Studio Visit: Schiller Projects

John Hill
30. September 2019
Boies Schiller Flexner at 55 Hudson Yards, 2018 (Photo: Matthew Carbone)

Recently World-Architects visited Schiller Projects, a design firm founded by Aaron Schiller in 2013. The firm had just finished a major project at Hudson Yards, in one of the new towers where it also moved its studio.

The end of 2018 saw the completion of 55 Hudson Yards, one of a handful of towers in the first phase of the Hudson Yards mega development on Manhattan's West Side. Also at that time Boies Schiller Flexner (BSF), a law firm with fifteen offices across the United States, took over four floors of the 52-story tower, moving its NYC headquarters into spaces designed by Schiller Projects. BSF is where I met Aaron Schiller, who had just moved his own design studio from a small, dark space in Chinatown to a small, sun-drenched space on the 18th floor of 55 Hudson Yards, just downstairs from BSF. The adjacency was no coincidence, given that the S in BSF is a relative of Aaron Schiller. But as he explained to me after we took a tour of BSF's offices, "friends and family" commissions like these were never given to him; he had to give a presentation and convince them he was the right designer before getting hired. What he and his small firm pulled off across the four floors of 55 Hudson Yards is amazing, not because of these circumstances, but because it looks nothing like a law firm.

Boies Schiller Flexner at 55 Hudson Yards, 2018 (Photo: Matthew Carbone)

Above the main reception desk at BSF is an undulating artwork made with metal beads, one sure sign that something different is afoot in this office. With a large opening in the floor accommodating the suspended sculpture, as well as openings for the adjacent three-story staircase, it's also clear that the layout of the law firm's office in the tower required some foresight and coordination. Having announced their intention to move into 55 Hudson Yards a full three years before it happened, client and architect were able to coordinate with tower architect KPF and their engineers to frame the openings that would lead to the "Wow!" moment at reception. That drama is accentuated by the fact the steel guardrails of the curved stair are all individual pieces: fabricated off-site, the steel stair was cut into 4-foot sections that were craned into place and welded together before the curtain wall was installed. The gentle curve and incline of the stairs make for a gorgeous centerpiece alongside the beaded sculpture, though they also encourage the lawyers to stay active and walk up and down the stairs as they move about the 100,000-square-foot office.

Boies Schiller Flexner at 55 Hudson Yards, 2018 (Photo: Matthew Carbone)

Adjacent to the stair are large conference rooms — their glass walls veiled by the beaded artwork (what feels like an homage to Philip Johnson's design of the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building) — as well as a large cafeteria whose ceiling is a continuation of the sculpture. These spaces are special, but it's the offices beyond them that make BSF far from a traditional law firm. Dark terrazzo walls and textured concrete walls that curve gracefully into the ceilings draw the gaze to the views through the all-glass exterior walls. The fact those views are actually possible arises from two design features: glass-wall partitions and a plan that moves principals in-board, away from the exterior walls. Lawyers, among many other professionals, normally covet the window office or corner office, but BSF's emphasis on collaboration led to an atypical layout more akin to an architecture firm or another creative discipline rather than law. Furthermore, corridors are angled or make the occasional zig-zag to cut down on long, repetitive vistas; combined with co-working spaces, kitchenettes and other amenity spaces, the layout defines memorable areas within the large office. Yet aiding in wayfinding are touchscreens near the elevators, which are also used to book conference rooms for meetings and the like. This technological feature gets at one of the most unique aspects of Schiller Projects.

Boies Schiller Flexner at 55 Hudson Yards, 2018 (Photo: Matthew Carbone)

Next to the typical menu items (About, Projects, Press, Contact) on the website of Schiller Projects is something different: Workplace Strategy. How does Schiller's firm find the best fit for a particular company? In their words: "Our approach combines our team’s capacity for spatial and design thinking with data analytics and measurement." Put simply, they spend a lot of time doing data-heavy analysis before they even tackle design. A mix of research and data collection that consists of site observation, facilities review, employee surveys, workshops, interviews, and other things results in a custom report that expresses the client's current state of affairs and their future potential. The report informs the subsequent design idea but also extends to pieces like the touchscreens at BSF, which can be used to do post-occupancy evaluations and even point to areas for office reconfiguration. 

Boies Schiller Flexner at 55 Hudson Yards, 2018 (Photo: Matthew Carbone)

How did such a data-driven analytical approach come about? In one of the most uncommon paths to becoming an architect, Schiller returned to the US in 2007 after a year at London's Architectural Association, but instead of going to work for an architecture firm he spent the next year and a half working for the Obama administration on its "Camp Obama" platform for community and stakeholder engagement. Among other things, Schiller led large town-hall meetings in a few states, training hundreds of volunteers at a time how to knock on doors, make phone calls, and do other tasks on the campaign trail. Schiller described the 2008 election to me as "the greatest excuse for a national community organizing platform." His work on the campaign was also the genesis for the data-heavy work that defines his practice, something he sees as "increasing the agency of the architect" at a time when such a thing is needed.

Data visualization diagram (Drawing: Schiller Projects)

Lest this walkthrough of the BSF headquarters and brief background on Schiller paint the studio into a corner of space planning and interior architecture for corporate offices, Schiller Projects has undertaken and is working on a variety of other projects. Schiller cut his teeth on a house on Martha's Vineyard, a "friends and family" commission he managed to design and carry out while obtaining his Master of Architecture degree at Yale University, following his time at the AA, Camp Obama, and a stint at Santiago Calatrava's New York office. Current projects see the studio applying its analytical process to studies of wood structures in London and New York City and to a climate-driven residence in the Desert Southwest. Uniting the projects is a contemporary way of collecting, organizing, and processing data in the service of designing better buildings and better spaces.

Aaron Schiller (Photo: Weston Wells, courtesy of Schiller Projects)

A Few Projects by Schiller Projects

Images and text for these projects are courtesy of Schiller Projects.
Chilmark House, with Gray Organschi Architecture, 2016 (Photo: David Sundberg/Esto)
Chilmark House

Designed and built in Chilmark, Massachusetts, the Chilmark House project covers almost five acres of previously unbuilt land in the heart of the farming and artistic community that is “Up-Island” Martha’s Vineyard. Chilmark’s long agrarian history of the windswept southern edge of the Vineyard underpins the design approach to this house and studio for a multi-generational family.  

The site, a former sheep grazing field, overlooks Chilmark Pond, with long views to the Atlantic, and is edged by a series of Chilmark’s massive, meandering stone fences. In deference to the field’s history, and to the simple New England forms that shape the area’s architectural heritage, we developed the house and studio as a pair of barns with low pitched roofs that sit quietly in the landscape. Two buildings form a series of courtyards and outdoor spaces, with varying degrees of privacy and views. In a nod to New England’s bank barns, the long barn is set into the hillside, diminishing its scale from the north and creating direct connections to the outside from both upper and lower levels. 

Chilmark House, with Gray Organschi Architecture, 2016 (Photo: David Sundberg/Esto)

The simple, dark building are approached via a farm road that we designed to meander along the edges of the property through Chilmark’s dense thicket of scrub oak. A broad stair links a large south-facing porch back to the farm road and provided pedestrian access through the field to the beaches beyond.  

Based in a love for the dense aggregation of New England’s farm complexes, we sited the studio and house barns tightly together, creating a charged outdoor space between them, which provides the approach to the home’s entrance. The northwest entry courtyard is edged by a mute, charred cedar wall with screened apertures, creating a private courtyard with views west over the rolling fields and stone fences. Inside the dark buildings, bleaches ash lines all surfaces. The ceilings in the public rooms lift to the high ridges, with dropped areas to create a children’s sleeping loft high in the roof. The lower level creates a series of bedrooms with shared spaces between that look into light wells, landscapes with local rocks and moss. 

Chilmark House, with Gray Organschi Architecture, 2016 (Photo: David Sundberg/Esto)

Boies Schiller Flexner, San Francisco, 2019 (Photo: Eric Laignel)
Boies Schiller Flexner

Boies Schiller Flexner, a long-time resident of the Bay Area, has garnered a reputation of winning litigation work but has never been known for their office spaces. Schiller Projects was engaged to fully envelope and brand their environment in a contemporary manner that reflected the way they wanted to work, the community they are within, the values of the brand, and ultimately improve the foundation of client collaboration.  

At the core of the project, the reception cafe can host up to 200 people or be segmented out into quiet meetings spaces. At the focal point of all circulation routes throughout the facility, this space fosters community and collaboration. Taking its cues from technology companies and the constant change of Silicon Valley, our design solidifies flexibility and integration in an environment that is distinctly future-looking and grounded in views and connection to the city itself. 

Boies Schiller Flexner, San Francisco, 2019 (Photo: Eric Laignel)

Junior associates now enjoy large, open workstations with improved storage, horizontal workspace, and access to light and air. Alternatively, senior associates may elect to share glassed-paneled offices with views to the Golden Gate Bridge or retain similarly ample corner workstations.

Small breakout spaces, metrically tailored to their exact meeting frequency and scale, are distributed evenly throughout the space. Legal support staff are present and available with equal access to office resources, the attorneys and the views.

Boies Schiller Flexner, San Francisco, 2019 (Photo: Eric Laignel)

London Pavilion (Visualization: Schiller Projects)
London Pavilion

The London Pavilion studies the capacities for self-supporting wood structures that minimize environmentally more harmful (steel and concrete) connections or supports. The initial study for a tiled mass timber canopy has evolved into a detailed medium scale application for veneer lumber tiles that are all uniquely fabricated from a single standard sheet good, applied to a single mold to create curvature. This process results in an unlimited possibility for differentiation between the tiles with minimal waste. While each tile is unique the process to make, it is not and the process to install them requires simple labor repeated. The shape of the tiles and the shell responds directly to light wind and rain patterns on our site to optimize for comfort and use year-round. The panelized shell will be constructed from locally source materials that are able to withstand London’s damp climate.

London Pavilion (Drawing: Schiller Projects)

Sedona House (Visualization: Schiller Projects)
Sedona House

Located near Sedona, this project will be built on a half-acre property surrounded by mature vegetation and skyward views of the red Sedona cliffs. Through site analysis and sun studies, we focused on three main views that would be captured thorough different times of the day. We wanted to capitalize on these views to unite the home with the mountains beyond as we tracked the owner’s typical routines from morning through night. At the end of a 60’ bridge used to enter the hilly property the house is split to allow for a breezeway entry, which will promote airflow and passive cooling, as well as frame a direct view through the house and onto the Arizona landscape beyond.

Our hope is to make the structure from locally rammed earth, a specialized technique for constructing foundations, floors, and walls using natural raw materials and minimizing the carbon waste in the construction and eventual operation of the structure. A mix of soils is rammed into the walls, either by hand or machine. Once it is packed tightly and bound by cement the forms are removed, leaving a thick stable wall. This approach utilizes passive solar design, where heat from the sun is stored in the building's structure during the day, encouraging a cooler interior, while emitting that stored heat during the significantly colder desert nights to warm the interior.  

Sedona House (Drawing: Schiller Projects)

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