Carleton University Magazine

Breaking Down Walls

California architect Jennifer Luce is bringing a new kind of openness to the workplace. The cliché-busting creator (she proves that her unabashed, industrial style can also be warm and homey) has been putting her stamp on west coast buildings for 30 years. A comment on process, place and the new work-life balance

Can great spaces inspire great work? It’s the buzz-making question of the day. Thoughts on the subject fill marketing magazines and propel researchers. Much has been said about Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., where whiteboards, in-office playgrounds and bring-your-dog-to-work policies aim to facilitate innovation. At e-deals firm Groupon, in Chicago, Ill., they structure desk space in their offices to align with the ethos of their mentorship program, which states that employees should be listened to and supported. Dwell magazine, the good book of the uber-modernist, claimed in a November article that the whole idea of the office is dead. Since technology allows people in many professions to work from anywhere, offices of the future will exist solely to facilitate connections and relationship-building, they say. “You might not even have your computer there.”.

Jennifer Luce, BArch/84, takes that idea deeper: for her, physical space matters—surroundings can improve peace of mind in ways that might not be realized on a conscious level. She likes to flatten the seam between corporate interest and basic human need.

“I think, finally, the business world understands the value of good design of an environment and how it can increase productivity on the most rudimentary level,” Luce, 50, says.

She speaks from experience. When her San Diego firm, Luce et Studio, created a design centre for Nissan in Farmington Hills, Mich., in 2005, she had to balance the interests of the technical side of the house with the artistic side of the house.

“Car designers see engineers as restricting them; the engineers see designers as being flighty and irresponsible. So, for me, it was critical to bring an engineer on staff and say, ‘You’re going to tell us what will inspire both sides of the equation.’ We made this very highly engineered, giant courtyard the engineers could marvel at, because, from a structural standpoint, it’s very complicated. The designers could marvel at it because it was just beautiful. That’s the common ground.”

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) agreed and gave Luce and her firm an Institute Honor Award for Interior Architecture in 2006. The New York Times called the space “austere and contemplative.”

Outside Extraordinary Desserts restaurant in San Diego.

METAL HEAD  Outside Extraordinary Desserts restaurant in San Diego. Luce and her firm redid the interior and exterior of the gathering space, using industrial materials in whimsical ways. The metal wall with its bubble pattern manages to be both airy and unmoving — a testament to Luce's ability to marry seemingly opposed ideas in one place.

Dog-tag installation

TAG TEAM  This dog-tag installation was created as a project proposal for a gay soldiers’ memorial in Hollywood. Each tag has a line of poetry hammered into the metal. The goal is to encourage people to pick up the pieces and think about the people behind the tags. The project speaks to Luce’s human side—she’s always thinking about the people aspect of any project, a trait that has been noticed by her peers and jurors from the American Institute of Architects, which has bestowed upon her more than 10 awards so far

It’s one of many dualities that Luce straddles. She enjoys designing large spaces while ensuring that every fastener is adjusted just so. She loves working with hard, cold metal but constructs it in a way that’s comforting and esoteric. She loves the rationality of architecture—the measurements, the details, the precision—and the poetry of building something, with its opportunity for visual metaphors.

Her company did the workspace for The Imagineers, the theatre performers at Disney in Florida. It’s a highly secure space, and no one’s allowed in without badge access—factors that could encourage restriction and caution. Luce took a theme from Disneyland itself—the idea of a street—and built one to run through the entire office. Early reaction from some Disney folk was surprising: why do we need this empty space?

Luce’s theory was that in a creative profession, there was a need for space that was not programmed ahead of time, one that a creative mind could program for itself. The bosses saw things her way, and The Imagineers ended up using the street as a practice space to test new ideas in front of their colleagues.

In project planning, the human aspect is always high on the agenda for Luce. “I’m so fascinated by the way people process information, how they think and how they’re inspired,” she says.

Luce launched her firm in 1990 at the age of 30 and ran it for six years out of her beachfront house in La Jolla before setting up shop in nearby Pacific Beach. Her firm originally focused on living spaces. Driven by her conviction that live-work spaces were merging, she realized she could bring concepts of lifestyle and environmental design for healthy living to the workplace. After all, “It’s actually where we spend more of our time.”

The work-life equation came up during the renovation of a 1970s ranch house in La Jolla in 2001. The homeowner, Greg Lemke, was inspired by his workplace at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, where he’s a professor of molecular neurobiology. The campus was designed by architect Louis Kahn, with a layout intended to facilitate discussions among peers.

The building was proof that design can change the way individuals and organizations function. But for his home life, Lemke wanted a simple layout to provide calmness against all the thoughts running in his head. The home won an award from the San Diego chapter of the AIA in 2007. Jurors admired Luce’s decision to keep the original structure rather than tearing it down and starting over—a way of doing things that’s standard in California.

Finally, the business world understands the value of good design and how it can increase productivity.

She took that adaptive reuse philosophy to an old warehouse in the Cedros Design District of Solana Beach. It houses the Burton Landscape Architecture Studio in the back, while the retail storefront is a housewares shop. For the landscape experts, Luce created a collaborative, open space, with desks and drafting tables dominating the central area, while offices behind large sliding doors line the room. Printers, servers and other gadgetry are stored behind a wall of library shelving, which houses colourful gardening books and other reference material.

Hiding the hardware was more than just an aesthetic choice; it’s a philosophical one that supports her view on the place of technology in the scheme of things. “The storing of information and data allows us to have access to anything, anywhere—but the truth is that we truly crave to be together, and workspaces will become more critical in answering that need.”

She practises what she preaches. In her own offices, she moves tables around, changes the lighting and tries out new schemes. “It’s a wonderful environment for people to come to, even though it’s really simple,” she says. “They can see that we are open to change, and that’s essentially what we do in our work. We facilitate change, which is so hard because people are afraid of change not allowing them to be successful at what they do.”

Project planning is structured collaboratively too. The Luce et Studio team sits down with clients to sift through their needs and expectations. Ideas emerge from both sides. “It is an iterative process and it is about discovery,” she says. They listen a lot. “Once we’re done listening, we know everything about a business—we’re a repository of information.” From there, everyone at Luce et Studio takes a stab at a project. They have a group meeting and decide whose direction feels best, then they follow that path.

I’m so fascinated by the way people process information, how they think and how they’re inspired.

Luce’s strengths are in always being on, in always thinking. She can start with meticulousness about details, then widen her focus into the realm of the abstract without getting locked on either one.

“It’s what architects are supposed to do,” says Nan Griffiths, an architect and a professor emerita who taught at Carleton from 1977 to 1998. “Jennifer’s strength is in looking at what the project is to be and thinking about what the space is supposed to do.”

Over the years, Griffiths and Luce talked about how to draw and how to think—the architect’s primary skills. “Every single thing she seemed to think about with great originality and focus.”

Large sliding interior doors and seven-by-eight-foot exterior doors are a hallmark that set Luce’s tone at first glance.

“It sets a whole mood that is completely different,” she says. “The door is a threshold to experience and to change and to transformation. I think it’s a very positive, optimistic way to deal with entry.

Open-concept workspace

STATEMENT PIECE  The open-concept workspace—almost a cliché of the dot-com era—translates well here. The offices of Burton Landscape Architecture Studio in Solana Beach, Calif., hum with ideas. Large worktables encourage collaboration inside the renovated factory

“The simplicity of a sliding door provides a certain excitement to entering a room. That delight of surprise is something we’re really interested in.”

That surprising, cerebral element continues in other ways too. “We’re always trying to shift the scale of things in order to spark a certain curiosity in your mind. So whether we know it or not, we’re very familiar with the size of a four-by-eight sheet of plywood, say. We just shift it off scale a little and the sensation is so strong.”

In Luce's office

LUCK OF THE DRAW  Luce in front of the project board at her office, Luce et Studio, in San Diego, Calif. The architect invites all of her fellow employees to imagine and design projects at the earliest stage. From there, they collaborate on a plan that will become the final structure

Those are some tips and theories she bestows on recent Carleton architecture grads in a summer internship program that she started in 2006. Luce, who also has a master’s degree in design from Harvard, says she notices a brand of thinking specific to Carleton.

“At Carleton, I learned a rigour of thinking, of pushing an idea all the way through to the end and never assuming it to be finished or right.

“The demands on us as students were huge, and the criticism that came from our reviews and professors at times even felt extreme, but I think it prepared us to enter the real world and realize that every idea would be scrutinized on one level or another.”

Luce carries forth that idea of independent thinking as a mentor. “I try to show the students that the way we’re thinking through the information is the most critical part of our process.

“As architects, we are trained to think about process in very intense ways,” she continues. “It’s not pie-in-the-sky sketching—it’s analytical. I learned from working with various planners in Europe that it’s down to analyzing the walking path of a certain person for 30 days. It becomes quantitative, and from quantitative information, you can do something that’s very poetic.

Written by Fateema Sayani (BJ/01)
Photos by Luther Caverly

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One Response to Breaking Down Walls

  1. Peter Madsen says:

    It’s great to see Jen is getting the recognition that she and the team at Luce et so rightly deserve!