meow architecturally or from an interior layout at all what we needed. So we decided to give it facelift on the exterior as well as fairly well GUT the interior (except for bathrooms). We did some sketches over the summer of a face lifted version and began sketching layouts of the inside. After hitting on an open plan where everyone could see across the space, yet have their own slightly more cozy work-space, and open as well as closed conference rooms plus a basement where we can also have meetings but moreover is really going to be like a cozy den- complete with 65 inch tv and small kitchen.
There are of course all the other spaces you would assume like reception, foyer, storage but really, as I have said before in posts its not those amenities as much as it is THE FEEL. The emotional response is the desired culmination of a thousand decisions. Its hard to say exactly, and only time will tell how other people react and use their own words to describe, but to me it feels cozy with a pinch of mystery. So much so in fact that it is noticable people talk lower in the space, not quite in a hushed library way but noticeably is a little respectful of the space and that also because it is quite open. While the openness of the space does emote a little demure sense, its finishes and materials are anything but formal and not in the least way fancy. All the materials are reclaimed, not because its green (though for some that is ample reason) but because they are beautiful, have character, and connect us to the past in an elegant way. We used 4 different kinds of pine flooring of differing widths and colors and textures and refused to let the very diligent installers sand them at all, for love of the randomness and the more you sand them, the more they all look the same. As the French say, vive la difference. Understand that this leaves you with a floor that is not totally flat and in spots a little uneven- just be more aware of your steps. It reminds me of Hundertwasser House in Vienna, Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser actually laid uneven tile floors and planted trees (all over the building) to create a sense of walking through the woods, so this design doesn’t get quite that adventurous, but I figured if Fred could get away with it surely a little unevenness is ok. But perhaps my favorite space in the place is the little drafting room, which has arguably the best view in all of English village. Also makes it hard to hide from clients but I’m just saying…
Surely this design is a culmination of years of looking and borrowing and trying different things, from travels and from standing on the shoulders of giants. Louis Kahn, Charlie Mackintosh, CFA Voysey and many other giants still exert their influence and it seeps through the boards into the work. Many people also played a role in getting it all complete in a fashion that is also very well done including our staff as well we are very thankful to the welders, the carpenters, Clay Klinner (reclaimed wood), Randy Burnham’s Fine Cabinets, Mike White, Grant Trick, and Eric Brandino. Lastly the uber talented team at Francis Bryant & Sons, who were just as easy and friendly to work with as is humanly possible- they did the entire project in 3 months, and never publicly at least without a smile, in a word with aplomb. Its good that it is during this season of Thanksgiving and Christmas when we are thankful for life and freedom and the light coming into the world that we find ourselves in such a place. It is particularly appropriate at this time that we are given a great gift on top of all the others to treasure and enjoy.