The Way Forward
Rand Elliott transformed an Oklahoma City tunnel system into the Underground, a walk-in work of art.
Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 8/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Leave it to Rand Elliott to take art to a new level: 12 feet under. In a project encompassing public and private sectors, he's made sense of a decades-old tunnel system connecting buildings in the center of his beloved Oklahoma City. The way-finding scheme he devised for this pedestrian transport system qualifies as an art installation in itself.
Mixing artistry with utility is classic Elliott. "I've been involved with the arts virtually all my professional life," he remarks. That dates back to the late 1970's, when he became active in the Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts. Today, the staff of Elliott + Associates Architects numbers dozens of designers with painting, sculpture, photography, and music as avocations, and the firm's completed projects include a studio for Ballet Oklahoma and a light-sensitive apartment for the granddaughter of Oklahoma Territory photographer North Losey. "After all," he continues, "what is architecture but a combination of art and science?"
Elliott didn't have to dig too deep to satisfy Downtown Oklahoma City, the consortium that manages the passageways between the 23 buildings—the clients were desperate for a change from the tunnels' raw concrete walls and 1970's-style painted supergraphics. But before making a single physical change, he kicked off the effort with a branding exercise. The tunnel system, begun in 1931 and built mostly between 1972 and 1984, was originally called the Conncourse in honor of hometown banker Jack Conn. Its hip new name, the Underground, conjures up images of a "cool place that's functional, easy to navigate, and a destination, too," Elliott says.
On a more concrete level, the $1.3 million project entailed signage, paint, lighting, and carpet spread out over 3,000 linear feet. First, Elliott created a museum-worthy blank slate. Then came color—with gelled fluorescents. As a navigational tool, he assigned green to the passages connecting banks, blue to the federal buildings, red to county buildings, magenta to hotels, and so forth. In most areas, gray carpet tile with water-resistant asphalt backing covers the concrete floor. Intersections of tunnels are demarcated by black carpet, a band of black paint on walls and ceiling, and colored plastic-laminate panels listing each corridor's destination buildings. The panels' vinyl lettering is color-coded. Similar letters, this time in black, spell out "Underground" on steel columns at the system's 15 street-level entrances.
Ease of transport solved, Elliott had another mission: "Why not educate, entertain, and make people smile?" Coming up with a gallery concept, he turned to the Oklahoma History Center's archive of 6 million photographs. He ultimately bought 125 prints, framed them behind UV glass, and asked local historian Pendleton Woods to write wall labels for the nine subterranean galleries—each colored tunnel is interrupted by a white space hung with black-and-white photographs. In depicting Oklahoma City's evolution, the images also transmit some of Elliott's pride of place.
Another gallery space is slated to host quarterly group shows curated by a representative from a local arts organization—two years' worth of funding has been secured so far. And a related initiative is taking advantage of empty storefronts belowground. In place now for a six-month run is a video project depicting passersby in motion, and Elliott is soliciting proposals for future installations, temporary or permanent. The underlying message: Art is a draw for business investment.
The architect transformed the longest tunnel, 400 feet, into a permanent light sculpture, no photos needed. Walls lined with perforated steel screens are lit from below in glowing yellow and above in complementary blue. Of course, the Dan Flavin comparison is inevitable. For Elliott, though, it was merely a matter of "taking challenging existing conditions and making art."
Leaving no surface untouched, he even replaced convex security mirrors with larger versions—perhaps a touch of Anish Kapoor.