Ringing in the Market

May 1, 2008

Elegant corporate architecture fuses with digital signage technologies at NASDAQ's virtual marketplace in Times Square.

By C.C. Sullivan

The traditional heart of a financial market is the trading floor, with its bustle, bluster, and bravado, sending heartbeats rising and investors' hopes to the moon. Today, however, things are different. In an age when stocks, commodities, and newfangled derivatives are largely exchanged electronically, where is the epicenter of the marketplace? Is it online somewhere, or simply resident in the minds of the many who broker, buy, and sell?

This was the question faced by NASDAQ, the 37-year-old market based in New York City but without the storied trading floor of its nearby alternative, the New York Stock Exchange. The bastion of mainly high-tech stocks, NASDAQ has remained modern and true to its roots, with no physical nexus. Yet its executives saw this as no barrier to creating a place where listed companies—such as Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft—and active investors could sense the inner workings of NASDAQ's 3,200-company marketplace.

Following the 1990s migration of financial firms from Wall Street's old towers to updated Midtown digs, NASDAQ—based at that time in Washington, D.C.—christened an unusual Times Square showplace building in 2000. Like other firms such as Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers, the exchange saw the high-profile, tourist-friendly location as a perfect place to splash its brand in big illuminated billboards (as required by local ordinance) at the "crossroads of America." Originally dubbed MarketSite, the space in the northwest corner of the Condé Nast Building office tower was fitted out with NASDAQ's television studio and interactive exhibits on finance and trading. Outside, NASDAQ draped the façade with monumental LED video displays of market quotes, financial news, and advertising.

"What's interesting is that the NASDAQ MarketSite became a physical manifestation of what's a fully automated trading system," recalls Linda Jacobs, a LEED-accredited senior associate with Gensler in New York. "It was conceived as an exhibition space, but it was closed after 9/11 because it wasn't considered appropriate to bring the public in."

A small seating area by the reception console is finished in Afromosia wood, marble slabs, and ceramic tile flooring. An acrylic surround enclosing a glass elevator is illuminated from behind with white fluorescent light at times, or with fixtures using red/green/blue (RGB) LEDs. (larger image)

Ringing in a New Use
In early 2005, Gensler helped NASDAQ reconceive MarketSite as an executive greeting and meeting space. A multidisciplinary supporting cast was hired, including New York City-based graphics-and-branding shop C&G Partners and design-build audio-visual specialist Diversified Systems of Kenilworth, NJ. The team worked to turn the 3,000-square-foot lobby and atrium into a preshow space for executives arriving daily to mark the opening and closing of the market, a twice-daily ritual that takes place in the building's television studio.

With the Times Square backdrop and its audience of data-hungry financial types, MarketSite was recast as an unusually integrated environment blending architecture, signage, lighting, and live financial information displays. Some things remained, including the offices and the television studio, but the mission changed. "NASDAQ was interested in market data conveyed in real time, so we looked at how the environment could capture and display that in a targeted way for a particular client, stock, or market sector," says Jacobs. "That way, their on-site events team could tailor the displays with a very focused, client-centered approach."

Behind the tall glass storefront, the existing small atrium space contained a glass-walled freestanding elevator and a metal-railed mezzanine. "Our architectural statement and technical solution arose directly out of these constraints, starting by making the elevator the focal point, through which a variety of branding elements could be created," says Jacobs. Customized messages for visiting companies, along with a countdown clock and snippets of live stock data and market sector statistics, were developed for a variety of materials: transparent holographic film embedded in clear glass panels, opaque film surfaces mounted on curved glass, and etched acrylic panels surrounding the elevator backlit with colorful LED lighting. A curved glass wall, etched with names of important financial capitals such as Zurich and London, now wraps a "photo booth," which is used to commemorate the visits by the CEOs and other VIPs who come to ring in the market.

The array of visual imaging systems built into walls, screens, and soffits was critical to handling the small, complex space. Based on the limited distance to display surfaces and the lack of places to hide AV equipment, front projection technology emerged as the best choice for projecting onto the elevator's curved acrylic enclosure. Rear projection worked better for the welcome screen and the curved glass wall, where there was more room to the surfaces. A third technique, the holographic interlayer between glass panels, unobtrusively reflects light from projectors hidden in ceiling soffits; this allowed a transparent, futuristic element to dominate the space.

The architects applied a white transluscent film to the glass walls surrounding NASDAQ's broadcast control room, leaving horizontal sections clear for a partial view inside. (larger image)Experiencing Design

In this way, data visualization and real-time market intelligence embedded in the architecture help highlight the visiting NASDAQ-listed companies. The displays thematically underscore each executive's relationship to the entire market or to the key sectors in which their companies are active.

"We saw this project as an experience design that all revolves around the CEO and his or her entourage," says Steff Geissbuhler, a founding partner with C&G, which consulted on the graphic design, signage, and exhibit design for the NASDAQ Times Square. "Every morning at 9 a.m., they ring in the stock market, and at 3 p.m. they close it again. The question was, ‘How do you make that event as lively and real as it is at the [New York Stock Exchange]?' We set out to make NASDAQ's virtual experience more interesting."

The overlay of data and the glimpses into the adjacent television studio might have obscured the fact that this space is designed to receive visiting executive VIPs. Yet Gensler's elegant interiors reinforce its high-end occupants: Afromosia wood panels and rich slab marble, as well as a bright ceramic tile floor, add warmth and snap. To tone down the adjacent computer server area and broadcast control room, the architects applied white translucent film to the existing glass surrounding those spaces, leaving horizontal sections clear for an intriguing partial view. A scrim of vertical white stretched-fabric panels spans from the mezzanine guardrail to soffits 10 feet above the main floor, adding a clean yet subtly shimmering quality.

In this way, Gensler built upon the lobby's existing bones, deftly incorporating new elements without requiring a total gutting. This worked well for the client, who needed the space to be open and functional throughout the construction phase. "This was certainly the higher end of the high-visibility project, and NASDAQ needed to maintain its presence in the building throughout the construction cycle," recalls Thomas E. Reed, PE, senior director for KlingStubbins, Philadelphia, which designed the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems. "So the project was broken down into multiple phases, which made it very challenging, considering that Gensler was trying to get a lot of impact in a very tight space."

Inner Glow
Beyond graphics and displays, much of that impact came from an effective lighting retrofit developed with Susan Brady Lighting Design, the New York firm known for larger-scale projects. The principal Brady and her project partner, Attila Uysal, applied lessons from their experience with previous "crossover spaces" they had done - "event-driven entertainment spaces that merge exhibit and corporate functions," Brady explains.

A primary challenge for the design was the internal illumination of the acrylic partitions wrapping the pre-existing elevator enclosure. "You want a quality product that will ensure consistency from one fixture to the next, and then you need to carefully assess the spacing criteria and distance from the materials surface," says Brady. For the etched acrylic ellipse, Brady specified programmable color-changing LEDs. The dynamic RGB color-mixing technology element gently morphs from hue to hue, but to achieve the mellow corporate-neutral white required on many occasions, energy-efficient fluorescents were chosen to deliver consistent, predictable back-illumination.

"The mix of LED and fluorescent lighting within the focal point can be serene or very excited depending on the mood you are trying to hit," says Jacobs, referring to the elevator enclosure. Since the project was finished in 2006, note the designers, LEDs have been shown to work on par with fluorescents for general white illumination, often with reduced energy needs.

In fact, aside from heat rejection to deal with the heating loads from the specialized systems, energy efficiency was the most significant engineering challenge because local energy codes were fully applicable to the exhibition and production spaces, says KlingStubbins' Reed. He explains, "New York City has a very green and very aggressive lighting code, and this being a showplace area, we had to devote a lot of attention to that. Thankfully we didn't need any variances; we met the energy code and got the public image we needed by using premium high-efficiency fixtures, even in the back offices."

Several lighting automation systems further cut energy draw and eased end-user training. "The key to spaces that transform like this is easy control systems with presets for a limited repertoire of preprogrammed scenes. The user goes in and simply hits one of four buttons - for example, for standard daily function, special event blue, or special event red," says Brady.

A variety of display technologies, including front and rear projection and holographic interlayers in glass, give the building lobby a layered, graphical appearance. (larger image)

Unseen Benefits
Many of the special challenges of the space, such as wrapping projected images around curved surfaces, were worked out in the installation phases, says Gensler's Jacobs. "It required lots of image correction, so it wasn't the kind of thing you could model digitally," she recalls.

According to Diversified Systems COO Kevin Collins, the AV team mocked up several display schemes off-site to study the results. Based on the findings, Collins' staff recommended some changes to the selected technologies and projection angles. "In one case, we went a little old-school and came up with a mirror system to manipulate some images optically instead of electronically. We also recommended devices that improved resolution and brightness," says Collins.

Another unseen but palpable advantage is the impact that this space has on NASDAQ and its client relationships with listed companies. Says C&G's Geissbuhler, "The project is about trying to change the perception of the marketplace, even in changing the name of the place from MarketSite to NASDAQ-Times Square. So that brand change becomes what this building is all about."

By cleverly integrating a range of powerful yet space-efficient technologies into a stylish corporate realm, Gensler and the project team make the guest experience memorable enough for the brand to stick.

"Inside the elevator, for example, which is clear glass, you can experience the colored light and the displays projected on the elliptical focal point," says Jacobs. "And that's a very fun moment."

C.C. Sullivan ([email protected]) is an author and communications consultant specializing in design and construction.

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