From the Outside In
A refined EGD program communicates WGBH’s mission as an “idea factory.”
Since its 1964 founding, the WGBH Educational Foundation has grown from 120 employees to more than 1,000 and has expanded organically into 12 disconnected buildings on Harvard University’s campus. So when Harvard asked the broadcaster to relocate, the timing couldn’t have been better. In addition to putting WGBH employees under one roof and expanding the amount of office and studio space, the move presented a perfect opportunity for WGBH to communicate its offerings—ranging from public television and radio to web content—to the Boston community.
“Our previous outfit was so anonymous that we could have been a healthcare facility,” explains Chris Pullman, WGBH’s vice president of branding and visual communications, who led the three-person building management team. “We’re the largest exporter of culture in Boston, so we wanted a building—an idea factory—that was up to those standards.”
The team outlined a few other goals for the project: gather its scattered resources from 12 buildings into one, be more visible, be green, create a digital infrastructure that would last another 50 years, add a welcoming component for visitors, maximize natural light, and complete the project on time and on budget.
WGBH compromised on the first goal, purchasing a new 150,000-sq.-ft., seven-story building (because of its parking lot) and constructing a 130,000-sq.-ft. building across the street to house its studios. Polshek Partnership Architects (New York) was tapped to outfit the existing building, design the new building, and visually connect the two structures.
As a designer, Pullman also recognized the importance of a cohesive EGD program, but he knew his staff couldn’t handle the added responsibility. “We envisioned an EGD program that would be friendly, simple, easy to change, and modest,” he says. Polshek brought in longtime collaborators Poulin + Morris (New York) early in the process to design a wayfinding program that would fit the bill and integrate seamlessly with the architecture.
“The architecture drives the design solution, whether it’s wayfinding or donor recognition,” says Douglas Morris, Poulin + Morris principal. “The architecture drove quite a bit in this project. There were square proportions, and the architecture also wanted us to use bold colors to activate quiet spaces.” For example, 10-ft.-high bump-outs along the buildings’ long, narrow corridors were the perfect spots for departmental identification. Projecting out 10 in. from the wall, they presented key wayfinding events and an opportunity to use WGBH’s vast library of imagery.
“Our main concern was that we wanted them to be timeless; we also wanted them to look new and contemporary,” Morris says. Bold background colors—orange in one building and yellow in the other—take cues from the architectural palette, while small- and large-scale full-color images and duotones create a dynamic, memorable experience. The side returns feature the departments’ names in vertical type—the Whitney type family is used throughout the EGD program—which then led to the use of vertical type in “key moments” throughout the building.
“There are many horizontal aspects to the buildings, and the vertical type became a visual clue to ‘something special,’” Morris notes. The WGBH logo appears vertically in perforated-metal type on the building’s reception lobby ceiling. Perforated metal was not only budget friendly, but also a part of the architectural vernacular. Vertical type is also used on a grand scale in the elevator lobbies, where a vinyl WGBH logo traverses seven floors, measuring 40 ft. wide by 70 ft. tall.
Vertical type also marks the comprehensive donor recognition program, which consists of hundreds of signs. A range of finishes and treatments—from stainless steel letters and white gold leaf descriptions to an equalizer created with 17,000 dots—denote varying levels of donorship. In various event spaces, a dozen 6- by 2-ft. recesses in the walls are used to highlight major donors. White LED lighting literally puts the spotlight on the patrons, while white gold leaf lettering adds a rich touch to describe their passions and contributions.
To communicate WGBH’s own passions and contributions, however, the company splurged. By far the largest, most expensive, and most controversial aspect of the signage program, the $2 million exterior digital mural is what Pullman calls the “this is us” branding. To bridge the gap between the two buildings, Polshek devised a connecting structure—a 450-ft.-long, 50-ft.-wide glass rectangle that literally jumps across the street. And the connector’s northwest corner—facing the Massachusetts Turnpike—presented a unique opportunity to extend the WGBH brand in a big way, with a one-of-a-kind LED display.
“We wanted to be able to suggest on the exterior the kind of content we deal with every day,” says Pullman. Of course, the concept met with plenty of resistance from city officials—who feared the mural would distract drivers on the Turnpike—until designers were able to convince them it would be artistic rather than commercial and “static” rather than active. “We agreed we would have no verbiage, nor advertise our programming—it was not a TV screen,” he notes. “But it’s clearly promotional, in a covert way.”
Getting the digital mural built and installed, however, was another challenge altogether. “The architects always had an idea of this being a live surface, but figuring out how to make that happen was very difficult,” Morris says. For starters, the fabricator that initially signed on to build the mural backed out late in the process because it couldn’t find a way to cool the display without putting giant fans on the display face. So designers turned to Mark IV IDS (Plano, TX) to devise a workable solution.
Mark IV created a 28mm-resolution screen with a slim profile—only 6 in. deep, with 8 in. left for ventilation—to keep the display flush with the building. The 30-ft.-tall mural itself consists of 14 sections: a 35-ft.-wide main screen that wraps the building’s northwest corner, a 35-in. display, a 52.5-in. display, and nine 17.6-in. slivers. Designed to be front-serviceable with an Allen wrench, the mural also had to be programmed carefully. “The gaps between the slivers need to be treated as if they exist, even though they’re not part of the display,” explains Dennis Hickey, Mark IV’s national sales manager. On any given day, content can range from Jimi Hendrix and his purple haze to Niagara Falls.
About those goals…
Difficulties with the digital mural and other problems—for example, the contractor going bankrupt a year from completion—set building completion back six months and pushed WGBH $10 million over its proposed $85 million budget. But the company was able to achieve most of its initial goals. For instance, a solar roof—one of several efforts that earned the headquarters LEED certification—also coincidentally generates enough energy to run the digital mural (although that’s not what the energy is used for). Employees now have equitable access to natural light. And WGBH finally has a suitably modern headquarters that communicates its identity and will take it well into the 21st century.
--By Jenny S. Reising, segdDESIGN No. 20, 2008
Architecture: Polshek Partnership Architects
Design: Poulin + Morris Inc.
Design Team: Douglas Morris (principal in charge/design director); Richard Poulin, Brian Brindisi (design team)
Consultants: 2x4 Inc. (Phase I LED report)
Fabrication: Design Communications Ltd. (interior and exterior fabrication); Mark IV IDS (LED); Back Bay Sign (LED installation)
Photos: Jeffrey Totaro/Esto Photographics