Dramatic design puts workers in the game

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      You might feel justifiably twitchy if a heart surgeon’s office was rife with KISS memorabilia or your accountant hung his walls with Pamela Anderson posters. And you don’t need to check the name on the door to spot which is the art director’s office and which is the account person’s in an ad agency (or, in industry terms, which is the “wrist” and which is the “suit”). Workspace should reflect the work that goes on in it. So how do you create an appropriate background for people whose workdays—and often nights—are spent dreaming up the next generation of video games?

      That was the question facing MCM Interiors (the interior-design arm of downtown architecture-and-planning firm MCM) when it was hired by Electronic Arts to work on its campus expansion in Burnaby. As project designer Lara Pisicoli explains in a phone call, the design company completed Phase 1 of Electronic Arts in 1999. The game giant told MCMI that if that was Version 1.0, the second phase—a huge 175,000 square feet of space spread over five floors—had to be Version 4.0.

      Begun toward the end of 2003, the project was finished in 2006, scoring high not just with the client but with interior-design peers. On February 13 at the annual Interior Designers Institute of B.C. awards, it won gold in the Workplaces–Total category and was named best of show. In the world of interior design, that’s like being the Dixie Chicks at the recent Grammys.

      Video-game designers aren’t your average office types. Suitably wired, they frequently work hours into the double digits. Granted, the new EA campus houses RecrEAte, a fitness, health, and wellness centre complete with an NBA–size gym, but overall the building had to feel as cool at night as it did by day. “I don’t play video games but I love the graphics,” says Pisicoli, who drew inspiration for the project from the EA lineup, translating the colours, action, and interactivity into a concept for the massive space that gives it the look and feel of being inside a video game. The biggest challenge, she says, was “how to make this environment as creative as possible for such a creative group. It’s a keen, aesthetically oriented demographic. How do you create the same level of interactivity they’re used to within a built environment?”

      Lighting was one answer. The building’s most dramatic feature is the five-storey spiral stairway that passes through the central atrium, visually defined by a light sculpture that was inspired, says Pisicoli, by EA’s snowboard-racing game SSX. Gravity-defying, twisting and turning, a vivid blue band of photoluminescent tape drops the full five floors.

      Blue, one of EA’s corporate colours, was also used for the backlit acrylic wall that bisects the circular Think Tank Café Lounge. “They wanted us to develop a space that inspired innovation and was really a cool place”¦a contemplative kind of place,” says Pisicoli. Embedded screens show game demos and development, and ?integrated into the Think Tank’s structure are over 100 inspirational quotes about innovation, creativity, and change. The sheer drapes around it were chosen, she says, because the fabric “has a really interesting line quality to it. It emphasizes movement,” and also alludes to how players move through video games. “We really wanted to articulate that in the architecture.”

      Conceptually, says Pisicoli, “We tried to be inspired by games. We tried to draw parallels between creation of the games and creation of design.” Other elements that span both games and interior design, she says, are graphics, art, texture, and a sense of superrealism. Each floor of the building emphasizes a theme (the one featuring movement, for instance, has workstation drapes, and walls with surfaces that evoke waves). Signage includes pixellized graphics. Applied to the atrium glazing, huge graphics spanning four storeys and nearly the length of the building feature a baseball player, a basketball player, snowboarders, skateboarders, and images from EA games.

      Not your average office interior by a long shot, as the team of IDI awards judges from across the country were quick to realize. “Judging day was back in October,” says Jennifer Kurtz, chair of the awards committee. Criteria led off with “first impression” and included marks for areas ranging from millwork and lighting to environmental considerations and budget. Each project is assessed on its individual merits, not in comparison to other projects in the same category. “The judges look at all the golds at the end of the day,” says Kurtz, “and from those, we get the best of show [award].” One judge summed up the winner succinctly: “The wow factor on this project was very high.”