Designer Profile: Empowered Design

July 1, 2007

By Joyce Lee

When it comes to creating interiors, Robert Siegel believes in building relationships that enhance the work or lifestyle ritual.

The innovative materials (ying) and spatial voids (yang) utilized in the interiors designed by Robert Siegel serve as a backdrop to empower their inhabitants. Far from its religious connotation, the execution of a ritual, deliberate or casual, is often the very definition of the individual's unique style of carrying out "living."

"We strive to create buildings that are visceral as well as cerebral; that are saturated with ideas, and that can be discovered in layers of meaning and materiality. Such ideas are expressed in form, material and structure," says Siegel. 

THE RITUAL OF TRAVELAt the Swissair First Class Lounge at JFK International Airport in New York, not only was the directive to create a superior space consistent with its sister facility in Zurich, it was to serve as a model for future development in Miami and Boston. With a trained ear for music, Siegel likens corporate branding design to creating the rich palette in a home orchestra to successfully play with a traveling soloist who has an established style and audience.

The 180-foot by 32-foot space is located along the perimeter in the new Terminal 4 by Skidmore Owings & Merrill. Responding to the curvilinear terminal roof and to the carefully angled curtain wall, Siegel discussed the concept of letting out "the box." The articulated ceiling of the lounge opens up to the runway vista allowing abundant daylight while the geometry of the ceiling with the central ducts located at the deepest part of the section behind the folds facilitates airflow. The central trough acts as the technology spine with sprinklers, smoke detectors, and lighting fixtures aligned yet concealed from the surface. With the help of the engineering firm, Arup, the integrated visual effect is that of unity and uninterrupted lines.

Personal workstations to the side have "skylights" with a view of the main terminal's curved ceiling. Similarly, other private quarters such as showers and bathrooms have glass transoms installed above detailed millwork, giving a sense of overhead natural light. When the VIP lounge is unoccupied, sliding doors at right angle to each other at open positions create a welcomed pocket of additional space within the sitting area.

The selection of materials offers transatlantic travelers a sense of tranquility and refuge. The leather stools and bar seats facing the waiting planes adds a touch of anticipation. Furnishings complementing limestone floors throughout the lounge accented by muted carpet and richly textured fabrics mirror those of its sister facilities. A sense of sanctuary from the bustling transit hub is accomplished with shifting daylight and subtle shadow pattern changes throughout the day.

In contrast to the First Class Lounge's limited access, the Swiss Center was a New York City tourist's district (Fifth Avenue) facility shared with the airline, tourism office and  currency exchange. While the neighboring retail storefronts focused on sales volumes, the Swiss Center strove only to augment its national identity, but pedestrian traffic is nonetheless important.

Program changes necessitated rethinking the interior volume and perceived open space. The enlargement of the glass storefront greatly enhanced the visibility of the hand finished aluminum curved walls, representing flight, while the opposing curved wall evokes a fuselage with a sense of velocity and the excitement of air travel. Serving as a public tourism center, the minimalist appeal essentially accomplished balancing a fine line between designing postcard images and translating that to convey the aura of the country.

The rhythmic alignment of glass and metal fins reflect overhead lighting to create a shimmering effect at night. With work surfaces bound within a curved island, the public and private realm becomes crystal clear. The convex side allows for up to eight public terminal users while the interior workspace accommodates four staff members. A cool palette of brushed aluminum casework sits atop the finely laid terrazzo floor.  

The State University of New York's (SUNY) Purchase Dance Building, originally designed by Gunnar Birkerts, needed waterproofing but received so much more when the new skylight and curtain wall systems dramatically changed the composition of the interior rooms by opening them up to daylight and allowing the glory of a Westchester's foliage to be fully appreciated. 

The ritual of dance is the measured execution of movement in space and time. The original plan is just as methodical and disciplined, with studios in the center, circulation on both sides and offices on the perimeter. The renovation respects this hierarchy of space and order while striving to focus on sectional enhancement to channel additional light deep into the interior, across the corridor and over the offices. The ceiling takes the contour of the large skylights: The volumes begin to inform this grouping of administrative spaces as a subset of the overall envelope, with whitewash walls enhancing the tubular lighting's visual effect.

For an interior project, this was a tour-de-force effort devoted to glazing research in order to create seamless surfaces that open up to the view while avoiding glare. With the many studios having full length walled mirrors, the reflection of daylight means that much of the artificial lighting becomes redundant. Hence it becomes a happy convergence of a building program that meets energy saving goals.

The student lounge and the sitting areas around the circulation paths have an almost cathedral-like quality for inspiration and contemplation. The continuous seating creates an amorphous surface that complements the vast sky exposure. Recognizing that this is a student enclave, the client insisted on fabrics being scratch- and stain-resistant to withstand vigorous dance practice use. On the interior, plynyl flooring was selected for the common areas as it combines proven longevity over other resilient floors and gives a woven, seamless aesthetic while providing a soft rubber backing for the dancers' bare feet.

Siegel has a particular passion in the use of high-performance design and technology as tools for invention. Having grown up and attended Levittown, Long Island public schools, he became acutely aware and appreciative of this poster child postwar suburb. The houses were similar yet different and the economy of scale produced many lessons of modesty in means with richness in scales. 

He also credited his love of design to one of his high school mechanical drawing teachers who helped him design and build an elegant hovercraft. Through the hovercraft and other teenage experiences, he saw how sustainability and high-performance design go hand-in-hand. The many overnight bicycle and sailing trips made meticulous planning, conservation and rationing a means to enjoy life. He feels, by the same token, designing toward self-sufficiency ought to be celebrated.

His personal experience of the tangibles and the intangibles became more pronounced in recent years. Until 9/11, he lived in Battery Park City, the residential community adjacent to the World Trade Center. His building suffered relatively minor damage and has been fully restored. One aspect of the destruction is less visible: the loosening of the tight-knit community of young families within the waterfront neighborhood. Even though he moved his family 45 miles north of New York City, his firm remains in midtown Manhattan. Would he practice anywhere else? "Please, this is where the design talents are," proclaims Siegel.

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