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Creativity replaces cookie-cutter in architecture

The SEI Design Group office is one of Rochester's Coolest Spaces. The firm also did the design on the Rochester City School District's School No. 12 on South Avenue, another site honored. (Provided)

The SEI Design Group office is one of Rochester’s Coolest Spaces. The firm also did the design on the Rochester City School District’s School No. 12 on South Avenue, another site honored. (Provided)

In another age of architecture, the hallmark of a project often wasn’t design creativity.

It was more like: have Jell-O mold, will build.

Just look at the cookie-cutter sports stadiums constructed from the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Who could tell the Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh from Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati from Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia from Busch Stadium in St. Louis from Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta.

Educational structures weren’t much different. No need for natural light when you have fluorescent bulbs.

MORE: Rochester’s Coolest Spaces

“You could identify the architect just by looking at the outside of a building, said Victor Tomaselli, architect and senior principal at SEI Design Group in Rochester.” They weren’t always savvy or sensitive to aesthetics.”

My, how times have changed. Now the architect is much more often allowed to incorporate artistic capabilities within the design structure, turning empty space into a sensory escape.

Rarely is it just one mind creating the design plan, however.

“We have a group of 10 designers that get together and brainstorm every project,” said Allen Rossignol, president and CEO of Edge Architecture in Rochester. “We critique our own work, and this really creates an energy for these designs, and I know that energy gets passed on to the owner (of the space).”

A trend now: social, collaborative spaces, Rossignol said. An area within a room is designed to create interaction among strangers without anyone knowing that’s the purpose of the blueprint. They were incorporated by Edge into the creation of Teen Central, part of the renovation project at the City of Rochester’s Bausch and Lomb Public Library Building, and at SUNY Geneseo’s dining hall.

“Unscheduled collisions of socials interactions,” Rossignol explained. “Starbucks started the whole idea of where you bump into people.”

Edge Architecture has been working with Barnes & Noble on just that sort of space. “It’s done with soft seating areas, maybe in a place where you might be waiting for a friend to show up,” he said.

Sometimes in an adaptive reuse project, the creative ideas accentuating modern design bring back to life the essence of a bygone century.

“It’s like playing the old rustic against the new sleek,” said Al Pardi, president and partner at Pardi Partnership Architects of Rochester.

Pardi’s firm did just that a few years back with Howard Hanna’s Rochester headquarters at the intersection of West Broad and West Main streets. The building was a warehouse, which utilized the aqueduct that is now Broad Street.

“Barges would pull up adjacent to the building and be unloaded,” Pardi said.

Remembering that past was key in the creation of the offices for Howard Hanna (at the time Nothnagle). “The access doors were built to be like the original doors,” Pardi said. “There are wood beams and wood columns mixed with real slick, contemporary designs and contemporary lighting.”

Not far away in the High Falls District sits the headquarters of SEI Design. When the partners founded the firm in 2006, they were looking for space that would be functional but also sell they work before they ever had to say a word. They toured the old, vacant Parry Building, a structure built in the mid-1800s, and knew right away they had found their home.

“It was basically an open shell with raw ceilings, floors and walls,” Tomaselli said. “The character was pretty intense.”

In creating their office, preservation of the past was first and foremost. So rather than remove old manufacturing equipment that was still in place, they worked it into the decor. A steel shaft is suspended from the ceiling and runs the length of the building, probably 80 to 100 feet. It was a mechanism powered by water in a bygone era. From it hang chains from the pulley system used in the warehouse 150 years ago. Those implements were tidied up and now give the office one-of-a-kind, this-is-how-it-was-once-done character.

“They would use that system to pick stuff probably off a horse-drawn cart and bring it into the building,” Tomaselli said. “There’s a rich history in this part of town that we as architects believe should be respected. Everything is all very modern, but it blends well with that history, like the warm wood tones that complement the exposed brick walls.”

The SEI Design Group office is one of Rochester’s Coolest Spaces. The firm also did the design on the Rochester City School District’s School No. 12 on South Avenue, another site honored.

School No. 12 was your typical half-century-old school that de-emphasized walls and used pods as classrooms. It also had a great number of interior rooms that were isolated from daylight, as well as a hallway and stairwell system that was functionally inefficient, SEI architect and principal Ted Mountain said.

“The pods were essentially four classrooms jammed into one, the only real separation between rooms were bookcases so the acoustics were poor, and it was also designed when there wasn’t emphasis on natural lighting,” Mountain said. “It was kind of depressing in these pods.”

The project was a challenge. The redesign of the stairways and hallways needed to be code compliant, and even though the three-story building was quite deep in structure, they wanted to bring natural light to as many spaces as possible.

So in going about renovation, the designers employed the same approach they always use.

“You evaluate and identify problems, issues and shortcomings,” Tomaselli said. “Then you interview the owner to determine pragmatic needs and aesthetic desires.”

Step two: “How can we solve the problems the building has inherently and aesthetically,” Tomaselli said.

At School No. 12, SEI architects achieved their functional and creative goals. They addressed the lack of natural light by adding upwards of 85 windows and creating two light courts that run from ground floor to roof, topped off by 30-foot-by-30-foot skylights.

Sometimes the space itself doesn’t really present challenges. Instead, a firm wants the old-style office structure replaced by today’s trends.

“People don’t get offices lined in a row, they get work counters and stools with ping pong tables and pool tables not far away,” Pardi said. “There are informal sitting areas and lounges. And in the combined office space, we put indoor plantings and change the ceiling heights so you don’t feel like you’re in an airport.”

Pardi’s architects have ideas, but so does the client.

“We sit down with the owner of the company and we look at how they do their work,” he said. “And that’s the beauty of it; it’s based on the company.”

Most rewarding is when the client loves the work, and it impacts business. Statistics say that’s certainly the case at Teen Central in the library, where there’s an array of different spaces, including personal studios that allow the creation of projects such as music videos and movies. In the central area, overhead lighting features an array of colors that stimulate moods and minds.

“Since the grand opening in the spring of 2017, there has been a 62 percent increase in traffic to the spaces we designed,” Rossignol said.

That’s proof of the impact of creative design. And proof the Jello mold won’t ever be used again in architecture.

“Every project is unique, every building has different parameters, limits and problems,” Tomaselli said, “so they naturally all require a different solution.”

koklobzija@bridgetowermedia.com/(585) 653-4020

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