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Ford Foundation's landmark headquarters to get open-office update

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

On the heels of its most profitable quarter in history, the iconic Ford Motor Company, synonmous with popularizing the automobile, announced plans to invest $4.5 billion in electric vehicles to reshape its fleet. That's simply where the industry in headed. Similar logic informed another big shift from a Ford, in this case, the Ford Foundation based in New York City. The global philanthropic giant founded by Henry and Edsel Ford, which boasts $12.4 billion in assets, has decided to radically reshape its iconic Manhattan headquarters, built in 1968 and designed by Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, to, in the words of current president Darren Walker, be less "hierarchical, off-putting and top-down." While the renovation will alter a landmark, the move to make the monumental space space more open is, simply, a prime indication of where office design is headed.

According to the New York Times, the building needs a makeover mostly due to age; the structure isn't code compliant anymore (the building doesn't have sprinklers), so it makes sense to move the nearly 400 employees to a temporary office at Broadway and 40th while the nearly half-century-old structure gets an upgrade.

Walker says the redesign of the 12-story tower, which wraps around a famous atrium with terraces landscaped by Dan Kiley, will honor the structure Henry Ford II commissioned while making it ADA-compliant and more environmentally friendly. But he also says the remodel, estimated to cost $190 million, provides a chance to "re-imagine" the building as a public service facility. The presidential suite, which, based on the Times account of the elaborate entry process, seems as removed and majestic as a royal court, will be shrunk in half, and private offices along central corridors will be transformed into open work spaces. The plans also call for an art gallery and assembly space. Overall, the additions and changes seem like the kind of teamwork-building, creativity-inspiring open office tactics you'd find in a tech firm.

Since it first opened in 1968, the Ford Foundation Building has been a seminal structure and architectural influence, a statement-making headquarters that provided the organization with a very public, progressive face. A stately tower constructed of steel, bronze, glass and granite for the then-princely sum of $16 million ($200 per square foot), the building has been a respite for New Yorkers, who have always been free to visit the public atrium. In many ways, the glass cube has always symbolized openness; considering the long rows of towers that make up much of Midtown Manhattan, designing a building that, instead of looking out upon other buildings looked inward upon itself, in the form of an atrium, was a clever move. Critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it "a horticultural spectacular, and probably one of the most romantic environments ever devised by corporate man."

But, with a much-needed makeover offering a chance to revisit and rethink how it works, the building will now both look and function in a more open manner. Even in an office building paid for by a company synonymous with the corporate culture of midcentury America, working in a stratified, closed-off environment just won't work. Roche himself, when asked by the Times, gave his full support: "You get away from the idea of the isolation of the office and create a community, which I subscribe to 100 percent."

A Sensible Makeover for the Ford Foundation [The New York Times]
Iconic Ford Foundation Building To Get $190M Revamp [Curbed]