Text description provided by the architects. JWT, formerly J. Walter Thompson, is one of the oldest and largest advertising agencies in the world. While its credentials and client list were impeccable, the company needed to transform itself to meet the challenges of the new media world. Youthful new leadership at the New York headquarters determined to make that a complete physical, virtual and behavioral transformation. In June 2004, Clive Wilkinson Architects was appointed to design the transformation with workplace strategists, DEGW, assisting with client visioning, and HOK New York providing executive architect services. With a total population of 900 people, JWT occupied 250,000 SF in 5 floors of the office building at 466 Lexington Ave. The floors were sequentially gutted, remodeled and reoccupied in four construction phases over three years, with final completion occurring in February 2008.
From inception, it emerged that JWT was reframing its core vision about how it engaged with the public. Advertising would no longer focus on projecting messages to the consumer, but creating experiences which rewarded the public’s time and attention. It’s mission had become ‘story telling’. To promote interaction, mobility and collaboration, the isolated divisions within JWT would be opened up and reconnected. The new space would be open architecture, with no private offices, and vertical movement between floors would be facilitated to unite the JWT community. Separate businesses, like the post-production facility of JWTwo, would be expressed as distinct but integrated companies, adding character to the space.
The architectural concept became a thematic thread: we used the tree as a metaphor for storytelling and extended it as organizing form and connective tissue between the individual branches of the agency. This ‘narrative tree’ links all floors and the trunk is the atrium void and staircase that connects all floors over the main entrance hall. The branches are ovoid shaped meeting rooms: either solid green cones, or acoustically padded green tents. The cones are angled, like branches stretching through floors. The sixteen different tents extend the metaphor further by each being incised using CNC machines with the first sentence of a famous novel. The words are cut into the fabric and the cut letters hang down – we called this effect ‘falling words’, and the cut letter shapes appear like leaves. The choice of content was a collaboration with JWT creatives - each sentence is incomplete in meaning, so the reader is free to extend its meaning.
This architectural expression is most dramatic on the lowest floor, level 2, which benefits from 18ft high ceilings. The entry atrium here stretches to 32 ft high with a concrete staircase winding through it. As circulation off the stairs flow into distinctive neighborhoods representing various departments within the agency, special landmarks such as meeting and conference rooms help create visual interest while facilitating way-finding. The creative area includes a mezzanine ‘tree house’ structure with several collaboration spaces and an adjacent multi-purpose town hall/café/bar space with an illuminated bar. The mezzanine is painted NY taxi yellow to match the taxis visible though the window on the adjacent Grand Central overpass. Throughout the agency, ceilings were removed and a minimal linear system of Zumtobel up/down lighting creates a bright space, mitigating the effect of the heavily tinted external windows.
Two other devices were utilized that extended the layers of meaning in the agency. The historic art collection of JWT was sold off and a new program of purchasing allowed the acquisition of provocative contemporary photographic work, curated by Sophie Oppenheimer. The pieces are strategically inserted throughout the agency for maximum impact. The graphics and wayfinding program, designed by EGG/Christian Daniels, became an opportunity to create environmental images on a large scale to complement the architecture. In addition, a unique font system was used on each floor, underscoring the identity of each unique area. While its basis is a pragmatic functional organization, the physical agency space draws in an urban richness without literal references. Since undertaking the transformation, JWT has seen a slew of business wins and associated expansion.