Top-secret research is not usually hidden behind the bare, plate-glass windows of a corner storefront at the intersection of two busy shopping streets. But that’s exactly where Honda, the automotive company, has inserted its new Advanced Design Center, a studio where scrupulously guarded concepts for future cars are born.
Before moving to this surprisingly exposed location in the Old Town area of Pasadena, California, the 10-person advanced-design team, an in-house R&D engine, had been buried deep in Honda’s corporate campus some 25 miles down the freeway, in Torrance. “We definitely needed a cooler, more vibrant environment—right in the thick of a hot neighborhood—to inspire us,” says Dave Marek, the company’s chief auto designer for its R&D Americas division.
Pasadena offered a lively creative scene within easy access to Honda headquarters; and just up the road from Old Town is the Art Center College of Design with its world-class automotive design school. Plus, the city already had a strong connection with Honda through the car company’s longtime sponsorship of the Rose Bowl and Rose Parade there. But how to give the Advanced Design studio an intriguing yet stealthy presence—and even more crucial, how to keep the team’s secret workings under wraps in such a curiously public spot?
Given the center’s focus on innovation, the solution clearly had to be the architectural equivalent of the experimental car of the future. When Marek met architect George Yu, he sensed an immediate creative kinship. Yu, who died of cancer this past July, had a history of rethinking conventional workplaces and exploring the possibilities of sometimes ordinary materials and cutting-edge, often digital, technologies, as with the Virgin Digital/Lost Boys studio, in Vancouver, where he and Jason King created sheer polyester window coverings embedded with light-responsive “memory coils” and IBM’s e-business center, in Chicago, where they integrated plasma screens and lenticular coatings into the interior furnishings.
When Yu toured Honda’s Torrance facility early in the project, he was captivated by the computer-controlled milling machines on which designers make high-density foam, rapid-prototyping molds for full-scale car models. Excited by the prospect of borrowing this technology, he asked for permission to “play with” the equipment after-hours to create architectural components for the Pasadena studio. His concept was to insert into that 6,000-square-foot space, at the base of a 1904 building, an undulant “cocoon” of translucent acrylic. Since local ordinance prohibited storefront window coverings, the idea was to shield the 10 designers’ workstations and model shop from street view, while filtering daylight into that inner realm.
Architect in charge: George yu
Senior designer: Sandra Levesque
Designer: Daniela Franz, designer
Junior designer: Marius Eggli
Architect of record: George Yu
CAD system, project management, or other software used: Rhino, illustrator, vectorworks
Raised flooring: Palm wood (in conference room)
Aria Advanced Composites Manufacturing
Office furniture: Vitra
Lighting: Pacific National Group
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