In a building in downtown Portland, Ore., muralist Jessilyn Brinkerhoff stands dwarfed by an Oregon forest. In concentric circles, Pacific Northwest flora and fauna—ferns, old growth trees, a Polyphemus moth, mycorrhizal layer, and other fungi—spiral out behind her. Brinkerhoff is giving a tour of her triptych of murals at the new PAE Living Building, which opened in June.
“Growing up Oregonian, I got to really go wild with my favorite parts of Oregon and really sink into that,” Brinkerhoff says.
The net-zero, multi-use Living Building, by PAE Engineers and ZGF architects, is designed to last 500 years. When asked if she thinks her murals will last that long, Brinkerhoff laughs and wonders aloud if the eco-friendly paints she used to conform to the building’s sustainability focus are made to last that long. On floors above and below, Brinkerhoff painted equally massive murals of Oregon’s coastal and alpine ecosystems.
In 2020, PAE Engineers found Brinkerhoff’s portfolio through the Portland Street Art Alliance, and hired her because her artwork closely aligned with the building’s sustainability goals.
“The building was unfinished. The walls that I was going to paint were studs and open paint,” says Brinkerhoff of joining the project early. The group discussed materials, placement, budget, and a schedule that included time for her to do research. And because the building wasn’t in its final form, she could advise that the mural sites be designed even bigger for visual impact. “That helped me get a sense that this isn’t any old project; It’s me being part of a team with people whose values are in the right place,” the artist explains.
Brinkerhoff and the Living Building are part of what seems to be a trend of architecture and design firms engaging more deeply with the communities for which they design, specifically through art. It’s a movement that prioritizes art to help create a narrative of a building and its environs, inviting artists into projects early as collaborators, rather than as an afterthought at the end of the process to paint a leftover wall. These efforts can take several forms, including connecting to the community through the content and narrative of an artwork and bringing in artists early to help inform, shape, and tell the story of a place from the onset.
Scottish Author and architect Fiona McLachlan sees the joining of art and architecture as a trend that cycles in and out through architectural history.
“In the Baroque Period, absolutely, the two disciplines were intertwined,” says McLachlan, who is also a professor of architectural practice at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture in Scotland. Then there are vibrant blips in the 1950s and 60s, and the 80s and 90s, she says, where artists such as Peter Lanyon, Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, and Antoni Malinowksi frequently collaborated with architects.
McLachan is the author of Colour Beyond the Surface: Art in Architecture (Lund Humprhries, 2022)—available now in Europe and in the U.S. in 2023—her third book about the relationship between color, art, and architecture.
However, in more recent times, McLachlan says it can be difficult for the building industry to accommodate the gestation period an artist may need to develop a meaningful concept. There has also been a fear of engaging with color and art by architects, that it could undermine form she says, citing the 2000 book Chromophobia by David Batchelor.
“A lot of it has to do with divergence in our education.The disciplines have drifted apart," McLachlan says. "I think that color has not been taught in architecture schools, but it’s coming back, fortunately. There is a generation out there that haven’t had a proper education in color."
While the focus of the Brit-centric book is color, McLachlan is also observing the interplay between artist and architect.
“I was really interested in what artists can bring to architects, in terms of meaning,” she says. “What we want to avoid is art being dumped into architecture without any sense of resonance.” The best collaborations, McLachlan says, occur when “the work responds not only to the physical architecture but the environmental and social context of the architecture.”
For Brinkheroff, that meant responding directly to the environmental focus of her client, highlighting beloved Oregon ecosystems.
"The most meaningful work I do as a mural painter is done in collaboration with other people. I really want to get to know the team and the space and location," she says. "I want to bring more appreciation and understanding of our natural world into built spaces and this is the ideal client."
In Miami, artist Troy Simmons works in both form and color using concrete, fabric, acrylic, construction debris, and other found objects. He has begun collaborating with architects, engineers, and developers to create integrated sculptures. Jessica Goldman Srebnick, Goldman Properties co-chair and Goldman Global Arts CEO, commissioned Simmons to craft a colorful installation built into the newly constructed column and façade of the Wynwood 2300 Building, completed in 2020 in his own neighborhood. Simmons says, as aWynwood local, he wanted to “engage residents and visitors by capturing the area's’ diverse cultures and vibrancy while preserving the historic physicality of the remaining buildings and structures.”
“Troy’s art form would contribute and set the tone for the artistic evolution of the Wynwood neighborhood. It was the perfect marriage of art and architecture," Goldman Srebnick told Whitewall, an art and design magazine, in 2019. "Troy was the perfect artist to make that happen and Goldman Properties the perfect collaborator."
Simmon's artwork for the Wynwood project won a 2022 CODA Top 100 award for integrating art into architecture and public spaces.
Currently, Simmons is working on a public art commission, as part of Miami-Dade Art in Public Places, with jet manufacturer Bombardier and Jacobs Architects at the Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport. Simmons’s largest art work to date, "Janus Portal"—a cantilevered Brutalist-style sculpture made from raw concrete, steel, and aluminum—stands 22 feet tall and 30 feet wide, and is designed to withstand seismic disruption. The sculpture, which marks Bombardier's new service center, is set to open this fall.
“We had to go into the hidden walls; we had to reinforce the foundation,” Simmons recalls of working with Jacobs and engineers. “This structure wouldn’t work if I hadn’t got involved early enough to beef up the foundation.”
Simmons, who studied architectural technology at Oklahoma State University, posits that artists and architects can make each other do better work.
“Artists are freethinkers. Not to say architects are not, but to let the architects go crazy you need to bring the artist in early to make the collaboration work—it balances both sides,” he says. And, “It makes artists, especially sculptors, really think about their process.”
For Michael Tunkey, AIA, a design principal at CannonDesign, art and artists add meaning and “incredible value” to an architecture project. In Buffalo, N.Y., where he is based, Tunkey—who is a member of the local Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s public art committee—has become a sort of liaison at Cannon between artists,architects, and developers, a role McLachlan says is becoming more common.
"Art commissioners," McLachlan calls them. "They have a specific role now to facilitate art within architecture."
Tunkey helped secure public art installations for two recent Cannon projects in Buffalo:201 Ellicott, a new affordable housing and mixed-used complex with a food market, and the D'Youville Health Professions Hub, which helps provide healthcare, as well as education and career opportunities, to the city’s West Side, a neighborhood with a large refugee community.
“Involving artists and connecting with the community is one strategy we use; it’s a way for other voices to come into the architecture and for us to give up some control,” Tunkey says. “The artists we work with are very in touch with the communities. They often talk more fluidly than we do in terms of community.”
With input from several meetings with the community about public art , Cannon commissioned international muralists Josef Kristofoletti for 201 Ellicott and Maya Hayuk for D’Youville. Inspired by local nonprofit group Stitch Buffalo—which hires refugees to craft textiles—Hayuk created a massive mural that looks like woven fabric. Tunkey says these art efforts build trust in communities. These initiatives have also won over developers, he says, turning a building into a destination that attracts attention.
“It then has this iconic value that architects aspire to but rarely achieve,” he says. To achieve this however, the whole process must be deliberate.
“I feel very strongly that if you are going to plan for public art in a new project, it should be designed for public art. There should be no compromises,” he says. “It shouldn’t seem like a leftover space that you’re giving as a leftover.”
ZGF Architects has a similar approach. Braulio Baptista, AIA, a partner at the Los Angeles ZGF Architects location, has helped prioritize art in projects such as the new headquarters for the California Air Resources Board in Riverside, Calif., which ZGF says has "the largest collection of public art dedicated to climate change in the world."
Because it is a state building, the project had a 1% budget for art, which allowed the firm to work with an art consultant—Dyson & Womack—to help navigate the process of selecting artists. Six artists were commissioned to create work specifically for this site. Baptista says it was “incredibly rewarding” to work with the artists, who took inspiration from the clean-air agency's mission. For example, Tomás Saraceno constructed a piece that represents the idea of air molecules which hangs at the headquarter's main entrance. Meanwhile, artist team Allora & Calzadilla built what looks like a fossilized gas station, representing CARB's mission to eliminate gas as an energy source.
“As architects, we live at the interface of science and art, and exercising the artistic attributes of a space or even thinking about the storytelling aspects of the space can help drive a better design,” he says.
Once the artists were chosen, Baptista says they were invited to look at the plans for the building and make suggestions on how the architecture could be refined.
“We had several back and forths,” he says. “As an architect and as part of the art committee, I was trying to not have a preconceived notion of what I saw in the space.”
However, this practice, of architecture firms collaborating with artists from the onset of a project, is not yet widespread, says architectural designer Germane Barnes, who founded the Miami-based Studio Barnes.
“One of the many hats that I wear is as a member of the Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places committee,” Barnes says. “During my four years in this capacity, the architectural design work is typically complete and when we select an artist, they are asked to respond to spaces that have already been designated by the architect and client.”
Yet Barnes’s own work often weaves together art and architecture, such as in the projects Paradise Stair, The Booth, and Sacred Stoops. Studio Barnes also collaborated with University of Colorado assistant professor of environmental science Shawhin Roudbar and Chicago nonprofit MAS Context to create the art installation “Block Party” for the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial.
“My practice is quite diverse, in that I work between mediums. At times it’s traditional architecture, other times public art, installation, or exhibition design. It is important for me to operate at varying scales because my practice learns so much from other disciplines. There is a freedom that artist possess in that they do not require a prompt when creating work,” Barnes says. “It’s a freedom that I believe architects can benefit from.”
For McLachan, it’s all about creating time and room for the experimentation, the exploration, the collaboration to happen.
“It’s about making space—literally making space for art, but also making time and ability to have an accommodation of different practices. We can and should collaborate," she says. "We don't think in the same way, and that’s a good thing."