Architecture and Art Installations: Timeless Integration

Blending art with architecture is an enduring partnership that evolves with the shifting landscape of art and its purpose. Many of our clients see art as a vital part of their vision, and we're skilled at weaving it harmoniously into our designs.

March 27, 2024

Creating spaces that foster meaningful interactions between people and art is key to our design philosophy at Martin Simmons Sweers (MSS). Architecture provides a compelling canvas for artistic expression. When art installations are integrated with architecture, and the vision of the artist and the client are effectively combined, the end result is a dynamic experience that elevates the space for both creators and admirers alike.

For many of our clients, art is a crucial aspect of their overall vision. We recommend that the objective for people to engage with art be incorporated early in the design phase. Based on our experience, we’ve found that there’s a stronger outcome when we’re part of the creative process because we understand the building inherently and can appreciate how a piece of art might best interact with it.

Photo credit: Deanna Marsh

A fair few of our clients opt to include some form of permanent art in their new spaces, including A Grander View, Canada’s first LEED triple platinum project which was completed in 2010. At the outset, the client commissioned a large-scale kiln-formed glass piece from California artist Deanna Marsh, crafted to reflect the beauty and biodiversity of the Grand River. This impressive art piece scales a full 3 stories of the wall, starting at the welcome desk and accompanying visitors and staff up 3 flights of stairs, and is visible from most of the offices and hallways in the building. You can read the full artist’s process for this particular work on her website.

Photo credit: Cameron Mahler/CBC

More recently, our Google III project included 2 installations. Steel rings printed with historical photos crafted by Designer and Artist Michael Ormston-Holloway were installed at the base of the five-storey columns outside 20 Breithaupt St., showcasing people who used to work in the factories in the area.

Ormston-Holloway had this to say about incorporating art into public spaces, “We occupy these spaces differently now, and lifestyles have changed, and when we can tell stories of the past, we can enrich our experience within the public realm, and our experience of a City and of a Place. When our new landscapes and public realm expressions can move beyond utilitarian, engineer-driven infrastructure that merely supports movement, and become something vibrant, and interpretive, and pleasure-driven, something wonderful has happened.” We couldn’t agree more.

This project was spearheaded by the building's owner, Perimeter Development, in collaboration with the Kitchener Public Library archives. Such an innovative way to honour the history of Waterloo Region’s industrial past.

The second piece, “Caught in Motion’ by Canadian artist Shayne Dark is an intricate network of steel branches, coated in eye-popping saturated pigments. Dark’s work is a contemplative intersection of the industrial and the organic and fits well with the industrial history of the area.

Photo credit: Rielly Snelling

Design should inform every element of the process. Our multidisciplinary approach integrates each aspect of an installation project, from interior design to management and technical professionals—all focused on providing a setting that will maximize the effect of the art piece. The art takes center stage without compromising overall design, ensuring that the experience of art isn't overshadowed by architectural elements.

Art installations are often part of a larger placemaking strategy, such as our work in the Gaslight District in Cambridge, Ontario. We created a space for people to come together to enjoy their own company, art exhibits, and live music performances. Collaborating with Philip Beesley on “Meander” as part of this project demonstrated to us the success of integrating consultants, architects, and artists around a unifying vision.

MSS designed the elevator, stairs, mezzanine, and lighting in Tapestry Hall, a renovated limestone Victorian building that permanently houses Meander, to produce a hybrid of art and architecture. The sculpture by the talented Phillip Beesley, mimics the meandering of the Grand River, which shifts depending on people’s location, activated by a series of sensors. The collaboration lasted months and gave us insight into the unique sensitivities of artists and the qualitative aspects that matter to them.

Leadership in installation projects is critical, but not at the expense of creating a truly exceptional design. Every contributor has a voice. For our large scale outdoor installations, for example, the landscape architect has to have a place at the table to ensure that site-specific characteristics are considered part of the integrative process.

Once art installations are complete, considerations for maintenance and longevity are essential for success. Funding for ongoing operations has to be allocated in the budget, especially for kinetic pieces with moving parts and technology, like Meander. Ensuring safety and compliance with regulations are also requirements. Dealing with art installations in public spaces and even some large scale pieces on private property often require council approval.

The selection and integration of large scale art installations is a project-specific journey with many aspects and stakeholders, each influencing timelines, phases, and decision points. In our Gaslight District project, for example, each decision was made to embrace the wider community in its scope. When art is involved, it becomes a guiding principle in terms of inspiration, publicity, marketing, and fundraising. The inclusion of artists often cultivates heightened anticipation and enthusiasm for the project as a whole.

River Lines (Photo credit: doublespace)

Scott Higgins and Paul Kalbfleisch know a thing or two about the importance of art in creating engaged citizens and healthy communities, which they outline in their book, The Joy Experiments. Scott recently commented about the installations in The Gaslight District in a article, “These wonderful installations, and the act of public play that they encourage, are brilliant examples of Infrastructure for The Human Spirit, which we explore in The Joy Experiments. This is the type of infrastructure that cities of the future will need if they want social and economic prosperity.”

Art is an essential component of architecture. A natural synergy exists between artists and architects. Communicating a vision and making it profound and inspiring are objectives shared by both professions. The integration of art into architecture is a timeless endeavor, a partnership that continues to evolve with the changing nature and purpose of art.

At MSS, we take pride in transforming spaces into living works of art, architecting places that inspire, captivate, and stand as testaments to the enduring relationship between art and architecture.

Find out more about our art installation and creative placemaking solutions.

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