Flying Business Class
Lee Skolnick evokes flight metaphors in designing a Dayton, Ohio, center for training entrepreneurs
C.C. Sullivan -- Interior Design, 1/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Lee Skolnick's father inspired his son's architectural career, or at least the driven, entrepreneurial side of it. Not long after arriving in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1920's, the senior Skolnick—an émigré from Ukraine—opened a small grocery store that grew a reputation for house-brand preserves. Even late in life, Skolnick recalls, his father never sat still. Fed up with sugary children's drinks he called "belly wash," he invented a new and healthier beverage category with a catchy name: Juicy Juice. Business boomed.
"I grew up around that kind of spirit, spending my young years working in my father's business," says Skolnick, who designed a factory for the drink brand early in his career. "He was definitely a role model." The multidisciplinary nature of his own firm, Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, which he founded in 1980, reflects that enterprising impulse. When possible, LHSA + DP takes a fully integrated approach to a project, handling everything from architecture and landscape to interiors and signage. This soup-to-nuts method, which Skolnick calls "design as interpretation," has been notably successful with cultural venues, such as his Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
So there were good reasons that Skolnick jumped at the chance to design Aileron, a nonprofit center for promising entrepreneurs, the brainchild of businessman and philanthropist Clay Mathile, the man who turned Iams pet foods from a niche product into a global brand. To be built from the ground up in Mathile's hometown of Dayton, Ohio, Aileron would be a place for inspiration and reflection as well as instruction, where business owners could brainstorm and take flight—an idea exemplified by its namesake, the wing flap that provides an aircraft with lift, stability, and navigability.
"After we learned the philosophy of Aileron, it became clear that the project's potential lay in making the entire place an interpretive experience," Skolnick recalls. To his delight, Mathile agreed, putting Skolnick's firm in charge of overall design for the $30 million, LEED Gold project.
In laying out the 114-acre, mostly wooded campus, Skolnick drew on knowledge gained from his family's commercial ventures to create a site that's a visual and spatial metaphor for the way businesses grow. At the end of a long, circuitous driveway, which skirts a large pond and suggests the entrepreneur's questing journey, the winglike roofs of the main building appear—a set of curving, zinc-covered space frames that sit lightly on the sprawling two-story structure. An arrangement of courtyards and pavilions that combine solid planes of subtly striated native limestone with ethereal aluminum-and-glass window walls, the center nestles into a green slope beside the pond.
The probing path continues inside the building, with materials that match those outside: limestone walls, glass windows, slate flooring, teak decking, even a rough-hewn log bench. There is an apparent disregard for the conventional barrier of the facade —a seamlessness between exterior and interior that's like a quiet allusion to another key entrepreneurial trait: Visitors, it seems, are being asked to think outside the box.
Winding circulation areas make up perhaps 40 percent of Aileron's 70,000 square feet, with ample break-out spaces for interaction, tutelage, and reflection. Along the way, signs bear phrases and quotations, ranging from the Orwellian to the inspirational: "Decision-Making," reads one of 13 earnest bronze plaques on a ceremonial limestone hearth in the double-height rotunda, while architect Daniel Burnham's injunction to "dream no little dreams" floats across the digitally printed sky of a cantilevered, shag-carpeted lounge, a spot for unfettering the creative imagination.
Occasionally, the contemplative interior architecture is punctuated with technological flourishes. In one place, participants pass through a curved teak tunnel, ominously dubbed the Risk Corridor, crossing a glass threshold that features video images of hot coals and shifting ice floes. Nearby, a floor of teak paneling curves up to form a wall; the continuous surface is dotted with bronze plaques and 5-inch-square video screens that are visible only if approached from the right direction, suggesting that making a journey is not a guarantee of enlightenment.
Aileron seems less an executive training center than a careful composition of mass and space, etched and inlayed with signs and symbols that tell a compelling story. The Aileron Hall of Fame, for example, which will celebrate alumni who exemplify the institute's philosophy, comprises a sweeping blue-acrylic wall silk-screened with skeins of migrating geese—an image that implies both collaborative effort and individual ideas taking flight.
Skolnick's simple background palette—slate and white-oak flooring, sheer white curtains, dark-stained Douglas fir walls, Scandinavian furnishings, and handsome horizontal raked joints in the blue-streaked limestone—defers suitably to such programmatic installations. The graphics and exhibits deliver complex entrepreneurial ideas in small, stimulating packets—little jolts of energy to ignite the imaginations of the business leaders who come daily. However it's the big moves, the grand views, and the evocative blanks—like that dreamy blue-sky ceiling—that make Aileron soar.
Project Team Paul Alter; Jo Ann Secor; Alethea Cheng; Miguel Cardenas; Joern Truemper; Doug Hassebroek; Huerta Neals; Shawn Walsh; Dorothy Neagle; Peter Hyde; Christina Lyons; Maja Gilberg: Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership. Heapy Engineering: Commissioning Authority. John Poe Architects: Code Consultant. Otte Enterprises: Natural Resource/Environment Consultant. Clarient Group: Audiovisual Consultant. Jaffeholden: Acoustic Consultant. Renfro Design Group: Lighting Consultant. Buro Happold: Sustainable Design and LEED Consultant, MEP, Structural Engineer. LBJ: Civil Engineer. Mock Woodworking Co.: Woodwork. Vivian Llambi & Associates: Landscaping. Brackett Builders: General Contractor. Product Sources from Front Knoll: Chairs (Terrace), Side Table (Rotunda, Dream Room), Lounge Chair, Ottoman (Dream Room), Side Chairs (Library). West Coast Industries: Tables (Terrace). Rheinzink: Roof Panels (Exterior). Exhibit Concepts: Plaques (Journeycorridor, Rotunda), Partitions (Theater). Ceilings Plus: Ceiling System (Theater, Rotunda). Neidhardt: Custom Pendant Fixtures (Rotunda). Living Divani: Chairs, Sofa. Madison Millinger: Rug. Bentley Prince Street: Carpet (Library). Moroso: Armchairs, Sofa. Baswa: Ceiling System (Exhibit Wall). Throughout Through Stone Center: Limestone. Kawneer: Window System. Weiffenbach Marble & Tile Co.: Slate. Cincinnati Floor Company: Oak Flooring.Photography by Alan Karchmer.