From warehouse to hothouse: A virtual tour

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When the new Wieden & Kennedy building in Portland, Ore., finally was ready for occupancy Jan. 5, Dan Wieden noticed employees were stepping around gingerly, in awe of the new, almost cathedral-like surroundings. So, to loosen things up, he staged an old-fashioned water balloon fight, with bombs dropped from the balconies and suspended walkways onto the atrium.

Mr. Wieden thought the exercise would be harmless since the building's floors were made of concrete slabs. What he didn't realize is that the electrical systems were wired underneath the slabs. "There were a few problems," says Mr. Wieden. "But the ship is still afloat."

The atrium -- or "genesis" center, as Mr. Wieden calls the four-story amphitheater with a glass ceiling -- is the heart of the new agency, built in an renovated fish storage warehouse. Benches in the atrium, which forms the core of the building, are made from refinished old-growth timber salvaged from the original warehouse. At a recent forum, Public Radio International personality Ira Glass joked about how the atrium space, with bleachers rising on two sides, made him feel he had been thrown into a lion's den.

Each floor contains four "quads," housed in its own space around the atrium, with each quad handling specific accounts. The Nike group, for example, including creatives, account execs, planners and media personnel, are housed in two quads, one above the other. A third Nike quad is about to be developed. Other quads house the Coca-Cola and AltaVista teams. Each area includes some private offices for Weiden's creatives -- most of whom wanted private, quiet space -- and an open floor plan for the rest. The quads also have a living room-like area, decorated by each of the teams, to hold informal work meetings on couches or other comfortable furniture. Each quad also incorporates a standard conference room.

Director of Planning Russell Davies says the quad flow so facilitates communication that as ideas and strategies are hatched "you can almost feel it happen." Media Director Knox Duncan says the setup has "allowed us to play at Internet speed for dot-com clients."

The building also has two sleeping rooms for employees who may have to spend the night at work.

But because departments such as media have no central home, clustering has posed problems to agencies that have tried it in the past. "From a managerial point of view, it is difficult," says Mr. Duncan, who is charged with overseeing the work of 30 employees spread throughout the building. E-mail, however, is one handy solution, he says, and departments such as account services help build communication and camaraderie by holding regular meetings.

The sixth, or penthouse, floor is surrounded by a deck which the agency plans to use for company barbecues and parties. One corner houses the lunchroom. Residing in the penthouse offices are Mr. Wieden; Chief Operating Officer Dave Luhr; Chief Strategic Officer Chris Riley; and other senior personnel. Two Wieden partners -- Susan Hoffman, and Bill Davenport -- rejected the top floor in favor of one close to the rest of the agency staff.

To accommodate the natural swings in agency billings -- and the number of people Wieden must house -- the building is designed for retail space on its first floor which can be converted to office space when needed. So far, a flower shop has signed up. Also, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art uses part of the the first floor for its administrative headquarters and exhibition space.

Of course, the site has a full-size basketball court, a beloved feature of the old location; an exercise room with as much equipment as a gym; men's and women's locker rooms with showers; and even a small room where new mothers can nurse babies or pump milk.

But perhaps as important as the site itself is the atmosphere generated by the new space that empowers its executives to aspire to top posts. "We could all be Dave Luhr," says one of the agency's top female account execs, "with a silver briefcase and color-coordinated file folders."

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