By Deena O. Hyatt
Written by Deena O. Hyatt, Washington Project for the Arts
Photos by Phil Hutinet for East City Art.
Interviews Reproduced by kind permission of the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA).
WPA discusses The Lobby Project with Harriet Tregoning, Director of the DC Office of Planning and Gabriel Mellan, the artist whose work kicks off the series. This project is a new initiative activating the office lobby at 1200 First St. NE. with art installations, lectures, food, and drink, the goal is to create a new type of social and professional gathering area in a previously underused space. The Lobby Project is made possible by grant from the DC Office of Planning. WPA partnered with the NoMa Business Improvement District (NoMa BID) and to curate the space.
First, WPA caught up with one of the key people behind this initiative.
WPA: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Ms. Tregoning. Can you tell us a little bit about the impetus for this initiative?
Ms. Tregoning: This initiative is grounded in efforts that OP (Office of Planning) has been undertaking for several years, which seeks to strengthen neighborhoods through creative place-making approaches. In particular, we have focused on emerging neighborhoods where we have temporarily activated vacant spaces through arts, cultural, and other programming. We have called those efforts, “Temporiums” or temporary urbanism. An example of this is our initiative funded last year by a new national non-profit foundation called ArtPlace that allowed us to launch temporiums and pop-ups in Anacostia, Deanwood, Brookland, and Central 14th. Our temporary urbanism program leveraged research on arts and culture in DC that we spearheaded, specifically OP’s Creative DC Action Agenda, Retail Action Strategy and the DC Vibrant Retail Toolkit, which together promote place-making, entrepreneurship and vibrant destinations.
WPA: What are you hoping to accomplish with this initiative?
Ms. Tregoning: There are several layers to this. As you may know, Ray Oldenburg coined the term “Third Place” in his book, The Great Good Place. A “Third Place” is neither work nor home, but a place in the community where people like to hang out, a gathering place, that also forms part of a community’s identity. We are experimenting with creating a new “Third Place” in a very common type of building in DC, in a space that is often underutilized – the Office Lobby – with the hope, that if successful, it can be replicated in other neighborhoods. We want to demonstrate what is possible and get stakeholders such as the government and private sector to think differently and partner in innovative ways. In addition, a successful initiative can help showcase a building that has lease opportunities and local businesses that have contributed to the customization of space, as well as providing a competitive edge to a neighborhood. For The Lobby Project specifically, we are thrilled to partner with the NoMA BID on activating an underutilized lobby and provide an amenity for residents and visitors. As part of this program, the layering of art exhibits, interior design, vending, and a speaker series, allows us to leverage and highlight local businesses and talent. We are also hoping that other property owners might take a second look at their lobbies and think about ways to create a more interesting and enticing space.
WPA: We’ve seen that you are interested in DC becoming a “eminently livable, globally competitive and sustainable city” — do you think that adding art into public spaces will help with that mission?
Ms. Tregoning: Adding art to public spaces helps in creating a more attractive environment, but we are also focusing on more interesting use of space; we have a number of office buildings with underutilized lobbies, and activating them makes perfect sense, work and creativity can increasing take place anywhere people can gather (and perhaps access the internet). This project helps create a new vibrant neighborhood destination and is also a smarter and more efficient use of a very common type of space in the city. As the city grows and continues to attract talent, there is increasing interest in neighborhood anchors or “Third Places” that can support a more creative approach to social interaction and work. In this case, we are adding art to what is technically a private space, but one that provides a public benefit with free access, WiFi, and a convivial, communal, open, and inclusive atmosphere. Art is one important signifier that this lobby is such a space.
WPA: What is your interest in art?
Ms. Tregoning: My interest in art is closely tied to my love of cities. I think cities are places where incredibly creative things can happen and where every kind of art can flourish. I am also very interested in the potential of arts, culture, and the creative economy to help revitalize neighborhoods. OP’s Creative DC Action Agenda examined ways to promote creative employment and business opportunities, and enliven communities through arts and creative uses. The study found that there are more than 75,000 direct jobs in the District’s creative sector, and that these jobs amount to more than 10 percent of the city’s employment base. We were able to frame DC in a new light – as a top-tier creative city that has a rich and diverse creative economy upon which to build, including a significant federal presence, foreign missions that sponsor cultural events and strong visual and performing arts non-profits. It was extremely rewarding to undertake this study and highlight DC’s creative economy and also to follow-up with implementation initiatives such as temporary urbanism and The Lobby Project.
WPA: Do you think DC is an especially good or difficult place for this kind of initiative?
Ms. Tregoning: DC is a great place for this type of project. We are innovating in many ways, from implementing new approaches in planning, education and transportation to developing more efficient infrastructure and green buildings. We have more than 200 LEED-Certified and Energy Star-certified green buildings, and began the largest bike-share system in the country. And with our status as the capital, we can be a highly visible platform for new ways of thinking and doing.
WPA: Will there be more lobby activation projects or similar projects planned for underutilized spaces in other parts of the city?
Ms. Tregoning: This is a pilot initiative and I am excited to see its launch. We will be reviewing and learning from this initiative, seeing what works, and hopefully planning for initiatives elsewhere. We are also hoping to demonstrate what is possible, and have other stakeholders such as the private sector champion this type of project on its own or in partnership with us, BIDs or others.
NoMa Business Improvement District partnered with Washington Project for the Arts to curate the The Lobby Project. The first work to be featured is by emerging artist Gabriel Mellan, a recent graduate of Corcoran Gallery of Art + Design. Gabriel grew up between Washington, DC; Maui, HI; and Tokyo, Japan; places that have deeply informed his art making practice.
Heptachord, an interactive piece in which participants are invited to touch the sculpture, embodies Gabriel’s belief that art should be handled, heard, and respond. Departing from the raw physicality implied by working with industrial materials, Gabriel’s (8)(2)(2)(16+32), also known as Folded Paper Piece, is a quiet geometric pattern of folded paper. It’s 22 ft span provides a meditative landscape in the lobby. WPA talked with Gabriel to get a little more insight into his work.
WPA: What inspired Heptachord?
Gabriel: “Heptachord has been a dream to make for about five years. A deadline pushed me to make it in about two months with many all-night work sessions. A few times I found myself at 4am surrounded by wires, sensors, a few laptops and a mess of tools thinking ‘what am I doing here!’ I thought back to my childhood years of tinkering and was reminded that this is who I am, this is what I love to do and I’m so lucky to have an opportunity to do it. Although it was 4am, I felt so alive.”
WPA: (8)(2)(2)(16+32) aka Paper Folded Piece seems like quite a detailed undertaking. Can you tell us a bit about the process?
Gabriel: The paper folded piece was one of the more frustrating artworks because paper is so delicate and clean. It required a whole new set of work clothes. It also required a whole new way of working. I had to go slowly, work neatly and meticulously. I started prototyping the piece while working in Japan and when frustration levels increased, I remembered back to the methodical, hyper-detailed work of many of the Japanese craftsmen I’d seen.
WPA: What do you think of your work being shown in such an unconventional space?
Gabriel: Often times I see empty commercial spaces and think about what I’d turn it into if somebody threw me the keys. It is nice to see an entry-point into a workplace with artwork in it. One thing I especially like about The Lobby Project is how it will change regularly. I’m curious to see how people on the street might become interested in the artwork through the window and want to go inside.
For more information visit http://wpadc.org/
Gabriel Mellan‘s work is on view November 14, 2013 – December 11, 2013, Monday – Friday from 8am-10pm. The work of Amanda Burnham will be featured from December 12, 2014 – January 22, 2014, followed by the work of Edmond van der Bijl from January 23, 2014- February 14, 2015. Along with WPA curated installations, The Lobby Project includes Nerds in NoMa (a free speaker series that will let you explore your favorite nerdy topics), as well as food and beverages from Uncle Chip’s Cookies and Union Kitchen.