The Chromaphone: A New Landmark Transforms a Corporate Office Tower

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How do you transform a corporate office building into a destination place? That was the challenge presented to ESI Design. The firm’s novel solutions include a modern-day interactive clock tower (“The Chromaphone”) and design features which connect interior and exterior spaces, creating an inviting experience for both tenants and visitors.

Contributor Franck Mercurio speaks with Chris Niederer of ESI Design to learn more.

In the center of downtown Glendale, California, stands 101 North Brand, a 19-story office tower billed as “Glendale’s Trophy Address.”

But 101 North Brand was not always so high style. Built in 1990, the tower’s original design reflected the anonymous corporate architecture of that era. And as the building approached its 30th year, its owners, Beacon Capital Partners, decided to make some changes. But how to convert this corporate structure into something less “corporate?”

Enter ESI Design, the EGD firm tasked with transforming 101 North Brand into a more inviting place, one that could become a destination for both tenants and visitors.

ESI’s strategy included a redesigned—and reimagined—plaza and lobby, connecting both interior and exterior spaces with updated branding, landscaping and new architectural details, all working together to create more welcoming spaces.

“As experience designers, we’re really trying to take this kind of generic space and make it into a real place using all the tools at our disposal, whether they be signage and graphics or the design of architectural elements,” says Chris Niederer, ESI’s lead designer on the project. “We brought all of that together to create one cohesive experience making this building really feel unique.”

But ESI went one step further. In the plaza of 101 North Brand, they incorporated a large-scale Chromaphone or musical clock tower. This interactive work of public art serves as an iconic centerpiece for the refurbished plaza and a draw for both tenants and visitors.

“We were tasked with renovating this plaza in the heart of Glendale, and we found that a really interesting way to do that was to use the concept of a clock tower from village greens in the past,” explains Niederer. “This clock tower is integrated into the building and feels like an architectural piece.”

Standing some five-stories tall, The Chromaphone displays the time of day (and night!) in large digital numerals. At the top of each hour, it chimes out the time, just as a traditional clock tower might.

But what makes The Chromaphone truly engaging is its interactive features. Five “touchpoints” or touch consoles on a deck overlooking the plaza enable visitors to create and broadcast their own musical compositions and change the visual patterns on the clock tower’s 28-feet-tall LED screen. 

To keep users’ musical compositions from becoming cacophonous, The Chromaphone employs a pentatonic scale, a musical scale with five notes instead of eight. This allows one visitor or a group of visitors to play at one time—without creating clashing sounds.

“[The Chromaphone] is actually designed to be played by either one person or by multiple people,” says Niederer. “You can think of [the five touchpoints] almost as five different instruments in a band or like five keys on a keyboard.”

The Chromaphone also helps to connect 101 North Brand’s exterior plaza with its interior public spaces. The same digital media (specifically the images) playing on The Chromaphone are also played inside the building’s lobby. A signature red color, highlighting both exterior and interior design elements, further connects the outside with the inside.

To make all this happen, project leader Niederer worked with a team of professionals representing nearly every discipline, including graphic designers, sound designers, interior designers, media programmers, landscape architects, and fabricators.

And the response from the public?

“Overwhelmingly positive,” says Niederer. “It was really great to see people stopping by during install and asking what we were doing. North Brand is a very busy street, so people are super excited to play with [The Chromaphone] and see it come together.”

Want to learn more? Check out ESI Design’s web page about the 101 North Brand project at