Installing text-based artwork at the Gannett headquarters in northern Virginia, Lehman-Smith + McLeish put the edge in edge city
Laura Fisher Kaiser -- Interior Design, 8/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Reminiscent of the iconic headquarters erected in mid-century suburbia by American Can and Reader's Digest, Gannett Co.'s sprawling campus in Tysons Corner, Virginia, comprises three polyhedrons covered in silvery reflective glass. There's a central "podium," a nine-story building for USA Today, and an 11-story tower for corporate operations. The 24-hour gym, tennis courts, bank, and helipad are more mini-metropolis than office park, but what adds most visibly to the quality of life are five site-specific works of art commissioned under the supervision of Lehman-Smith + McLeish, the firm that handled interior architecture for the complex as a whole.
"Because Gannett was brand-new," says project-team head Debra Lehman-Smith, "we had an opportunity to tie in with the corporate philosophy from the very beginning." She also had the support of USA Today president and publisher Tom Curley, who says he was eager to avoid "art that's just part of a color scheme rather than capturing the organization's purpose." To mastermind the selection of artists, Lehman-Smith and partner James McLeish III brought in Art Sources consultant Lisa Austin. All five works eventually commissioned, says Austin, "fit conceptually with the media business. These installations are all about the relationship of text and art."
After determining which areas of the 880,000-square-foot Kohn Pedersen Fox complex were best suited to artistic additions, LSM contacted a handful of artists, recommending specific locations to think about in drafting proposals. "It was their genius that came up with the actual forms," Lehman-Smith says. Integrating those forms sometimes required LSM to rework lighting, structure, or mechanicals, so creative and technical discussions went back and forth. "In some places, the art complements the space," she continues. "In other places, the art is the space."
The latter is particularly true in a ground-floor perimeter hallway in the USA Today building, where three 13-by-23-foot Ed Ruscha panels proclaiming "Words in Their Best Order" loom like Burma Shave signs. Much of Ruscha's early work was inspired by the billboard ads that once dotted Route 66—making him a fitting choice for Gannett, which used to be in the billboard business. These vinyl murals, mounted on light boxes, are in fact billboards, fabricated at a former Gannett plant in Toronto.
Past the Ruscha sits a sculpture by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. El Corazon de las Palabras (The Heart of the Words) is a glass box sandblasted with quotes from mystic poet William Blake. Example: "One thought fills immensity." Squeezing through a small opening, you can step inside and stick your head into another chamber, where mirrors reflect your image and a squiggle of red neon, symbolizing the human heart, into infinity.
On the level below is In the Lair of the Skull, created by conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. The neon piece—requiring 168 transformers and a separate access panel to install—is one long, syntactically dense quote by sociologist Benedict Anderson. Beginning "The newspaper is merely an 'extreme form' of the book," his 260-word rumination stretches over 240 feet and includes a reference to Hegel.
Wittgenstein's famous quotation is deconstructed in The Limits of My Language Are the Limits of My World, three monumental oil paintings by British artist Tom Phillips. The intensely colorful series begins as a word puzzle in the first canvas. The text becomes more fluid and calligraphic in the second and is overlaid with stenciled words. By the third, the text is wholly abstract; at 20 paces, it looks like a million pixels.
Lita Albuquerque's stunning Aperture has proved to be something of a temptation. The work consists of glass boxes filled with blue pigment, embedded in the floor, and lit with fiber optics to display original poem fragments ("A place of stillness where Blue resides"). The boxes, nine in total, form a path to a large sphere in the same shimmering blue. The surface looks so ethereal that many people can't resist touching it. Three longtime employees, apparently under its hypnotic spell, went so far as to trace "Kilroy Was Here" in the dusty pigment—and were summarily fired. "We're trying to come up with another formula, so the sphere will look velvety and lush but not mar as easily," says Austin. "We're going to test it by making fiberglass mock-ups and touching them endlessly."
Along with such modifications, LSM and Austin anticipate that the media giant will continue to build its collection, which so far includes photographs culled from USA Today's archives as well as purchased works by Dawoud Bey, Heidi Cody, and Barbara Kruger. "The plan is to fill in over time," says Austin. Lehman-Smith paints the bigger picture: "Here's this creative, intelligent, highly motivated workforce, so the art should say something about them as well as challenge them."