In the amenity race that defines the tech sector’s aggressive recruiting efforts, it’s an advantage to be urban. “The industry’s emerging talent wants to live in cities,” says Gensler’s Carlos Martinez. So Motorola Mobility opted to move from suburban Libertyville, Illinois, to a renovated four-floor spread in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, a 1930s-era art deco building so big that it has its own zip code. Formerly a design center, the Mart is being recast as a tech hub. (Coworking space 1871 is a tenant.) The Gensler team preserved the Mart’s concrete columns, terrazzo floors, punched windows, and blemished concrete walls as a textured backdrop for a headquarters that also sports a roof deck, a soaring town hall, a supersized LED screen for presentations and product launches, eight labs, and about 500,000 square feet of open office space.
A big move like this is an opportunity for transformation, and Motorola Mobility took it. Committed to a democratic approach, they resisted uniformity at every turn. The design fosters a sense of many voices contributing to the chorus. Gensler enlisted a graffiti artist to decorate an interconnecting stair and engaged a fabric artist to yarn-bomb a corridor. Multiple microkitchens—including a Zen garden, sports den, and map room—reflect the variety of a city block. In one, a wall is painted to look like a Georges Seurat painting, made complete when real people are seated at tables along its length. This community’s members are free to adopt work styles that suit them, an ethos that carries over to the height-adjustable, mobile workstations. Portable “totems” carrying power and data let teams easily rearrange them to suit their changing needs. Even the fluorescent lights overhead are diagonally aligned so people will think beyond the usual boxy plan.
Flexibility in the tech sector reflects a desire to extend people’s sense of ownership to the workplace itself. As Martinez notes, “Clients ask us, ‘How do you create work settings that individuals and teams can modify directly, so they feel that it’s their own?’” With their layers of uses and panoply of voices, cities offer a particularly rich framework for doing this. Urban strategies, as Motorola Mobility shows, are applicable indoors as well as out.