In a nondescript industrial park a few miles west of Madison, Wisc., the unlikeliest of new buildings has sprung to life in the form of a $21 million, 250,000-square-foot homage to the art — and business — of illusion. Its “limestone” exterior is in reality painted concrete pavers suspended vertically. The “wood” that lines much of the 80,000 square feet of office space is paper laminate over particle board. Traffic markings seemingly dyed into the 170,000-square-foot factory floor are actually colored images projected from high overhead. Even the “window politics” that typically define the hierarchy of employee work spaces have been turned inside out to exalt the lowly in natural light and confine the mighty to the shadows of their minions.
But the piece de resistance in this trompe l’oeil palace is its lobby, a three-story theatrical set dubbed Town Square, inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper. Town Square’s centerpiece is the reception desk, a three-dimensional rendering of the diner in Hopper’s most famous painting, “Nighthawks.” As a visitor makes a 360 degree sweep of the room, the eye encounters what appears to be a studio back lot. But on this set, a three-dimensional façade of 1940s New York, each element opens into modern offices and work spaces. The “Kelly Insurance Agency” fronts the human resources department. An office machinery store with ancient manual typewriters in the window fronts the computer systems and help desk. The Century Theater is a product demonstration and staging area. P.S. 8 is a small training classroom.
All this might be little more than an extravagant exercise in whimsy were it not for one hard-nosed business fact that makes the entire illusion seem truly inspired: This is the new home of Electronic Theatre Controls, Inc., a company with a solid track record of weaving illusion into gold. In just over 25 years, ETC has grown from two brothers in a Wisconsin garage to an international powerhouse in the theatrical lighting industry.
Not surprisingly, both the company and its new headquarters sprang from the vision of the same man – ETC’s iconoclastic CEO, Fred Foster, whose egalitarian management philosophies and lifelong passion for theater set him on a quest in 2001 for a design team that could breathe life into his vision of the perfect new home for ETC. “The Unholy Alliance,” as Foster came to refer to his team, was to be a local effort. From the Madison area, he selected Erdman Development Group, a design-build company that specializes in medical clinic construction and also produces a line of durable office furnishings, and Strang Architects, a firm with a fat and varied portfolio of distinguished designs.
“Right from the start, it was clear that Fred was thinking outside the box,” recalls Peter Tan of Strang Architects.
Just how far outside the box Foster could get would depend not just on the imagination of Tan and fellow Strang architect Chris Oddo, but on the ability of the Erdman team leaders, Frank Miller and Jerry Scholtz, to embrace and realize concepts totally alien to the pre-built construction processes for which Erdman was widely known and admired. Though Erdman employs its own staff architects, Miller recalls that the decision to subcontract architectural design to Strang was essential.
“Not for one minute did I ever believe that the Erdman architects could have done this building, which is why alliances like this make so much sense,” Miller says.
The building’s most striking feature, Town Square, emerged from a series of head-scratching sessions in which the team struggled to invent a unique building that would meet several demanding criteria: bring what were then eight separate operations under one roof; realize Foster’s management philosophies; reflect ETC’s business and corporate character, and bring the whole project in at the cap that Foster had promised the board of this privately held corporation.
Money was a challenge right from the start.
“We were leasing eight different buildings to house all our operations,” Foster recalls. “We knew we would realize efficiencies moving everything under one roof, but what I told everybody was, ‘Let’s add up all the rents we’re paying for all eight facilities; then when we get a mortgage for the new building, I don’t want to have to pay more than that.’”
Working backward, the math was simple, but the results were disconcerting. They dictated a $21 million budget for a building that would have to be a quarter of a million square feet. That came out to about $75 per square foot, less than half the cost of a typical Erdman building.
“Certainly if you wanted any kind of aesthetic benefits, it was going to be really hard to do,” Foster says.
But instead of just settling for a tilt-up concrete building and calling it a day, the team got creative, searching for ways to use ordinary off-the-shelf materials in a creative way. And in doing so, they quickly discovered a link to the company’s roots.
“What was neat about this project,” Tan recalls, “was that it played right into the theater metaphor. Theater is all about illusion, about getting maximum effect with minimal means. So the tight budget was actually a positive thing, because it really played into what theater is.”
Town Square was a concept that evolved as the design stage progressed – so much so that today neither Foster nor Tan nor Miller can recall who first broached the idea. What they do recall was that Foster was originally looking for a common ground between the factory and office, where employees from both worlds would mingle and interact.
“We’ve invested a lot of effort in making both sides of the building work right,” Foster says. “I had this real fear that once we were all together under one roof we’d suddenly discover we really didn’t like each other very much, which is a very real, non-zero possibility. Each operation had its own culture and, in some cases, even ethnic concentrations, which had happened kind of naturally. What tools could we use to break down the walls between the factory and the office?”
A commons area began to emerge as the solution Foster was seeking. At first, the team dubbed this area Main Street. But that concept was too linear for the building’s outside dimensions, which were dictated in large part by the parameters of the building site, giving way to the Town Square idea. Still, Foster recalls that Tan’s original designs “somehow didn’t feel right.”
“The earliest renderings Peter did of Town Square were kind of provincial Southern Wisconsin small town,” Foster recalls. “I guess I had a more urban concept in mind, so I brought in Hopper’s Nighthawks and said, ‘How about this as a hook?’ It’s always been one of my favorites—and, I have since found out, everybody’s favorite it seems.”
But the team had to keep reminding themselves that the primary purpose of Town Square was not a showroom but a mixing and gathering place for the employees of the company.
“So we looked for things that would draw the population up,” Foster says. “The insurance company is our HR help desk, where you go with a problem with your paycheck or your insurance. P.S. 8 is an HR training area. The Acme Office Machinery Company is our computer help desk. Frank Miller & Son haberdashery is a swag store where you go to buy ETC stuff. We have a real travel agent in the Fox Travel Agency, who books business travel but also holiday travel.”
Though this was a company built on theatrical lights and control systems, lighting challenges arose immediately. The first was figuring how to replicate the mood and colors in Hopper’s sultry Nighthawks painting, which was completed between 1940 and 1942, a time when harsh fluorescent lights were in wide use.
“Recreating Hopper’s paintings is an exercise in lighting, because it simply can’t be done.” Foster asserts as he produces a print of the original Nighthawks on display in Town Square. “If you look at the lighting that’s on the people and on the walls, it’s this featureless wash of fluorescence. One aspect of fluorescence is that you get no shadows, but then there are these inexplicable shadows out on the sidewalk, which can’t happen with what must have been just strips of fluorescent lights.”
As he struggled with these details, Foster decided to bring in two people who would end up playing a significant role in the final look of Town Square – scenic artist Paul Sannerud of Viterbo University and famed theatrical lighting designer Duane Schuler, whose clients include New York’s Metropolitan Opera and the Lyric Opera. It was Sannerud who expanded the Town Square concept from a single Hopper-esque anchor into a full-blown Hopper set. It was Schuler who brought the set to life with lighting that simultaneously created the massive illusion of a stage and captured the nuance of Tan’s architectural detail.
“My idea was to just recreate that painting, and everything else would be pretty realistic,” says Foster. “But Paul said, ‘If you’re going to do Hopper, do Hopper.’”
Suddenly, Foster’s single, one-story visual homage became a massive, three-level stage that soared as high as 40 feet and enveloped visitors in 360 degrees of illusion from the moment they entered the lobby. “His addition to the project was to adopt a Hopper palate and to deconstruct and spread Hopper paintings out all over the façade,” Foster says.
At first, Schuler was stumped by the lighting in Nighthawks. His original concept for the diner ceiling was to place ETC’s Source Four PARs overhead in a cove, then use ellipsoidals to wash out the lighting and create the shadows. But as Foster recalls, “We couldn’t really make it make sense. We were scratching our heads about 10:30 at night when Duane asked, ‘Do you have a fluorescent light?’ I went around and found the contractor’s stack of unhung fluorescents and put an eight-foot fluorescent strip up there, and it was the right kind of light. It was easy: if Hopper painted fluorescents, let’s light it with fluorescents.”
In fact, it wasn’t quite that easy. First, the color still wasn’t right, and it soon became clear that Schuler and scenery painter Sue McElhaney were not striving for the same yellow on the diner walls. That turned out to be a sourcing problem. The postcard of the painting from which Schuler had been working was printed in different hues than the print from which McElhaney was working. Once that was resolved with repainting and six rows of yellow fluorescent tubes, there was the human factor to consider.
“We were going to put our receptionists in there,” Foster says, “and it seemed awfully mean to make someone work under intensified yellow fluorescence all the time, so we put in a couple circuits of MR16 downlights to make it a more appealing place to work.”
Final details in the design included a nod to great lighting companies of the past. The Century Theatre was named for Century Lighting, the legendary lighting company that was eventually bought by Strand Lighting, now ETC’s biggest competitor. Just around the corner, an ad for Kliegl Brothers Lighting is a nod to that late company.
Could it be that these are less nods to industry predecessors than trophies? After all, ETC might well claim a large role in driving Century and Kliegl out of business.
“I would never say that,” Foster insists, with a smile that belies his denial. “I’m much too nice a guy.”