Art for Buildings’ Sake

May 6, 2004
Exploring Art in the Built Environment
Weary and a little discombobulated after an eight-hour international flight, I stumbled off the plane into the Arrivals Hall of Philadelphia International Airport and was suddenly struck by the visual impact of Rob Fisher’s installation. Ever since the first cave paintings, art has been an important part of the built environment. Art can soothe and excite, define a company’s future goals, or help people remember their pasts.In 1999, a request for a proposal launched by the Philadelphia Office of Arts and Culture’s “Percent for Art Program” for the Philadelphia International Airport went out internationally. One of the airport’s spaces in the art program was the new International Terminal. “The space was associated with Philadelphia, a city I had grown to love for its history and its artwork and as the home of the Declaration of Independence,” says Rob Fisher, artist, Bellefonte, PA. Fisher had a personal understanding of the new terminal where everyone entering the United States of America via Philadelphia arrives. A first-generation American himself, Fisher has seen his own family live their version of the American dream. Using the Declaration of Independence in the hall in his artwork entitled “American Dream” was the perfect fit for the artist.“The question then was, ‘How do you interpret the subject of the Declaration of Independence?’ ” says Fisher. Using an enlargement procedure, Fisher was able to faithfully render the Declaration’s text on a bold scale. The artist wanted his work to serve a function; it should welcome and embrace the country’s new arrivals as their loved ones do. In bold, 14-foot letters, the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness blaze across the curved walls hugging the space.Fisher worked with the designers of the elegant space, acclaimed architectural firm Kohn, Pedersen & Fox, New York City, early in the construction process. The hall’s 90-foot railing separates the incoming passengers from the main hall and features the signatures of the Declaration’s signers. “I knew people would be waiting forever and I wanted a metaphor of a leaning rail so that people could rest on the Founding Fathers,” says Fisher. While waiting for arriving flights, visitors eagerly lean on the soft top of the comfortable railing. Blue and white neon highlights keywords in the art piece and connects the art with the sky, visible through the hall’s atrium. “I looked at it like concrete poetry,” says Fisher. The complete Declaration of Independence has been enlarged onto lit stained glass panels to greet visitors.Never formally trained as an artist, Fisher received a dual degree in humanities and engineering from MIT and first studied visual design in the architecture department. “I never anticipated going into art. I was looking at interior architecture or industrial design,” says Fisher. After studying the interaction between art and architecture in Italy and Scandinavia, Fisher started out in the art world with gallery pieces and stage sets. Adds Fisher, “It was at a time in the early ’60s when Scandinavian art was at its peak. I saw a functionality to art and artists and [a place] where artists were not treated like flakes.”   At the AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals Visitor Center in Wilmington, DE, Fisher also worked closely with CUH2A, a well-known Princeton, NJ, architectural firm; the building owner; the art consultants; and building contractors. In the visitor center, Fisher installed a sculpture entitled “Slice of Life.” “The scientists there immediately saw the artwork was a cell, but the piece has so many other interpretations: clouds or smoke or a river delta,” says Fisher. The organic, free-flowing art piece floats in the space, tying together the exterior with the interior and engaging employees and the general public. Fisher’s sculptures are in many major corporate centers, work that enlivens commercial spaces with the unexpected. Artist Thomas C. Jackson, Cedar Rapids, IA, has seen his own oil paintings transform the built environment. Jackson’s artwork has several different influences, including ancient Egyptian art, the French Impressionists, and the 1950s New York City Abstract Expressionist movement. From the Louvre to the Field Museum, Jackson has visited museums around the world to study and be inspired by art. “I hope that people respond to my work and [that it] makes them think of things in their lives or feel a certain way,” says Jackson. Jackson studies how other artists use color, divide space, and create texture. Each one of his art pieces originates from a specific idea or artifact, and then develops its own life. “It is not important to me that people see the influences. My work is abstract and people can bring their own experiences to it,” says Jackson. Jackson studied art at Western Illinois University and at the University of Notre Dame, and later taught painting and drawing for a small college. After a long and varied career in business, Jackson returned to his first passion and started a second career as a full-time artist in 2000.For a newly completed corporate campus for ACT Inc., a leader in assessment products headquartered in Iowa City, IA, the building owners purchased nine striking Jackson paintings. Most of Jackson’s placements in the workplace have been through his gallery, the Cedar Rapids, IA-based CornerHouse Gallery, owned by Janelle McClain. Galleries serve as a conduit between artists, art consultants, and the business world. Artists are also invited to be in proposals. “People have seen my work on my website and they selected pieces they were interested in,” says Jackson The drop in the economy has made this a difficult time for artists and art buyers. However, Jackson believes the market is picking up. Fortunately, Jackson’s solo shows and participation in group shows have been successful. The economy also has spurred Vancouver, BC-based Joel Berman Glass Studios Ltd., one of the largest architectural glass art manufacturers in North America, to change the way it does business. With over 20 years of experience designing unique glass pieces for all kinds of environments, Joel Berman has pioneered a kiln-cast glass process. This process allows recycled or new glass to be placed on a bas-relief mold and kiln-fired.Before this process, cast glass was only available in small sizes, one sheet at a time. Now, the company can produce cast sheets up to 60 inches by 120 inches, in varying thicknesses and limitless textures. Partitions, luminaires, stair treads, and more, the glass can be used for multiple interior and exterior applications.Popular as canopies, exterior curtainwalls, boardroom walls, and office sidelights, Berman’s glass pieces have beautified a wide range of building types, including Blue Cross, Disney, General Motors, and the Westin Hotel. In the past, the glass artwork was site-specific. “Because we are site-specific, we were too slow for some of our clients and too expensive for some others. We made everything one at a time,” says Joel Berman, principal, Joel Berman Glass Studios. As a business, the company responded to its clients’ needs and budgets. “We have to respond and make our glass quicker for the end-user, the facility person, or the contractor, and more economically for projects that called for a lower budget but still a good-quality glass,” says Berman. Recently, Berman launched a new responsive company, the Berman Glass editions, to design, manufacture, and market a premium pressure-formed architectural glass with almost no lead time. Berman Glass editions is currently available in two organically derived textures: ima and etre. These sheets are available in sheets up to 80 inches by 132 inches. “We are able to make a lot of glass quickly and add a recycled component as well,” says Berman.Currently, the studio is involved with a curtainwall at a convention center and at a large retail mall – projects that once would have been too costly and slow. Two new textures are expected before the end of the year. Colors are also available to allow facilities managers complete customization.  To further respond to facilities managers’ needs, the studio can make a unique prototype and coordinate glass pieces for a boardroom wall and sidelights. Molds can also be kept for future projects to keep the design story. Sometimes a company will standardize on one of the studio’s designs to unite a series of facilities. Now, Joel Berman editions is coordinating with four distributors to shorten delivery times.Non-porous and durable, glass is very forgiving in terms of maintenance. “People often think of the old model of glass, cold and clear. This is not like that. Glass is very tactile. We want people to touch it,” says Berman. Art glass is meant to be touched to entertain people and cause a reaction. “Art is for art’s sake. Design is really about problem-solving and deals with the body and movement. We are about the blending of the two,” says Berman. He is excited about being able to create one-of-a-kind creations and mass market glass art pieces. The power of art in commercial spaces – be they airport terminals or boardrooms – is that it creates a relationship, a connection, and an interaction between the end-users and the building itself. Regina Raiford Babcock ( is senior editor at Buildings magazine.

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