As you enter ETC’s new headquarters with its clean corporate lines and imposing wingspan, nothing prepares you for what you’ll find inside. Suddenly, looming up around you in red, green, blue, and sepia is the epicenter of ETC. Like an old-time movie set waiting for its gangster extras, or a Broadway musical stage before the dancers appear, this atrium is like nothing you’ve seen in any office building before.
Middleton, Wisconsin (at the edge of the capital city of Madison), may seem to be an improbable location for such a themed building and for one of the world’s leading entertainment lighting manufacturers, but not to ETC CEO Fred Foster, who dreamed up the building’s theatrical concept. The building is not only the hub of his global company’s productivity but a homage to its business.
This is a building about theater, about the sheer joy in the art of illusion and light. When the lights are bright in ETC’s Town Square, towering expanded-metal mesh scrims create a virtual cityscape. When the lights are dimmed, the real office world of ETC appears magically ‘behind the scenes.’
Based on the paintings of Edward Hopper, each storefront and façade here has a story to tell, says Foster, who mocked up early models and has personally helped construct many of the façade structures. The stunning centerpiece is the Nighthawks café itself, serving as the company’s reception area. Hopper’s lonely diners are absent, but the space recreates the original painting’s look down to the vintage coffee urns in the corner, the "Phillies" signage across the green façade, and the radiant light.
Next to Nighthawks, an old-time marquee movie theater flashes its neon "Century" sign (a nod to that historic American lighting company predecessor) and serves as entrance into ETC’s product demonstration and staging area. Across the way, the "Kelly Insurance Agency" is the façade to the company’s Human Resources department. Other façades -- a bank, an office supply store, a public school, a travel agency, a haberdashery, and a hardware store -- crowd around the space of Town Square, overshadowed by an Empire State Building-like skyscraper, which rises up into the highest reaches of the sloped roofing.
Foster worked with an ensemble of talented people – both from inside and outside ETC – to bring Town Square to life: scenic designers Paul Sannerud of Viterbo University and Sue McElhaney; the on-site design-build team of Frank Miller and Jerry Scholts of Erdman Development Group; Peter Tan and Chris Oddo of Strang Architects; ETC’s Bill "Flash" Florac; a crew of painters and carpenters from the theater world, and many others.
The $21-million building project achieves many purposes. It provides a practical new operations facility where all corporate functions are under one roof. It serves as a ready-made demo space to showcase ETC’s lighting products in action. And it stands as a grand symbol for ETC. The overall design of the facilities was the achievement of a unique collaboration between Foster, the designbuild firm of Erdman Development Group (Madison, WI) and Strang Inc. architects (Madison, WI).
Besides its obvious theatricality, the building is about Fred Foster’s idea of a better corporate culture. Foster wanted not only to demonstrate ETC’s business in lighting but also to bring its 600 employees into a closer sense of community, into a thriving center where everyone would be a ‘main character.’ Foster was inspired in part by the "Marketplace" at the Herman Miller building in Zeeland, Michigan, where corporate offices and factory are joined by a continuous stretch of atrium. "I thought that was a head-slappingly good idea," says Foster. "I am really interested in social dynamics and creating a more porous work environment, which is not so rigid, so departmentalized or so meeting-bound. Now, everyone from all departments can mix in a common space. When you need to have an impromptu work discussion with just a few people, you can get a coffee in Nighthawks and sit down at a table in Town Square."
The rest of the 250,000-square-foot, fan-shaped building extends Foster’s idea of a more "democratized" space. Not only are factory and administration a continuum now, converging in the Town Square, the building materials reflect a more egalitarian spirit. Fred wanted to correct a trend he had seen developing over the past 15 years at ETC. "There had been this idea of a line of progression," Foster explains, "where you got a job as an assembler and you were working on cement floors, then you moved to your next position and you were on the linoleum, and then eventually you moved on to the ‘carpet.’ I didn’t want people to feel that way." Jerry Sholts of Erdman Developers understood Foster’s thinking immediately, suggesting, "Why don’t you carpet the factory then and leave concrete in the rest of the company?"
To the extent that safety and practicality permitted, that’s what ETC did. Carpeting is only used where noise abatement is critical. As for raw concrete -- you’ll find that only in office areas. But that too has been handled artistically, complementing a hip interior-design mix of industrial and natural textures -- expanded metal mesh, exposed mechanicals in the ceiling, and maple-laminate woodwork in cubicles.
"Window politics" and that time-worn status symbol of light are also turned around in the ETC world. According to Foster, "The more office space you have here, the less natural light you get. Cubicles have window access; offices don’t." The massive assembly area too has as much vibrant light coverage as possible, with an expansive blend of natural and artificial light.
Town Square itself brims with light streaming through the windows of the clerestory (the building’s raised roof) and from the 300-plus ETC Source Four® lights hanging high up in a rig. Nationally known lighting designer Duane Schuler finished his work on the atrium in May, creating a palette of lighting looks that change throughout the day. Now that those finishing touches have been put on the building (whose construction began in 2002), Foster’s luminous dream, a theater of his own, in a sense, has finally come to light.