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Art Adds Light, Motion to Cronkite Building

September 21, 2008

exterior shot of stairwell windows at night

While the state-of-the-art television studios and computer labs are getting a lot of attention from visitors to the new Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication building in downtown Phoenix, it’s the building’s artwork – an unusual experiment in light and motion — that captures their fancy.

The artwork, designed by Paul Deeb of Vox Arts, Baltimore, is really a five-story light sculpture that replaces what would be ordinary windows in the main stairwell on the south side of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s building on Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix Campus.

Deeb used clear thread and metal fragments sandwiched between sheets of frosted glass to create what he calls a passive solar light engine. As the sun heats up the space between the panes, the thread and fragments move, creating an effect like clouds or waves swirling between the panes of glass.

Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan described the art as both beautiful and practical. “It’s a beautiful piece of art that is constantly changing,” he said. “But it also serves as a kind of shade so that the sun coming in the windows doesn’t heat up the building so much.”

Cronkite student Robert Lundberg is equally appreciative. “I especially like the way it makes you feel like it might be raining outside,” he said. “It has the aesthetic of a waterfall, but you’re not wasting water.”

Deeb said the windows actually move hot air away from the building through convection. “It’s cooling the building in a really green, eco-friendly way,” he said. “Art is a by-product of that.”

Deeb was chosen from among 178 applicants from around the world who submitted proposals for artwork for the 1,200 square-foot stair tower that faces Taylor Mall, ASU’s downtown student residence hall. Four were chosen to appear before the Phoenix Art Commission to present their proposals. The panel recommended Deeb.

Terry Abair of Sundt Inc., the general contractor for the building, said Deeb’s piece was the clear choice because of how well it integrates into the building.

“We’re usually trying to figure out, if art is a part of the project, how to get the person to see it as part of the building,” Abair said. In many cases, public art becomes just an add-on, he said. Deeb’s work fits seamlessly into the space.

Abair said he also liked the fact that unlike statues or murals, the window art changes daily and seasonally. “A metal sculpture would be the same every day; pretty soon you’d stop looking at it,” he said. “Most stairwells that you would walk up and down at ASU are pretty utilitarian. This one is pretty unique.”

Deeb is known for using unconventional materials in his art. For the Cronkite School piece, he used German-made metal reflectors that hang from Teflon thread – the same kind used on the International Space Station, Deeb said.

When he was searching for materials to use in the glasswork, Deeb said he contacted scientists and engineers. “I started talking to them, and they thought that I was just a lunatic,” he said. “Now … they want to see how the piece turned out.”

Deeb said the artwork will display the most intricate patterns during the winter months and in the late afternoons when the sun is lower in the sky and the sunlight shines more directly into it.

Because Arizona’s sun is so intense, Deeb had to take special care to ensure that the temperature inside the glass doesn’t get too high. A fan was installed at the top of the windows to suck hot air out, and an exhaust vent closes if winds get too strong.

Installation of the piece took about five weeks. The cost was included in the $71 million price tag for the building in compliance with a state law that stipulates that 1 percent of the money spent for construction of public buildings must be used for public art.

Deeb’s company has designed a number of art pieces, including a large-scale light installation in the lobby of a Dallas business, the lighting of the Art Basel International Art Show at the Miami World Trade Center in 2004. In addition, he has designed environmentally interactive landscape lighting for a five-acre residential setting in Northern Virginia and the illumination of numerous civic projects.

His company’s work with light and motion has won an International Illumination Design Award and has been recognized in the International Design Competition.

“The types of things that I prefer to work with are things that are based more on natural phenomena than technology,” Deeb said. “The only rule of thumb is we don’t do anything really that’s ordinary.”