Ancient future: From Google to Charlottesville, Parabola brings deep awareness to design

Kevin Burke, left, stands under the north-facing sawtooth roof of 1212 Bordeaux, the California office building his Charlottesville firm built for Google. Image: Google/Prakash Pratel Photography Kevin Burke, left, stands under the north-facing sawtooth roof of 1212 Bordeaux, the California office building his Charlottesville firm built for Google. Image: Google/Prakash Pratel Photography

Inside a North Downtown live-work space called Timepiece, the groundbreaking firm Parabola Architecture is quietly tackling some of the big design questions of our time. Co-founders Carrie Meinberg Burke and Kevin Burke designed Timepiece 20 years ago as a place to house both their family and the architectural practice, envisioning the building as a “focusing device” for syncing with the world’s basic rhythms. Daily and annual movements of light determine the angles of interior stair walls and the curved roof form.

Then, in 2016, the firm was entrusted with the formidable challenge of designing Google’s first ground-up office building, known as 1212 Bordeaux after its address in Sunnyvale, California. The project expanded the 4D experiential concepts from Timepiece to meet Google’s goal of solving for both focus and collaboration in the workplace. Deeply unconventional in form, 1212 defines distinct zones of light, thermal comfort, and acoustics. Its spaces range from the buzz of a sunny cafe to a vast, softly daylit workspace with sky views.

Parabola’s integrated expertise suggests design maxims that can apply to any scale or typology —including some of the design challenges facing Charlottesville, where they’re excited to be taking on more local projects.

Kevin Burke and Carrie Meinberg Burke, Parabola’s co-founders, believe that architecture of all types should begin with deep understanding of each site. Image: Google/Prakash Pratel Photography

1. Forces evolve form

Parabola’s guiding ethos is “forces evolve form.” The maxim rests on the foundational idea that a building can be a response to forces—natural and human—at a site, rather than a reiteration of a particular style, be it traditional or trendy.

2. Fittingness

For Parabola, dedicated observation of a site, from sun and wind to human context, has to be the first step in designing fitting architecture. “The key is to uncover design drivers from that knowledge,” says Meinberg Burke. This approach preempts “the rush to preconceived form”—the designer’s initial urge to fill the blank page—and instead derives form from site-specific forces of nature and culture. Beauty and cutting-edge performance (1212 is certified LEED Platinum) are the results.

3. Design out, build in

An emphasis on human and ecological health is part of Parabola’s DNA, based on the partners’ extensive background with Cradle to Cradle (the design philosophy of longtime Charlottesville firm William McDonough + Partners, where Burke was studio director) and the Living Building Challenge (a rigorous performance standard for buildings and part of Meinberg Burke’s expertise). Parabola’s approach is to consciously “design out” components with potentially adverse impacts, focusing instead on the presence of essential, authentic materials. In the case of 1212, this meant an untreated exposed steel structure that retains the markings of its manufacture, and innovative prefabricated concrete insulated panels that create both the interior and exterior finish of the building, without layers of additional materials and finishes.

Photo: Kevin Burke Photography

4. Design the ethereal elements

Light, air, temperature, sound, and scale—the intangibles—drove ancient design, and Parabola often draws from this principle. Timepiece is calibrated to daylight through an oculus in the roof, creating a focused beam of light that skims surfaces throughout the interior, the opposite of the shadow cast on a sundial. 1212 admits daylight through an extensive north-facing saw-tooth roof, affording views to the sky and a sense of changing light conditions throughout the day, all within a space that has the soft acoustics of a library reading room. 

 Those intangibles also explain why employees and visitors have remarked that the Google building seems to “have a soul.” Burke notes: “When design focuses on the human senses, there’s an alchemy that occurs well beyond the measurable benefits.”

Timepiece, Parabola’s Charlottesville live/work space, admits daylight through an oculus in the roof, creating a focused beam of light that skims surfaces throughout the interior. Daily and annual movements of light determined architectural form, such as the stair wall angles and curved roof form. Photo: Prakash Patel Photography

5. Calibrate experiences

Human scale and senses are among the factors that evolve form. “Human beings are the given,” says Meinberg Burke. Thinking about what occupants would see and hear in the space informed Parabola’s design of daylight, sightlines and acoustical systems at 1212. Windows tilted north disperse light evenly, obviating the glare of direct sunbeams and allowing occupants to glimpse the sky. Absorptive materials and a sound-masking system soften and cancel background noise.

 She and Burke view lighting on the Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall as a feature that could benefit from a similarly experience-focused design. “When you’re sitting in certain places on the Mall at night, you’re blinded,” she says. Awareness of contrast ratio and calibrated placement of light fixtures would mean a better experience. 

6. Constraints enable innovation

Architects can look at limitations—like building codes, budgets, and timelines—not as obstacles but rather as engines for design innovation. Parabola delivered 1212 on time (the process took just 22 months) and within a conventional budget, while still meeting Google’s goals for human and environmental health. “Google gave the challenge back to us,” says Burke, paraphrasing the client thus: “We don’t want to expand the budget or timeline. Within those enabling constraints, what can we get?”

He and Meinberg Burke say that cities, Charlottesville included, can write impactful constraints into building codes—for example, defining zoning envelopes with solar orientation in mind to carve out space to bring light to rooftops and pedestrians. Experientially, the south side of the street is vastly different from the north side, and this ought to be a consideration in urban design, Burke says. 

Kevin Burke and Carrie Meinberg Burke, Parabola’s co-founders, believe that architecture of all types should begin with deep understanding of each site. Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

7. Master builder model

Tight teamwork is the key to succeeding within given limits. Parabola’s commitment to a flowing give-and-take with builders and other collaborators has its roots in their experience as the contractor on Timepiece. The project revolutionized their approach to communicating design intent to those who will enact it.

“That was a profound realization that we’ve carried forward to our subsequent projects,” Meinberg Burke says. “On 1212, our role was to establish the design vision and to communicate the why of a design, all the way through construction. That enabled the builders to infuse their intelligence and experience.” The project has won numerous awards, including California AIA’s Leading Edge award for excellence in design and sustainable performance.

 Similarly, this master-builder design process infuses the builder’s wisdom during the earliest phases of design, and design thinking throughout construction, an approach that could translate well to Charlottesville’s new development projects. 

8. Reveal craft

To “design out” fireproofing, say, not only eliminates unhealthy materials; it allows the building’s steel structure (the “bones of the building”) to speak to its users. 1212 showcases construction markings on its structural frame and makes exposed steel a significant aesthetic element. The work of tradespeople and craftspeople is fully on view.

 “People can tell when something’s been made with care,” says Meinberg Burke. “The only way to do that is to fully engage everyone in the process, and allow them the opportunity to manifest their own work.”

9. Adaptability

A large, open span inside 1212, free from structural columns, not only makes the interior pleasing to users, it means that the building will have great adaptability for different functions in the future. “Look at the Downtown Mall,” says Burke. “Ninety percent of those storefronts and interiors have been adapted and changed. Buildings need to be robust enough to allow for constant change and evolution of use.”

 Within the tech industry specifically, he adds, there’s a persistent need for flexibility, which Charlottesville architecture will have to address in order to attract high-tech businesses. “In the tech workplace there’s a preference for co-locating teams that expand and contract, and open, democratic workplaces supported by a range of private meeting room types,” he says. “Companies will want to continuously evolve the way they’re working, and the architecture needs to support this evolution.”

10. Design for life

“We think design can enhance health and quality of life,” says Meinberg Burke. In Sunnyvale, the native habitat is oak savanna, not the irrigated green lawns of what had become a suburban context. 1212, to which Charlottesville firm SiteWorks contributed landscape design, is “an island of the native,” says Burke.

 If human and ecological health are inextricably connected, Parabola says, then the notion of biophilia—our innate love of nature—is activated by built environments where occupants experience natural rhythms: daylight, weather, and seasons.

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