What do we understand by a stereotype law firm – what do we associate with such spaces? The images that come to mind are classically furnished offices with wall- to-wall carpeting, clearly allocated workplaces with desks and chairs, shelves filled with books and file folders, piles of paperwork, and maybe even separate rooms or corners – all behind lockable doors – to enable confidential communication with clients. One would presume there is also some kind of uninspiring meeting room, a secretariat and a break room with a small kitchen. There are windows, but in the main, the lighting is taken care of by surface-mounted or pendant ceiling luminaires and task lights. All very old school, clear-cut, free from emotions – and, apart from the few odd framed pictures on the walls, with absolutely no further enlightening features. The final verdict in the name of the lighting design community: there are other ways of doing this.
The design of a new lawyers’ firm in Australia was to set itself clearly apart from any previously established stereotypes. Dark, overpowering ambiences, frequently underscored by the presence of solid wooden desks made of mahogany or oak, shelves filled with heavy law books and works of reference, museum-piece metal task lights, were all considered to be outdated, and needed to give way to a modern approach. This was especially necessary, given that the majority of lawyers nowadays rely on internet searches or research as a key feature of the way they work.
The lighting for Corrs Chambers Westgarth’s new offices spaces in Melbourne was designed by the team from Electrolight. Besides developing a high-quality architectural lighting concept, the Electrolight team also designed a striking luminaire, which lends the multistorey office complex a highly distinctive character. The bespoke pendant luminaire, and the lighting concept in general, relate confidently with the architecture and design of the interior spaces. What has been realised here is definitely not "old school" lawyers’ offices with series of typical, dark, conservative spaces in which to pursue their legal goings-on. Not for this law firm, which counts as one of the leading independent firms of its kind in Australia with partnerships around the world. Nor with the reputation that Bates Smart Architects have earned for themselves through prior successful projects. Both the architects and the client chose to collaborate closely with the lighting designers to realise the project. This was understood from very early on in the planning phase. The offices are located over five floors from levels 22 to 26 in the innovative and unique centerpiece building at 567 Collins Street, offering spectacular views over Melbourne’s skyline thanks to the floor to ceiling glazing. The latter allows ample natural light to penetrate the building over the course of the day, whereby the spacious reception area on the 25th floor and the waiting areas and lounges for clients benefit most since they are south facing.
The glass facade provided an ideal daylight-related basis for the lighting design concept, which features fundamentally well designed and highly effective artificial lighting. The striking, ten-meter high hall that connects all the floors and spaces forms the core of the law firm and houses an unusually designed staircase, an indication of what awaits one in the law firm’s offices: elegant spaces to facilitate a wide range of even atypical tasks, and featuring high-grade details and hard or recycled, natural looking, soft materials with smooth, or polished finishes. This purposeful composition was designed to deliver a vision of a sophisticated and timeless aesthetic to the surrounding cityscape and reflect the image of the international law firm. This was the clients’ brief, and this is what Bates Smart Architects realised. The complementary architectural and user- oriented lighting was to be designed by Electrolight to create a contemporary and sophisticated ambience, with a special focus on the reception and the casual entertaining areas while at the same time discreetly integrating the lighting into the architectural design. The lighting was not to interfere with or distract from the clear clean lines and elegant, subtle forms of the interior architecture. The lighting layout was planned so that the main lighting features remained unobtrusive and inconspicuous, guaranteeing that the light itself nevertheless remained in harmony with the interior design and still took center stage.
The lighting designers applied different colour temperatures to differentiate between the office zones and spaces and their respective functions. Meeting rooms have received cooler atmospheres to generate a more objective, businesslike mood. Lounge areas, common rooms or the reception area have received warm white light to create a pleasant, welcoming atmosphere in the corporate spaces against a sophisticated backdrop for employees and clients alike. The general lighting on all floors is provided by track-mounted spotlights. The dark-coloured track is applied in different lengths, depending on the situation, and blends in with the materials and colours of the surroundings. The spotlights underscore the lamella-like design of the wooden walls, which are further accentuated by continuous lines of LED light, as applied at reception level or at the end of corridors where ceiling and wall surfaces meet.
Close to the reception there is a staircase, which features steel rods that span from ceiling to floor framing the stair of the ten-meter high void. The steel rods are grazed with light provided by extremely narrow-beam linear LEDs to deliver focused lighting to the stair and primary circulation space below. During daylight hours a
number of spaces receive significant amounts of natural light. Artificial lighting was a key component in allowing the core lift lobbies, meeting rooms and corridors to connect with the natural light flow throughout the complex.
And this is where the custom designed pendant luminaires declare their "right of appeal". Differing in form and size, they are applied in the company’s café and in the boardroom. Their design, together with the light that radiates inwards from their elegantly formed elbow struts, generates an open, friendly atmosphere that in turn complements the furnishings, the materials and colours applied. Their geometry relates to the lamella- like wooden walls or other striking structures and finishes within the office spaces.
Any yet that is not all that this luminaire design symbolises. It appears as if all those involved in its creation were and are not truly aware of the importance this luminaire has for the office as a whole. It is a kind of new and updated three-dimensional interpretation of the time-honoured and highly significant paragraph or section symbol – in light. The concept was the result of a gut feeling: the client felt intuitively attracted to the idea that the lighting designers appeared to have hit upon by accident. The luminaire embodies the modern philosophy the law firm stands for in the modern world. It works. It stands confident, yet is transparent. That said, it may well be that those involved were not aware of the symbolic nature of the custom designed pendant.
That a feature pendant and its amusingly relevant design was destined to become one of the most striking features in the entire project was not anticipated. The interplay of unusual interior design – in this case the typical and atypical spaces, furnishings, materials, finishes and colours – and the warm, sensitive lighting, make Corrs Chambers Westgarth’s offices a completely different kind of law firm than the cliched and stereotyped version described at the beginning of this article. In spite of all the serious legal activities that need to take place here, the feeling you get is rather like being in some kind of safety zone, more like a cosy café, a familiar restaurant or an inviting hotel lobby. You immediately gain the impression that someone is prepared to look after your interests at least. Which quite rightly makes for a good working environment and at the same time is a good basis for ensuring the law firm has satisfied clients.
Architecture: Bates Smart Architects
Lighting design: Electrolight