Vision is defined as an ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom. When Henry J. Kaiser completed his 28-story world headquarters and personal residence in 1960 in Oakland, he imagined a world much like the one we have today, and he saw Oakland and its beaming Kaiser Center at the center of that evolution. Most certainly few had the same perspective, too. But it’s the building’s current owners, San Francisco-based The Swig Company and Boston-based Rockpoint Group, who have been working hard to reimagine that vision and give their venerable one million square foot property on the shores of Lake Merritt a fresh face with a new lobby that will set a distinguished tone for the building and the city itself.
“What we’ve been asked by Swig and their partners is to really rethink how this whole building is presented to Oakland,” said Chris Wendel of Gensler, one of the two design directors who worked on the redesign of the building’s lobby. “And with its key location on Lake Merritt, how do you make that access more available to both the tenants and the public.”
What we’ve been asked by Swig and their partners is to really rethink how this whole building is presented to Oakland
The Gensler team, led by principal Matin Zargari, took a deep look into the lobby redesign, which featured an original elevator and building mechanical system. It all had to go, including the two escalators that were featured prominently in the space and a water fountain, which made its way into the lobby at some point during a remodel conducted in the 1990s.
“The biggest problem with it was the escalator that bifurcated the lobby, and it didn’t feel like a connected space,” said Deborah Boyer, executive vice president of asset management at Swig.
The lobby was not a feature of the building. It was a place through which visitors and employees had to pass, and it did not serve a bigger purpose, as it perhaps should have.
“It was more of a passthrough space than a place where people could hang out. What we proposed was to give it new life and populate it and make it more active and vibrant,” said Wendel.
Designed by Welton Becket and Associates, who also designed the iconic Capitol Records building in Los Angeles, the Kaiser Center is in some ways a classic representation of mid-century architecture and design. The structure was pretty advanced for its time, and it was one of the first high-rises in Oakland. It featured a uniquely designed mechanical system that used water to cool and heat the building, and a lot of the products used in the interior were made by various Kaiser enterprises.
“All the door handles—I really like them personally—are all aluminum, as are two big escalators. It was kind of a novel building, and the exterior design was in the modernist flavor,” added Wendel.
The Gensler team honored those details as it worked to bring the building’s grand entryway into the 21st century.
One of the key elements of this design was to allow an easier flow people and provide thoroughfares that lead to various points in the building and across the city. In example, access to the building is going to be widened to provide easier passage to Snow Park, which is adjacent to the property, while an extended pathway with seating will be added to provide an accommodating space to relax. The sidewalks and landscaping along Lake Merritt will also be enhanced, broadened and updated.
The building is very close to the 19th Street BART station, so the design took that into account by creating visual and directional elements to lead people going to and from the station to the building.
The volume of the lobby space has changed a bit, as well. It is actually a little smaller than its previous rendition, because some square footage was captured for some tenants on the second level. Gensler’s team also incorporated seating below the stairs and added sporadically placed furniture throughout the lobby to create a welcoming light and bright feel.
Swig also commissioned original artwork for the lobby gallery, which will feature three local artists’ work and enhance the visual appeal of the location.
Most importantly, however, the lobby will feature contemporary amenities and a shared conference center that could be used by tenants for various events.
“The conference center will be somewhat of a flexible space. There will be large meeting rooms, but there is also the option to open it up and have a larger gathering,” said Boyer. “It will be primarily an amenity for the tenants. We are retaining an auditorium on the second floor, which is used by our tenants and members of the community for events.”
The timing of the redesign was not accidental. As the city of Oakland is coming into its own as a strong office contender, the Kaiser Center needs to make sure it is a place fit for innovation. The city and the property itself are a draw for companies of the future, so no aspect of the building should remain in the past.
“This particular location in Oakland is unsurpassed, and maybe in the whole region, to have this vantage of the lake and nature and the roof garden and city views,” said Boyer. “There is so much potential, but it was a tired building that had great bones on many levels. We feel very confident in the quality that is built there and in its longevity for the next 50 years.”