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Transforming the American City
«Back to Transforming the American City: Oklahoma City      
Photo © Alan Karchmer

Devon Energy Center

Pickard Chilton

Oklahoma City

Scraping The Big Sky: A 50-story corporate headquarters rises over the Prairie

By Beth Broome

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If there is one single building that is emblematic of what might be called the renaissance of Oklahoma City, it is the gleaming new Devon Energy Center by New Haven–based architects Pickard Chilton. Soaring 50 stories over the low-rise downtown, the glass-and-steel tower has quickly become a reference point and a thing of wonder in this emerging, though still rough-at-the-edges, prairie town.

Devon Energy, an independent oil and natural-gas exploration and production company, was founded in Oklahoma City in 1971. Following numerous acquisitions, it grew rapidly to about 2,000 employees who were spread out across five different aging buildings downtown. Recognizing the need to unite the offices, the company in 2006 relaunched “Operation Scissortail,” a 2002 plan (named after the state bird) to develop a new corporate headquarters. Houston regularly wooed Devon, as it did other local energy interests. But management insisted on staying in Oklahoma City, refusing even to consider relocating to the suburbs, says Klaholt Kimker, the company's vice president of administration. “We could see in future years the city was going to be great,” he says. Kimker credits, among other things, a shift in the local bureaucracy and the introduction of the MAPS program (a penny sales tax for metropolitan capital improvements) with spurring the city's transformation. “Young leadership created an environment where Devon could stay and prosper,” he says.

In 2008, after reviewing the credentials of prominent core-and-shell architecture firms, Devon selected Pickard Chilton, which at the time had a staggering 17 high-rise buildings in the works worldwide (12 of them in North America). Though the resulting complex has several low-rise components that include public amenities, it is unquestionably defined by the tower. But erecting the city's tallest building was not the ultimate goal of Devon executive chairman Larry Nichols, notes principal Jon Pickard. “By following the logic of meeting Devon's business needs, we were able to create something that was compelling and special and could in fact become a key symbol for Oklahoma City—and it turned out to be a 50-story tower,” he says.

In its early analyses, the design team looked at the benefits and efficiencies of an upended, boxlike structure. Then they tweaked the form into a building that has a more interesting geometry with faceted and chamfered facades, but one that would still deliver the planning efficiencies characterized by a more prosaic shape. The geometry responds to the building's context, says Pickard. To the northeast is the center of downtown, to the northwest is the civic and arts district, and to the south is the newly revived Myriad Botanical Gardens. “There are so many vectors that are important,” he notes. “We wanted the building to radiate that attention and energy, and this translated into a geometry based on an equilateral triangle.”

To create a curtain wall that was energy-efficient yet still conveyed a dignified, civic quality, the team conducted dozens of enclosure studies to develop a strategy for mitigating solar-heat gain while not obscuring the awe-inspiring views out to the endless landscape. The architects ultimately arrived at a vertical glass blade with a ceramic frit, which is attached, on five-foot modules, to a stainless-steel-and-aluminum cladding system on the tower as well as a low garden wing to the west. Inside, the three inset corners that punctuate the floor plates shorten the perceived distances of the hallways, highlighting connections to the outside. Gensler (which did the interiors) designed the glass office partitions that—along with floor-to-ceiling, low-E glass panes and the inset corners—carry abundant daylight deep into the building.

Integrating into the city's fabric to create a meaningful civic space was another of Devon's main goals. “What Nichols charged us with was creating a center in downtown Oklahoma City,” says Pickard. To this end, Nichols insisted that the complex's ground level be open to the public. So the architects created a cylindrical volume for the main entry with a six-story-high, light-flooded rotunda that buzzes with the activity of employees during their workday, but also that of tourists and locals passing through. To the east, the atrium connects to the main tower and its elegant circular elevator bank (which will transport passengers to a top-floor restaurant once interiors are completed in November) clad with sapele-wood screens. To the west, it connects to a five-story barlike volume that houses a conference and training center on its upper floors (topped by a green roof) and Nebu, a corporate café, on the ground level. The café, which is open to the public, abuts a seating area that leads to a public green space, visually linking the complex to the Myriad Gardens across the street.

Devon also required a corporate auditorium, so the design team created a freestanding building with a 300-seat theater clad in embossed stainless steel. It not only anchors the western edge of the property and renders the garden a protected space, but it declares its role as a community resource that is available for public use. The last component of the program is the Colcord Hotel, a 12-story 1910 office building that was converted to a boutique hotel in 2006. Acquiring the property relieved Devon of the potential headache of an unhappy neighbor as construction progressed, but also resulted in a useful amenity and (by linking the building to the tower) the creation of another entry point for the new complex. Devon's interest in engaging its surroundings did not stop there. As the project developed, the company asked the city to form a tax-increment-financing (TIF) district to improve the Myriad Gardens, as well as upgrade the downtown streetscapes. A deal was struck, and Devon lent $95 million to speed up the improvements, with more money added by the city.

The architects say that pragmatism was a key driver of this project, which is targeted for LEED-NC Gold. “We wanted to create a beautiful building, but at the same time, we respect silly things like efficiency and practicality,” says Pickard. “I don't think Devon was interested in having an artist come in and say, 'This is my sculpture, and I hope you like it.' ” But, given the undeniable force of this towering object—on the skyline, on the surrounding landscape, and on the people who marvel from below—it is clear that it has already assumed an iconic status, symbolizing a renewed urbanism in Oklahoma City.

Completion Date: November 2012

Gross square footage: 1.9 million gsf

Cost: withheld

Architect and Site Design:
Pickard Chilton
980 Chapel Street
New Haven, CT 06510
203.786.8600; 203.786.8610 F

October 2012
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