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Art in Architecture brings cultural flair to Pacific Rim's building portfolio

By Niah Whitmore

Examples of Art in Architecture installations
Left to right: Ribbons at 50 United Nations Plaza, Farm Sprinklers at United States Courthouse Bakersfield, Skygarden at the San Francisco Federal Building, and An Album: Sewing into Borderlines at the Mariposa Land Port of Entry

Creating art for federal buildings has been an important American tradition for more than 150 years, since Congress first commissioned artists to create paintings and sculptures for the Capitol Building. It’s a tradition that GSA proudly continues today.

GSA’s Art in Architecture Program oversees the commissioning of artworks for new federal buildings and courthouses nationwide. President Kennedy’s Ad Hoc Committee for Federal Architecture of 1963 recommended “where appropriate, fine art should be incorporated in the designs of federal buildings with emphasis on the work of living American artists.”

The Pacific Rim Region has been fortunate to have a diverse portfolio of vibrant federal architecture and artwork that, through fruitful collaboration, have been incorporated in the design of our buildings. The regional program includes paintings, sculptures, landscape design and a wide range of art, including “new media” artworks such as lightworks and video displays. Donald Douglass, Fine Artist Specialist for the region’s Art in Architecture Program, strives to build a positive collaboration between the building’s design architect and the artist to produce artworks in federal buildings and courthouses that create a lasting cultural legacy for the people of the United States.

“The completely revamped courtyard designed by artist Cliff Garten at 50 United Nations Plaza will be an excellent example of an artwork that is not only going to be beautiful, with its curved and twisted sculptural benches, granite fountains and birch trees,” Douglass said, “but a wonderful place for employees to relax momentarily during their workday.”

The new U.S. Courthouse in Bakersfield, which opened on July 16, 2012, is another great example of art complementing architecture. The structure is aesthetically beautiful and makes a distinct architectural statement that is responsive to the site and urban context. Oregon artist, Lucinda Parker, was selected to create original artwork for the courthouse. The result was Water Paintings, five captivating abstract, landscape pieces that underscore the importance of water in the parched climate found around Bakersfield. While some people may not understand abstract art, Parker believes “that individuals should stop worrying about what art means and just experience how it makes you feel.”

The Federal Building located at Seventh and Mission Streets in San Francisco stands out on many levels. Its aesthetics are bold, making it a design that is easy to spot among the city’s skyline, as is its Art in Architecture piece Skygarden, an installation of light which serves as a beacon to all who see it. The 18-story modern skyscraper, designed by award-winning architect Thom Mayne, is the first naturally ventilated “green” office building on the west coast. The gem of this building is the 11th floor Skygarden, an open-air, covered gathering space that is saturated by colored light that changes the way the structure of the area is perceived. As the colors gradually change, the experience can also be viewed from various locations throughout the city. Designed by James Turrell, Skygarden uses a custom built installation of light and color as foundational aspects for this captivating space.

The Mariposa Port of Entry located in Nogales, Arizona, one of the United States’ busiest commercial land ports, is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar modernization and expansion project that includes an Art in Architecture component. The south gate at the land port serves as a gateway to pedestrians crossing the border to and from Mexico. This is where internationally known artist Kimsooja is using an outdoor LED screen to project panoramic video portraits of a number of first and second generation immigrants from all different continents who have chosen to live in the United States. Her artwork is titled An Album: Sewing into Borderlines.

The LED screen will be positioned in the upper wall structure above the revolving doors at the south gate. It will face the Mexican side of the border, where pedestrians enter and detainees exit simultaneously. Kimsooja’s vision for this concept is to serve as an example to bring cultural understanding and positive interaction between the two countries by sharing the emotions, memories, and aspirations we all have in our lives.

Art in Architecture projects are extremely creative endeavors that consist of commitment and close and constant cooperation between GSA project teams, artists, architects, construction contractors, federal agencies, and private sector professionals, and result in an aesthetic expression through and within buildings. In all of the artwork and building designs created through this program, the talents and diversity of America’s artists are highlighted as something to be cherished and celebrated. These buildings and commissions will speak to future generations and are a record of who we are as a people and what we aspire to be as a nation.

“My participation in GSA's Art in Architecture program over the last 12 years has been a very rewarding and wonderful opportunity allowing me to work with some of the nation’s finest artists and architects,” said Douglass. “Given my background in both art and architecture, working with artists such as James Turrell and Ed Ruscha in collaboration with architect Tom Mayne at the new San Francisco Federal Building, or Robert Irwin and architect Michael Palladino at the new San Diego Courthouse, I have found these opportunities to be most gratifying.”

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