Many architects build buildings, but Christopher Janney prefers turning them into icons. As an architect, musician, and artist, Janney uses the tools of his trades to create interactive public art projects that liven things up a bit for world-weary travelers as well as city dwellers. These include large-scale installations in such places as airport terminals and parking structures, where Janney not only adds art but also brings the architecture to life.
"The idea is not just to hang art onto a building, but to transform the entire structure," says Janney over a cup of latte in a coffee shop near Cooper Union in Manhattan, where he teaches in the architecture department. Based in Lexington, MA, he catapulted into the national spotlight when CBS Sunday Morning ran a segment about Harmonic Runway, his 1995 installation at the Miami Airport.
Built into a 180' (55m) walkway, Harmonic Runway is composed of 132 panes of glass measuring 10' (3m) high and sandwiching Monsanto Opti-Color colored film laminates. Divided into 12 bays, the panes of glass are tilted at various angles to create a wave effect. During the day, sunlight bounces off the glass to create bright color washes, while at night Altman ZipStrips with Ushio's 10,000-hour MR-16 lamps and colored gels create washes on the glass panels.
Between each of the 12 bays of glass, which have 11 panels of glass per bay, there is a curtain of white light, created by Ushio MR-16halogen lamps. When pedestrians walk though this curtain photosensors trigger both automated patterns of underwater life and an audio track composed by Janney that evokes the sounds of the tropics and of the Everglades. Twenty-four Martin Roboscan automated luminaires add additional layers of texture and color.
"More and more people are passing through airports," says Janney, whose intent is to make them more refreshing places. "Harmonic Runway is like a triumphal arch for Miami; a new entryway to the city. You don't get a second chance to make a first impression." Visually engaging, Harmonic Runway was seen in the film 8mm, and will be seen again in Sydney Pollack's forthcoming feature Random Hearts starring Harrison Ford. It has also been the backdrop for a Vogue magazine shoot and several music videos.
The success of Harmonic Runway, which has become a benchmark for public art projects, put Janney in the running for additional commissions in transportation-related buildings. In 1997 he won a bid by the San Antonio Department of Arts and Cultural Affairs to create a site-specific installation for the San Antonio Airport. This time the canvas was a 360'-long (110m) paseo, or passageway, in the middle of a five-story parking structure. Janney transformed the nature of the space with a collage of light and sound entitled Light Pass.
The railings along the five stories of the paseo have bollards of brushed copper. Janney added computer-controlled lights with 50W Ushio lamps and custom-made speakers to the 54 bollards on floors two, three, and four of the garage, and had panels of colored acrylic cut into the roof to let sunlight flood in from above. The computer picks different combinations of light and sound based on the time of day. As pedestrians pass through the space they hear changing audio patterns and are bathed in colored light. "I felt this long, narrow space called for this kind of linear sound and light experience," Janney notes.
He was also selected by the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission to create Chromatic Oasis, an installation for the new terminal at the Sacramento International Airport. Sacramento is, after all, the state capital of California, and it is anxious to make a good first impression. Here, once again using Monsanto's Opti-Color System, Janney designed large transparent panels of 1" tempered glass in eight shades of blue and green. These are suspended horizontally in a 30'x30' (9x9m) area under a skylight of rose-colored glass. Again, pedestrians are bathed in light and trigger a mix of sounds whose pitch and timbre change depending on the time of day. At night, the panels are lit with Ushio Constant Color 50W MR-16 lamps, donated by the company in support of Janney's work.
Janney also won a national competition to create a site-specific installation for a new 10-story employee parking garage at NationsBank in Charlotte, NC. Completed in 1998, Touch My Building allows pedestrians to interact with the entire structure and enjoy the architecture.
Light, tinted glass, sound, and the people themselves transform the 300'x120' (91x37m) facade and the sidewalk in front of the building. The facade itself is unusual, with 416 aluminum panels painted in custom car colors, such as cherry red. Sunlight dances off these panels during the day, giving the building a definite shimmer.
"This project exists on two scales: the architectural, using large forms to create abstract patterns of colored light and shadow; and the pedestrian, creating a series of forms attached to the building at pedestrian level which people can touch and trigger a mix of melodic and environmental sounds," Janney explains. While the garage was under construction, he requested that the concrete fins on 36 columns be replaced with "tail light" fins in five shades of transparent red colored glass, with ruby-red neon tubes behind them. Mystic Scenic of Dedham, MA, supplied the neon and developed the computer-controlled touch plate technology.
When pedestrians touch the 30'-tall fins, the neon lights up and sounds are heard from speakers in the walls. "You get to light up your fin," says Janney. "Th is is an attempt to give the passing pedestrian a sense of making contact with the large-scale nature of the architecture." The building also "performs" on the hour, with the neon lights flashing in computer-triggered patterns. Janney built a riddle into the design as well. "It's like a pictogram that tells you in which order to touch the fins," he explains. When someone solves the riddle and touches the fins in the correct order, the lights run a special pattern in response.
At night, HID lamps light the entire facade, making the neon even more visible. In addition, transparent glass in eight shades of blue and lit with fluorescent tubes highlights the edges of two 110'-high (34m) stair towers, one at each end of the garage. "It is like a blue sculpture sitting on a city block. At night you see a big blue monolith lit with fluorescents; the colored glass is the gel. There are no limitations in terms of visibility," says Janney, who counts on the sun as a light source to dance through slabs of colored glass and create transparent colored shadows during the day.
For computer renderings, shadow studies, and animation analyzing the changing color patterns of shadows, Janney uses the 3D Studio Max program by Kinetix, a division of Autodesk. The sound/light interfaces are developed on a Macintosh computer using Opcode's MAX 3.5 program. The Allen-Bradley Corporation, which has been involved in Janney's projects since 1978, developed a prototype using new photosensor technology for several projects, including Sacramento. Janney also worked with PAVO Engineering in Seattle to build a custom-designed sampler/synthesizer card as the sound source for the 36 touch plates used in Touch My Building.
Janney refers to these projects as "performance architecture," and is interested in the interaction between the people and the buildings. "Can you have a physical relationship with a building?" he asks. "I like to push against the sense of alienation in the urban environment, and add soul to faceless, nameless places.
"Lighting is what brings life to a public space," he concludes. "Light and sound are two media beyond bricks and mortar that can break the barrier and reach out to people."