Charles Holland and Elly Ward drill into the corporate lobby
When Patrick Bateman rampages through the entrance lobby of New York’s Seagram Building* towards the end of American Psycho, the film reaches a fitting apotheosis. Brett Easton Ellis’ satire of yuppie amorality repeatedly contrasts acts of gruesome barbarity with the blandly aspirational signifiers (expensive business cards, bespoke suits, Huey Lewis and the News) of American corporate culture. The lobby is the perfect setting for Bateman’s meltdown because it is a space of expansive emptiness, an emotional void in which nothing is meant to happen.
The Seagram Building is perfect too because it contains the corporate lobby space par excellence. A bank of bronze-framed revolving doors accessed from a public plaza lead to an imposingly empty treble-height space lined, in the Seagram’s case, with sheets of travertine. Whether you work in such an environment or not – and chances are you don’t – this is a space with an eerie familiarity.
The corporate lobby is a projection of power and authority. Whether you arrive early or late, you will be asked to wait. And waiting means sitting down on one of a group of armchairs placed on a square of carpet like an abstracted fragment of home denuded of all trace of domestic comfort. In the centre of the carpet will be a coffee table on which a selection of newspapers and magazines has been arranged. The magazines are there to reflect the brand values of the organisation you are visiting rather than provide actual entertainment per se. There might be brochures to browse too with sales figures to admire or corporate values to imbibe before you are allowed in.
The corporate lobby is a paranoically controlled space, a precisely delineated territory. Social protocols and codes of behaviour are enshrined in the materials and visual signifiers as much as in the more literal policing by security guards and CCTV cameras. The proliferation of mirrored surfaces makes us acutely aware of our own behaviour, reflecting the minute details of every move or shift of posture. The lobby offers a semblance of comfort and welcome – capacious seats, things to read, a vase of flowers – and yet a pointed air of discomfort is the point.
The lobby offers a semblance of comfort and welcome – capacious seats, things to read, a vase of flowers – and yet a pointed air of discomfort is the point
If the corporate lobby is the battlefield, then the reception desk is its war machine. These ambiguous assemblages undoubtedly serve a functional need, providing surfaces for computers, telephones, pads of tear-off ID labels or even the odd decorative bauble. But their real purpose is to repel invaders and deter unwanted guests. Part furniture, part defensive blockade, the reception desk provides a mute bulwark against the messy, non-corporate world. Their strange projections and odd massing evoke the impenetrable abstractions of space ships and armoured vehicles. Dug in behind the desk, the receptionist can safely survey and control the space beyond.
The generic nature of the corporate lobby is part of its power. Particularities of time and place are unimportant, as are the actual activities of the companies it gives access too. The purpose of this space is to confer a non-specific sense of gravity. Like the contemporary art gallery with which it shares many qualities, the suspension of the everyday allows gross distortions of value to be constructed.
The materials employed – shiny, inert, expensive – rebuff the mess of human existence as much as real dirt. The disorientation induced by these surfaces serves a psychological purpose, rendering us ill at ease, temporarily divested of ourselves. This is a space of formal display and carefully manicured ostentation, a kind of anti-chamber of existence. Corporate lobbies are far bigger and more expensive than they need to be because their function is only vaguely to do with accommodating visitors. Like much of the corporate world, their rhetoric of brisk efficiency masks deep, almost byzantine levels of symbolism and mythology.
* The location is in fact another Mies van der Rohe designed building, the Toronto Dominion Tower, which is used as a stand-in for the much better-known Seagram. Like many US movies, American Psycho is filmed in Toronto. The exchangeability of the spaces is appropriate enough in itself.
Charles Holland and Elly Ward are directors of Ordinary Architecture