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McKinsey’s new Tokyo office is a perfect architectural metaphor

Look all you want, but you can’t see in.

The world’s largest management consultancy, McKinsey, has a reputation for discretion. After all, the highly competitive Fortune 500 clients that rely on the firm’s business prowess need to trust them as a partner. But over the past few years, media reports have exposed some ethically compromised practices at the company.

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Recent reporting shows that McKinsey consultants have been advising authoritarian governments for years, and that the organization even suggested that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spend less on food and medical care for detainees. This quiet series of scandals climaxed when Democratic candidate hopeful Pete Buttigieg was questioned about the projects he worked on during his tenure at McKinsey, and he quickly hid behind the stock nondisclosure agreement he had with McKinsey while downplaying the importance of his involvement.

So if you are a prestigious design firm hired to create a new office for McKinsey, what should you design it to look like? It couldn’t be your typical open concept with a few phone booths for taking calls. It would need to enable a culture of secrecy. It would need to look just like what the Japanese design firm Nendo created for McKinsey’s new IoT center in Tokyo: a series of rooms you are welcome to look at, but incapable of seeing into.

[Photo: Takumi Ota/courtesy Nendo]

The space has a disquieting beauty. Many of the external walls, and even podiums, are mirrored, reflecting green plants, the floor, and people walking by. Meanwhile, the central conference rooms are enclosed with a custom-made opaque glass. It’s not your standard clear panel, but a six-layer creation. The outer layers were molded into a pattern of 1’s and 0’s depicting data when the glass was molten. Sandwiched inside, four layers of clear film reinforce the structure to make the glass shatterproof. (Presumably, the rooms are soundproof, too.)

The bulbous surface of the glass made it painstaking to install, requiring twice the normal crew, and what Nendo calls “an extremely time-consuming construction,” because the suction cups normally used to place glass paneling couldn’t stick to the uneven panels. The result of this effort is a perfect metaphor for McKinsey itself: a place that’s hiding secrets in plain sight.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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