Changing Skyline: Vertical Screen building offers bright ideas for cubicle slaves

The Vertical Screen building features an open interior, above, though workstations are jammed tightly together. Built on a former airfield, its exterior, below, is shaped like a hangar.
The Vertical Screen building features an open interior, above, though workstations are jammed tightly together. Built on a former airfield, its exterior, below, is shaped like a hangar. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 20, 2011

For as long as people have labored in offices, architects have been promising to make the American workplace more bearable. Yet, more often than not, employees spend their days chained to their desks under a nimbus of fluorescent tubes. The only thing recycled is the air, and windows are a mere rumor. People must resort to their computers to find out if it's raining.

The green movement has certainly brought some improvements to the world of the cubicle slave. Eager to win the sweepstakes run by the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program, employers will gladly install energy- and dollar-saving heating and cooling systems. They'll even amp up the window size. But that doesn't mean everyone gets a glimpse of the outside world between 9 and 5.

At the new Warminster headquarters for Vertical Screen, a company that runs background checks for major employers, it's almost impossible not to have a view. The striking, hangar-shaped building by the design crew at Philadelphia's Erdy McHenry Architecture features massive, 43-foot-high mosaics of glass at the two arched ends. Tall glass panels run the length of a third side.

So much natural light pours into the column-free room that only a couple of 60-watt bulbs are needed overhead, even on dull, cloudy days like we've experienced this week. The designers, who were assisted by the sustainability consultants at Re:Vision Architecture in Northern Liberties, rightly put the light where it is needed, on workers' desks. The pinpoint glow of task lamps punctuates the long rows of workstations, which, to be honest, are jammed in as tightly as they are at any corporate colossus.

Let it be said that the resemblance to a conventional, button-down office ends there. The building's designers, Scott Erdy and David McHenry, are the same guys who gave Philadelphia the roughly beautiful Piazza at Schmidts and Drexel University's Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa dorm. Inveterate shape-makers, these designers have always had an endless supply of ideas in their architectural bag of tricks. But at Vertical Screen, their overflowing imaginations have been harnessed to a newfound discipline.

So, yes, Vertical Screen has a knockout form, but one that is also simple and clear. The hangar's gently curved span, held up by laminated ribs of sustainably produced Douglas fir, provides a functional, all-purpose, open-plan container for the company's computer-driven operation. To use the well-worn architectural term coined by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, the building is a shed, a simple box.

The clever part is that the shed is also a kind of duck, in that it conveys its meaning through its form in the Venturi-and-Scott-Brown sense. The building is located on a former airfield, and the hangar shape is an intentional reference to the site's aeronautical past. Built for the Brewster Aeronautical Corp., the leafy compound became the home of Warminster's Naval Air Warfare Center in the 1940s. Several Project Mercury astronauts, including John Glenn, trained on its giant flight simulator, once the world's largest. And then, like so many unwanted military bases, Warminster was decommissioned in the 1990s and turned into a business park.

Unlike a similar development at Philadelphia's Navy Yard, the Warminster Business Center razed whatever historic structures existed and started down its new path as a blank slate. A hotel and a housing complex - both of the most banal, cookie-cutter design - rose on the old base, with little concern for logical site planning.

So, when you first see Vertical Screen from Street Road, it may look like an alien spaceship landed. Located at the end of what used to be a runway, the hangar conjures memories of more glorious times, restoring some lost dignity to the site. Even the ribs holding up the roof are designed to touch the ground like the landing gear of an aircraft.

In no way do those echoes of the past compromise the needs of the present. Given our national preference for open-plan offices, the hangar makes perfect sense. You can put anything inside and arrange it as you wish. Erdy McHenry dials down the room's enormous scale with boxlike conference rooms - green-roofed islands floating in the sea of workstations.

On the west side, near the entrance, the architects installed a two-story box to house Vertical Screen's support functions, including the executive offices, restrooms, a cafeteria, the marketing department, and several lounges. The architects call it a "street," a contemporary take on what Louis Kahn dubbed a "servant space."

A single vertical tower rises near the all-glass north wall. Covered in vines, it provides a constant supply of fresh air.

Erdy McHenry was given a free hand by Vertical Screen's cofounder, Tony D'Orazio. Deeply interested in environmental issues, he asked for the greenest building the pair could deliver.

The architects gave him the works: geothermal wells, a white metal roof topped with solar panels, heat-deflecting glass, under-floor air-conditioning. To reduce waste, D'Orazio provides employees with aluminum water bottles and is planning to compost the food leftovers from the cafeteria. A company garden is planned, too. All these features are expected to win Vertical Screen the first LEED Platinum rating in Bucks County, and the building will use about half the energy of a conventional office.

Vertical Screen differs from many green buildings in that the energy-saving measures are thoroughly embedded in the structure of the design, rather than applied to the surface.

Energy consciousness also is embedded in the art that decorates the building. D'Orazio, drawn to photography that depicts our society's industrial waste and wastelands, outfitted Vertical Screen's walls with large-format, dystopian images by the likes of Edward Burtynsky and Andrew Moore that speak to the true price of our unchecked appetite for carbon. They should keep anyone from griping about the lack of plastic products in the cafeteria.

There's long been a belief among progressive companies that good working conditions make good workers, and architects have been trying for at least a century to respond with the perfect office.

Back in 1906, Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned a modern workplace flooded with natural light from immense windows and provided with a constant stream of fresh air. His Larkin Administration Building in Buffalo was demolished in 1950. For the sake of the Earth, here's hoping that Vertical Screen sticks around for a whole lot longer.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

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