How Gensler Updated the Inimitable Ford Foundation Headquarters

The 415,000-square-foot, $200-million renovation was prompted by code violations, but the subsequent update also honored its architects' original designs.
ford foundation renovation gensler

Courtesy Simon Luethi/Ford Foundation

When it first opened in 1968, the Ford Foundation (now the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice), located on East 42rd Street in Manhattan, was an “experiment,” as president Darren Walker described it at a recent press conference. Designed by Roche Dinkeloo, the building is organized around a 160-foot-tall atrium whose Dan Kiley–designed landscape features eight trees and rational, stepped walking paths. It was designated a New York City landmark in the 1990s but remained a hidden gem—mysterious to passersby, whose view of the garden was obscured at 43rd Street by a wall—until 2016, when it closed for renovation. In fact, says Walker, architect Kevin Roche never meant for the building to be used by the public. Now Gensler has reimagined the center in the spirit of what it truly offers: a “civic gesture of beauty and excellence,” as Ada Louise Huxtable wrote of it in 1967.

The 415,000-square-foot, $200-million renovation arose from necessity: when Walker was named president of the foundation in 2013, he was greeted by a notice from the City of New York informing him that the foundation had until 2019 to bring the building up to code. “We had a choice to make. We could simply cure the issues that the city identified as violations of city code, or we could take on the monumental task of reimagining the building for a new century.”

ford foundation renovation gensler

Courtesy Richard Barnes/Ford Foundation

The reimagining is refreshingly restrained and in keeping with Roche Dinkeloo’s original tailored look and feel. The most obvious changes have cleared the detritus that had accumulated over the years—cubicles, for instance—and enhanced the transparency of the atrium from within and without. Gensler removed the wall that had obscured the garden from the street and flipped the diagram of the floor plan, moving circulation paths to the interior (where they have constant views to the atrium) while creating open plan workspaces and glazed private spaces along perimeter walls. In doing so, the team also made more efficient use of the office space, reducing the foundation’s footprint by half, which made room for three tenant non-profits and new communal and conferencing areas. At the ground level, a coffee lounge and art gallery will welcome the public.

While the updates are far-ranging—including sustainability upgrades that will go toward LEED Platinum certification—many others occurred behind the scenes and are successful precisely because they aren’t noticeable. “Old buildings like this are full of surprises,” reflects Ambrose Aliaga-Kelly, a principal and technical director on the project. Metropolis spoke to Gensler about the major design challenges and practical hurdles that the renovation had to overcome.

ford foundation renovation gensler

Courtesy Simon Luethi/Ford Foundation

Fire

In addition to fully sprinklering the building, the Gensler team faced the task of bringing the atrium up to fire code without interfering with the space’s visual language and sense of scale. “In those days, there was no such thing as an atrium” when it came to fire code, says Aliaga-Kelly.

The open weathering steel railing on the eleventh floor—which allows for a dizzying view down some 150 feet into the garden below—needed a concealed fire curtain that would roll down from a channel in the ceiling in case of fire, separating the occupied space from smoke in the atrium. Creating space for the curtain was a challenge. “The ceiling sandwich was very, very tight,” says principal and project director Maddy Burke-Vigeland. To achieve its generous floor-ceiling heights, Roche Dinkeloo had run conduit through voids bored in the building’s steel structural beams. Gensler drilled additional voids to accommodate the new system.

To create fire and smoke separation on the floors below, the original atrium-facing operable windows had to be effectively sealed. (While the windows can still open for window cleaning, this move effectively ended the days when employees would slide them open to take advantage of the garden’s ambient sounds and cross-breezes.) Gensler also worked out a solution with the city to run a sprinkler line around the interior glass walls to provide the required fire separation between the atrium and the office spaces.

The team also added a smoke exhaust system that uses the atrium as a massive chimney. On the eleventh floor, concealed doors reveal large fans that draw smoke out of the building while, on the garden level, mechanized glass windows pivot open to inject make-up air. “These are major pieces of infrastructure, but we were able to find ways to conceal them,” says Aliaga-Kelly.

ford foundation renovation gensler

Courtesy Richard Barnes/Ford Foundation

Design History and ADA Compliance

“For a foundation committed to social justice, how could we be in a building that leaves out one in five people who have a disability of some sort?” asks Walker. However, the design team had to balance accessibility against their desire to reclaim the building’s often legacy furnishings, including historically significant pieces by Florence Knoll, Warren Platner, and Ray and Charles Eames.

Today, 50 percent of the furniture has been fully restored or cobbled together from a trove of salvaged furniture that had been in the basement. The remainder is new, including custom light fixtures and ability-inclusive Knoll workstations whose finishes reflect Roche Dinkeloo’s dark modern palette of brass, natural leather, and rich woods.

In some cases, Gensler found a middle path. For example, the Platner desks and tables had been central in the interiors, and the team wanted them to remain so. But as they were shorter than the required 27-inch clearance to accommodate wheelchairs, they had to be lifted. The original tables were stripped and each leg fitted with an additional inch and a half so everyone, regardless of ability, can use them.

ford foundation renovation gensler

Courtesy Simon Luethi/Ford Foundation

Garden

Over the years, the original vision of the atrium garden had been eroded, as its eight trees and low understory plantings were replaced with more jungle-like species (snidely referred to as “mall plants” by building occupants) that would fare better on the steep indoor slopes—some with angles as great as 40 degrees. Additionally, in subsequent attempts to hold soils in place, the foundation had installed rubble stone walls. Gensler, working with Jungles Studio and SiteWorks, was able to return the landscaping to Kiley’s vision using layers of stabilizing engineered soils, a system of grow lights, and a new electrical network for nighttime lighting.

In terms of accessibility, Kiley’s garden walkways included a number of stepped areas that needed updating. According to Ed Wood, who served as the design director on the project, the Gensler team was able to increase the garden’s accessibility by 50 percent by adding a lift elevator and replacing steps with ramp.

Overall, the building has gained 1,436 square feet of accessible space, says Wood, including its front entrance. In the past, visitors in wheelchairs had to use a separate entrance because the door was too narrow.

ford foundation renovation gensler

Courtesy Richard Barnes/Ford Foundation

Thanks to the renovation, the center is ready to be experienced anew. On a chilly morning earlier this month, the sun-filled garden was busy with workers setting up cocktail tables for an opening gala later that night. It would be the first time that many of the grantees would see the updated space, newly collaborative and transparent. Looking up through the atrium, they would see the building’s active offices and walkways, enlivened by artworks by Kehinde Wiley, Dinh Q. Le, Vik Muniz, Nelson Mandela, Faith Ringgold, Richard L. Copley, Carrie Mae Weems, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Sheila Hicks, and many others.

In 1967, it seemed nearly miraculous to Huxtable that this “goldmine of ‘lost’ square footage in that open court” had been allowed to exist. “In the 20th-century city,” she wrote in the New York Times, “space and humanism are luxuries that we can no longer afford. Therefore architecture is something that we can no longer afford.” But for now, here at least, and with this budget, architecture remains possible.

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Categories: Architecture, Landscape, Preservation, Workplace Architecture