The B word

St. Elizabeth's Gateway East Campus - Anacostia, Washington, DC


Budget. The word every designer dreads.  But I've found some of my best work has been on projects that are highly constrained, either via money or by space limitations or as in this case, both.   This project required creating an eye-catching and contemporary yet inexpensive and durable display in a small space visible from the food court of the new St. Elizabeth's Gateway East building (plan courtesy of project architects Davis Brody Bond).  Working closely with client VSAG we developed a unique object: a combination of wood grain, topographic model and Swiss cheese slice that fulfills the program of being an intriguing but low-maintenance visual anchor for the space.

Constraints: Functionally, the space is quite challenging; it receives no direct natural light, but is exposed to exterior temperature fluctuations from open joints along the sides of the metal stairway above.  These conditions as well as maintenance concerns seemed to point away from a heavy reliance on living material for the main impact.  The three sides of glass meant that any design had to have interest in the round, yet light could not be blocked from the exterior windows.  Furthermore, the budget was delineated as quite limited (in the low thousands of dollars) and the display changed annually or seasonally.

Opportunities: Highly visible, the atrium space is clearly a central feature and could tie together the various functions of the building in general and the interior space in particular. The area could be a (visual) playground and local activity node while respecting the flow and function of the site and injecting a contemporary sensibility via materials and form.

Process:  I put together a number of concepts for the client to review, all based on the idea of food and community with aspects of display (like a shop window or theater set) and visual texture. Some of the initial concepts were: "Gluten-tag!" (a display made entirely from dried wheat and wheat products), "Better Living Through Food" (a series of clear test-tubes and beakers along with thin, colorful, X-rayed looking slices of preserved fruits and vegetables), "Food: A New Perspective" (plants growing on tables, upside down and sideways) and "Farm Beautiful" (farm implements cut open, pierced and otherwise exposed and painted in unusual colors).  While interesting ideas, these were all ultimately too complicated to install and expensive for the space…but will probably reappear in a future project of mine in some form or another!

Final form:  The final design relates back to the historic nomenclature of the site while bringing in hints of an elevated landform and exploded topography as expressed by the new building itself.   The streets of the St. Elizabeth’s complex are all named after trees, with Redwood Street now truncated to make room for the new complex.  This missing street, added to the extensive use of exposed natural wood in the building, suggested wood as a starting point for the design.  Wood is both heavy and solid however, not desirable attributes for a space that had to remain light and open to allow light to penetrate into the center of the building. More modern materials seemed like a better fit, (I eventually settled on Arcylite panels), but used in a way reminiscent of wood.  A semi-translucent panel with sculpted voids fit both objectives, lightness (optically and weight-wise) and a series of these hanging "scrims" three-dimensionally visually fills the space with minimal investment in materials.  The screens hang from the underside of the steel steps with standard metal eye hooks and are easily removable (at the client’s request).  Added screen-printed "rings" to the layers further reinforces the faux-bois effect while open "knotholes" allow patrons views into and out of the center of the building.  The planting is simple and minimal and adds visual interest between the scrims.  Given the extremely restrictive conditions of minimal light, dramatic temperature swings and no natural water, I chose very hardy, basic, and shade-tolerant species that will still need to be changed seasonally as needed...pansies for spring, impatiens for summer, kale for fall, ivy for winter.  The light colored plant palette is neutral and soothing, and complimentary of the matte silvers and wood tones in the dining areas.