- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 11, 2003

After 11 years of planning and four years of construction and the expenditure of $833 million the long-awaited Washington Convention Center will finally open March 31. Its $4 million art program, the largest public artsproject in any U.S. convention center, is designed to humanize the center's monumental architecture by making its cavernous interior spaces more intimate.
"We tried to put together the art very early on," says Thomas Ventulett , principal of Atlanta's Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates, part of the center's architectural-engineering design team. "Because of the diversity, it was harder than selecting architects. The convention center interiors are not museum or gallery spaces. The art has to fit the center's special scale, proportions, volume and the special carpet we imported from Ireland."
Like all marriages, the marriage between artists and patrons takes work. Michelangelo, for example, pleaded with Pope Julius II for additional monies to complete the Vatican's Sistine Chapel but in the end had to settle for the paltry 500 ducats with which the pope was willing to part. Did we mention that like all marriages, the marriage between artists and patrons is beset by running squabbles over money?
Will artists and patrons here the convention center defy history this time and live happily ever after?
They just might.
In 1997, the Washington Convention Center Authority (WCCA) named a team of three architectural and engineering firms to design and build the center (Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates of Atlanta; Devrouax & Purnell Architects & Planners, PC of Washington; and Mariani Architects-Engineers PC, also of Washington).
They, in turn, hired Joel Strauss of Joel Strauss Consulting (JSC) of Chicago as curator-consultant. Among his large-scale art projects is Chicago's McCormick Convention Center. Experienced in curating art tailored to the demands of large public spaces, Mr. Strauss was hired "to bring in art that fits the building," explains architect Ted Mariani, 71.
"My overall aim was to find art that was able to hold its own presence and strength in a building of this size and complexity," Mr. Strauss says. "Not too many of the works will conflict with each other and the structure, but the idea was to build a first-rate art collection, not a decoration."
Although Mr. Strauss had compiled a comprehensive master plan of art by 80 to 100 artists, none of the work had been installed as of the time of a recent walk-through. Apparently some other loose ends also remain to be tied up before the center opens in just 2 months, to judge from the activity at the site, which buzzed with workmen laying granite floors and 50,000 yards of carpet, installing African makore hardwood wall facings, raising limestone columns, hooking up escalators and elevators, and completing the $5 million food service operations.
Still, Lewis H. Dawley III, 54, convention center general manager and CEO, professes confidence that the center will meet the impending deadlines.
"We enjoy challenges," Allen Y. Lew, 52, the center's managing director of development, says with a laugh.
Mr. Lew said it when part of a load of steel trusses went overboard in the Pacific on an eight-week journey from Korea and says it now with tight deadlines looming. The director, tall and physically fit from frequent runs throughout the sprawling complex, previously served as executive vice president and CEO for New York's Jacob Javits Convention Center and as vice president of Rose Associates Inc., developer of Pentagon City.
"Picture the Sistine Chapel or the Great Pyramids," he says of the scaffolding in the grand lobby. "It calls for 60 to 70 feet of curved drywall in the lobby. The total amount of drywall in the center even outstrips Washington's Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center."
At the edge of downtown, the three-building center spans six city blocks bounded by Mount Vernon Square and Seventh, Ninth, and N streets NW. At more than 2.3 million square feet, the glass-and-masonry structure is now the city's largest building and ranks as one of the largest convention centers in the nation. The center had to harmonize both monumental and residential building styles and has a strong architectural rival in the beaux arts Carnegie Library across the street. (The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. will reopen the Library as the City Museum of Washington, D.C. on March 31.)
First designed as a huge block resembling what former D.C. council member Charlene Drew Jarvis derided as "a giant aircraft carrier," the center's proposed plans evolved from what was basically a box, to an intermediate design as an underground structure with hotels and shops above it, before finally maturing into today's sunlit, limestone-and-concrete, above-and-below-ground building. The main exhibit hall alone has nine football fields' worth of floor space. With an expected 3 million visitors a year, it will need every inch of it.
The six-level center greets visitors with its boldly designed, downtown-oriented south entrance across from Mount Vernon Square and the museum. Architects constructed the 300-foot curved-glass facade to curve away slightly from the square. The high-tech glass lets maximum light in while filtering heat out. The two free-standing pylons of limestone with glass fins give dramatic welcomes.
While acknowledging that "it's difficult to have that large a structure anywhere in an urban environment," Mr. Ventulett maintains that "lots of glass and sunlight give it transparency and light."
"Daylight is the architect's paintbrush," Mr. Ventulett says. "It's most important to get sunlight inside. All the center's public concourses get sunlight," he says. The architect notes that the late J. Carter Brown, director emeritus of the National Gallery and head of the Federal Fine Arts Commission, was helpful and enthusiastic. "He was a real advocate of what we were doing," Mr. Ventulett says.
Art was always integral to the center's design. Placement of artworks, 50 percent by local artists, will point conventioneers to such cultural riches as the National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian Institution museums on the Mall a short, 20-minute walk as well as the city's commercial galleries.
"It was a matter of public policy that art should be in the city's public places," Ms. Jarvis, now president of Southeastern University, says. "The convention center was conceived as a destination for conventioneers and tourists, as well as area residents. The quality of the art and architecture should make it a welcoming place. A generous budget was allocated for the art."
The "open call" to artists from the D.C. Commission of the Arts and Humanities, which managed the art project, went out Sept. 30, 2002 and ultimately elicited applications from more than 1,000 artists worldwide.
Mr. Strauss and his staff selected local stars Sam Gilliam, Tom Nakashima, Jim Sanborn, Yuriko Yamaguchi, Kendall Buster, Larry Kirkland, William Christenberry and Bill Dunlap, among others, to display the variety and quality of art in the nation's capital. Others, such as minimalist Sol Lewitt, glass artist Dale Chihuly, New Yorkers Donald Lipsky and Ivan Chermeyeff, Los Angelino Thurmand Statom, Cuban-American Jose Bebia, Greek sculptor Costas Vorotsos, Chicago painter Roger Brown, and others, reflect Washington's internationalism.
The selections were then vetted by a committee comprised of museum professionals and local artists who met some 10 times during the selection process.
Mr. Strauss says the placement of art in a large complex is always a challenge. "When we do a master plan, we design it with a budget for a structure of a mammoth, superhuman scale. We place art in the entrance areas, corridors and central axis points where there are the highest concentrations of people," he says.
Will the art complement the architecture or fight it? Time will tell.
As for the artists and patrons it will be interesting to see how long the honeymoon lasts.

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