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How a Law Firm’s Office Bridges the Gap between Traditional and Modern in the South

In architecture, there is a divide of sorts between two styles: the pull of the traditional – a retelling of a storied past, based on preconceptions and rooted in culture – and the alluring progressiveness of modern.

Bridging that gap – or chasm, at times – can be difficult, especially if the client itself is divided between the two sides, wanting two different looks and environments for the project.

If some involved want traditional, and some want contemporary, how do you find a middle? How do you bring both together and deliver a project that satisfies all while remaining functional and true to the purpose of the structure and the outward message the client wants to transmit?

With one commercial architecture project, we were faced with that exact challenge. The law firm of Estes, Sanders & Williams, LLC, based in Birmingham, knew it needed a new home but had differing opinions and feelings and perspectives concerning the look and layout of the firm’s abode. Some concerns were functional in nature; some were aesthetic. But there existed a divide between those who felt comfortable with a traditionalist design and those who wanted something more progressive.

To resolve the dichotomy, we sought to meld the two into something that less resembles an uneasy truce and more resembles an understanding – if not agreement.

One feature that stands out is the front colonnade. Colonnades, particularly in the South, represent certain perceptions about status, respect, and formality. We created traditional echoes of those concepts with a colonnade that begins straight, then peels away from the building in a more dynamic gesture. It is the rhythm of this colonnade that influences the more abstract window patterns that wrap the remaining parts of the building.

A distinct visual cue as to the ongoing struggle between the two styles are the gabled “temples”. While in form and mass they are identical, but in style they are at opposite ends of the design spectrum.

As you move from the outside into the inside, you are encountered by a bolder, more modern take on a law firm’s interior. The front lobby and waiting area are irregular in shape; the executive assistant’s desk is a juxtaposition of traditional wood with sleek metal and smooth lines; the textured stone wall that moves from the exterior to the interior at the entrance speaks to a foundation in the past while incorporating a 5’ wide swinging maple panel, absent of any noticeable hardware, which pushes forward in a more progressive modern sense, addressing the essence of a door.

Moving further into the building, one encounters an open workspace without traditional barriers and walls, but still one that speaks to age and culture with exposed wood rafters above and stone-and-wood tables throughout. A room full of straight lines, regular shapes, and something comforting and standard.

Only a short distance away, though, is another scene altogether; a very modern private meeting room surrounded by circular partitions, isolated in the middle, apart and independent. Even the colors are non-traditional, and contrast nicely with the colors of the floors, walls and overhead rafters.

Finally, in an ode to soft, regal comfort that is unique to the South, the firm’s open-air sitting area harkens back to the traditions and cultures of our part of the country: a firm, strong colonnade with a stone fireplace, wicker furniture, and conservative décor. The open area encourages attorneys, clients, and guests to sit, socialize, converse, and relax – a scene pulled firmly from Southern heritage and society that offers a respite from the hectic, fast-paced environment a law firm can become.

For Estes, Sanders & Williams, our goal was to reconcile two competing worlds and offer a way to move forward, incorporating what makes us comfortable and safe with what takes us a bit out of the comfort zone we were born into.

The end result is a building that speaks to both sides, without discarding either. A harmony built somewhere in the middle.

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