He Builds Company Towns

Barry Ludwig designs cutting-edge office parks. What he tries to create is a sense of community and connection — which means looking to ancient cities for design principles.

When Barry Ludwig surveys the grassy fields of Coyote Valley, south of San Jose, California, he sees bustling neighborhoods, busy Main Streets, and beautiful parks. But the Silicon Valley architect isn't dreaming of a new town. He's conjuring up the latest in office-park design.

Inspired by social anthropologists and city planners, Ludwig is taking the old idea that a well-planned town creates a vibrant community and applying it to a new office park that will house thousands of Cisco Systems' employees along with several other companies. When finished (the completion schedule is subject to the economy), Coyote Valley Research Park will look like a New Age version of a farming city. There will be neighborhoods, nature trails, and parking lots that mimic the look of plowed fields. Ludwig has designed barnlike buildings with minimalist silos and airy green and white structures inspired by the greenhouses that dominated the area when it was an orchard and farming community.

"The structures should be of the valley, not just buildings sitting in the valley," says Ludwig, vice president of architecture at DevCon Construction Inc., a Milpitas, California - based firm. Ludwig, who crafted the riverine look of Cisco's existing campus, has spent most of his career trying to reshape how offices are designed by paying attention to the most important people in the space. Sometimes they're the people you least expect.

Take for instance the first project he collaborated on, while still in school: designing a dental office. Conventional wisdom suggested that the most important person in that office was the dentist, Ludwig notes, but he decided instead to focus on the patient. "It's the person in the chair who needs the diversion," he says. So Ludwig "sat down in the dental chair and tried to determine what would make this experience pleasant." It was easy to figure out. Put in windows high enough that the patient could watch the clouds roll by while the drill went to work.

There's a reason, of course, why most office parks are so bland. It's hard to forecast the type of work people will be using the space for over years, let alone decades. This challenge has led to the one-size-fits-all approach to office-park planning — one that affects the inside of a building as much as the outside. For much of the last century, people were warehoused either in rows upon rows of offices or acres of cubicles. Then came the open-space design that broke people out of boxes but has now become, as Ludwig calls it, the "2001 version of the '70s cubicle farm."

"We need to think realistically about the types of work that people will be doing in their offices," he says. "You should spend your time in a space that helps you get your best work done."

Sometimes that means an open-space design, but for Ludwig, some of his favorite spaces are either those where people can meet by chance or where they can think. He keeps columns exposed in some of his buildings to create a place where people can lean and have a casual chat. In others, he'll put a chair or a bench in a quiet, remote area to give people a place to sort out their thoughts.

Ludwig's other main design principle for offices is to get people out of them — which is why he's against office-park landscapes that are out of character with the existing vistas. Even as he works on the new Cisco campus, Ludwig is working on Reno, Nevada's new high-tech center in the midst of the high mountain desert. He says that when its developers came to his firm, they wanted buildings that looked like Silicon Valley's high-tech centers. But Reno is a landscape of long, stark horizons with sagebrush and beige bluffs. "You've got to be proud of where you are," he told them.

In Ludwig's design, conference rooms will look out to the southwest, so that the people in them can watch the snow fall on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevadas. The buildings are stone and stainless steel instead of the softer blues and greens that Ludwig used when building Cisco's San Jose campus. But he is still incorporating town-planning themes by creating hubs of activity and density — symbolic Main Streets, if you will — where public transport will drop people off.

Ludwig goes way back in time for inspiration on all of his projects. London and Rome were built with strong dominating spaces that bring people together and quiet piazzas where the pace is slower. Despite the fact that Rome has been rebuilt many times and office trends have changed since London grew beyond its medieval walls, the basics are still there. Says Ludwig: "The framework of those principles always remains to give the cities energy."

Contact Barry Ludwig by email (bludwig@devcon-const.com).

Sidebar: Make Your Company a Town

Architect Barry Ludwig spends his vacations roaming the world's cities, observing how architecture energizes their residents. Here are four ideas that can create energy in your company.

Build a city gate. In the past several decades, office buildings have been built to accommodate cars, not people. By creating a city gate (Ludwig uses flowering trees outside many Cisco buildings to achieve this effect), newcomers can locate the entrance, and employees have a sense of arriving someplace other than a parking lot.

Put in a piazza. Rome's piazzas were built around water wells that served the neighborhoods near them. A company piazza should be a place where people come for a specific reason. It should be surrounded by the offices or cubicles of the people it's meant to serve, so that they can linger.

Power up a plaza. A plaza is a thoroughfare where people from different walks of life — or work — can meet, talk, move on, and get someplace else with relative ease. A plaza can be created by opening up space in a cubicle farm and making a pattern, such as spokes on a wheel, that forces people to go through at least one part of the plaza to move from one office to another.

Create a quiet street. It's a place to take a breath and reflect — and creating such an area is surprisingly easy. Put a bench or chair in an outdoor area with sun or shade, depending on what environment you lack inside the office. Indoors, a row of plants with a chair facing away from the main traffic will do.

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