Noises Off

O+A, the go-to firm for tech companies and start-ups in the Bay Area, tackles the challenge of sound in the open office.

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Photos by Jasper Sanidad

The Giant Pixel Corporation

This software development company in San Francisco occupies three tight floors of largely open-plan space. “We tried to provide different levels of acoustical privacy,” says O+A cofounder Denise Cherry. “The fully enclosed conference room is for confidential conversations, but you also have in-between spaces, like the canopied cabanas, which are connected to the work area—connected to the open plan—but still have some acoustic and even some visual separation.”

Conference room ceiling made of recording-studio foam manufactured by Auralex.

In the beginning was the cubicle. And the cubicle was almost everywhere, and the cubicle held almost everyone, and it was good. Then there was the backlash, and the cubicle was destroyed, put aside, swept away in favor of the open plan, the endless span of space, floor, and ceiling—punctuated by the occasional column so that the roof wouldn’t collapse onto the floor plate—and everyone talked about collaboration, togetherness, synergy, randomness and happenstance. Renzo Piano designed a New York Times building with open stairways so writers and editors could (would have to) run into one another, and everyone remembered the always-ahead-of-the-curve Steve Jobs who, when he was running Pixar, asked for only two bathrooms in the whole Emeryville building, and insisted they be put on the ground floor lobby so that designers and renderers could (would have to) run into each other, and such was the office culture of the new millennium.  

And then there was the backlash to the backlash. Those writers wanted their own offices, and editors wanted privacy, and not everyone wanted to be running into people all the time, because not everyone was actually collaborating, even though their bosses and their bosses’ bosses said that they should, because collaboration, teamwork, and togetherness—these were the new workplace buzzwords. Until they weren’t. Until people realized that they were missing—as architect Ben Jacobson said in a Gensler sponsored panel on the need to create a balance between focus and collaboration—the concept of “parallel play,” i.e. people working next to each other, but not necessarily with each other. Until individuality came back, particularly in San Francisco in the tech scene, and particularly in the iconoclastic start-up tech scene, where people began to want something a little different. 

A felt canopied cabana inside the Giant Pixel offices in San Francisco. “We are open-office fanatics,” says Verda Alexander at O+A. “But it’s too simple to say a space is just open plan, because at the same time we’re creating ‘other’ spaces that mix with open-plan work areas.”

Partial acoustic and visual separation made possible by felt material manufactured by Filzfelt.

They wanted their own offices in which to code and try out their apps and test their logistics systems and hack into their own iPhones, so that they could jailbreak into a deeper and more fascinating world (one that William Gibson’s desk jockey, Case, of the 1984 novel Neuromancer would be more than a little familiar with). At the same time, they wanted to be able to run things by John in engineering or Zephyr in accounting. And so some of those people came to an architectural firm based in San Francisco named O+A, and they asked for help. 

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