Architects have a responsibility to design a sensory experience for visitors and users, create a destination and develop a source of pride for the community. World renowned architects from Richard Meier and Renzo Piano, to Philip Johnson and, yes, John Portman, have observed, ‘Architecture is art’. But I think, perhaps, Frank Lloyd Wright said it best when he stated: “The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization.”
People personify buildings. Integrating art and architecture helps to humanize spaces and appeal to a person’s soul. A recent survey conducted by the Public Art Network of Americans for the Arts supports this notion. The study found that public art can engage civic dialogue and community, attract attention and economic benefit, connect artists with communities, and enhance public appreciation of art.
While this sentiment is universal, art and architecture must respond to the local culture. Take color, for instance. People tend to have an immediate reaction to colors and, while there’s much symbolism associated with color, its meaning may vary by geography. For example, in China, red is a prominent color and embodies a sense of fortune and national pride. Considered an auspicious color in the Chinese culture for centuries, in more recent times, red also has become associated with the communist party. It is considered a powerful color, strong enough to not only bring good luck, but to also ward off bad fortune. Red is a significant color in Indian culture as well where it is worn in marriage ceremonies and considered a holy color.
Often, it’s not just the color but the tonality (or saturation or hue) of the color that brings added meaning. Given the choice between two blue boxes, what American woman would not immediately recognize the significance of a ‘Tiffany’ blue one? In Chinese culture, a similar light blue represents nature and wood, while dark blue suggests immortality. Did you know that most humans can perceive more than 2.8 million different hues?
Even when colors have positive meanings, color should be used appropriately and respectfully in architecture. Red is relatively easy to use on a building—as an accent color, in a prominent position, etc. While it’s a fun color, one should be careful not to get carried away. Too much could overwhelm the viewer and result in the color losing impact.
When designing Beijing Yintai Centre, we wanted to incorporate meaningful use of color while ensuring that we were maintaining the elegant, understated feeling of the building’s design. Ultimately, the mixed-use complex, which is comprised of a 62-story Park Hyatt hotel flanked by two 45-story office towers, incorporated an abstract representation of a Chinese lantern at the top of the central tower—creating a cube that as Pulitzer-prize winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger has noted: “is less of a crown applied to the top of the building as it is an element that evolves directly out of the building’s façade.” This ‘lantern’ lights the middle spire. A graphic representation of it appears as lighting fixtures on the roof garden, as grates covering mechanical equipment, as a bright red decorative element set into the podium façade and, again in red, on the Beijing Yintai Property Co.’s business cards.
Sometimes art is incorporated into the structure, such as with this lantern example, but it can also take the form of sculpture, painting or even paving textures in the myriad of design choices that add to the creation of a sensory experience.
At John Portman & Associates, we believe that works of art are a vital part of the public realm. Art must interact with the architecture, and vice versa. Just as it is hard to imagine Paris without the Eiffel Tower or St. Louis without the Gateway Arch, the goal is for the public art interwoven with our architecture to resonate so strongly with the community that it becomes impossible to imagine experiencing these buildings without their inspiring art.
One of our current office projects, Zhe Jiang Fortune Finance Center, due to open this fall in Hangzhou, China, is distinguished by the vibrant Lotus sculpture that sits between its two towers. Designed by Portman’s founder John C. Portman, Jr. – who is also an artist – the sculpture is comprised of a 32-meter tall red metal obelisk from which a 7-meter diameter glass and stainless steel lotus-shaped form is cantilevered just above head level. The work creates a focal point for the plaza as the base of the obelisk meets the ground one level below the plaza in a retail courtyard and rises 28 meters above the street level plaza. Conceived as an urban chandelier that achieves a unique, memorable presence meant to invoke a celebratory atmosphere in the public open plaza between the two towers, the sculpture also acts as a transition from the massive scale of the office towers down to that of the human being at ground level. It provides light and beauty to occupants of the plaza and refers in form to local natural elements.
The lighting for the lotus portion of the sculpture is concealed in the stainless steel core of the lotus element and in the stone floor pavers on the plaza, providing illumination from within and below. The glass petals in the lotus are fritted in various degrees of opacity to optimally illuminate the form of the flower. A high intensity light fixture in the cantilevered ledge of the lotus, and between the columns, provides a dramatic shaft of light that projects far beyond the top of the columns and the two office towers, into the night sky, creating a beacon of vertical light that identifies Fortune Finance Center's location in Hangzhou’s new central business district. The red color so prominent in the sculpture is especially meaningful considering its context in a Chinese city.
Winston Churchill once said: “We shape our public spaces, thereafter, our public spaces shape us.” Through the integration of sculpture, tapestry and paintings into public spaces, art is accessible to all. SunTrust Plaza, finished in 1992, was envisioned as an enduring symbol of progress and prosperity – an elegant icon on the Atlanta skyline. Designed to be a corporate headquarters tower, the building was not approached as merely an office tower meant to serve only those who work there. The welcoming public spaces of the plaza area and the lobby art gallery are intended to be lasting gifts to the city of Atlanta and her people. An adjoining building added in 2000, the SunTrust Plaza Garden Offices, continues the concept with its own amazing array of paintings and sculpture on display throughout its public spaces. There are 88 works of art enlivening the public spaces in and around the SunTrust Plaza buildings.
Public art is certainly a way to start a dialogue and engage people. It can also express, or even establish, a community identity. For developers and owners, the inclusion of public art in a project is a way to show building tenants that they care, give back to the community and place importance on the public space. As architects, it is our duty to be advocates for the people and the communities that we serve by elevating our work and enhancing our designs through the thoughtful inclusion of public art.
Lell Barnes is vice president at John Portman & Associates, where he has been a lead designer in the architectural firm’s Shanghai office for the past 11 years, conceptualizing projects throughout Asia.
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