TEXT Leslie Jen
Architects have become increasingly aware of the critical role that environmental graphic designers play in realizing some of the finer details of a successful building or urban design scheme. Their expertise in visual communications provides the necessary coherence to help mitigate the confusion inherent in the urban context, elevating the experience of the everyday citizen from unremarkable and baffling to pleasurable and engaging.
Entro Communications has established itself as a key player in architectural and urban design projects worldwide, designing and implementing placemaking graphics, wayfinding and donor recognition systems—among other things. Headquartered in Toronto, the firm also maintains offices in Calgary and Zürich, facilitating their involvement in projects on an international level. Having cultivated a particular niche in technical knowledge and fabrication, Entro boasts a long history involving collaborations with global interdisciplinary design powerhouses such as Pentragram and Bruce Mau. And their position was further strengthened when they merged with 45-year-old communications design firm Gottschalk+Ash in 2011, acquiring Principal Creative Director Udo Schliemann in the process.
A native of Germany, Schliemann graduated from the Technical College for Design in Würzburg in 1982, and began his career at the venerable Stuttgart-based design studio Stankowski + Duschek. He speaks with profound respect about the late Anton Stankowski, his former mentor and one of Germany’s foremost graphic designers, who instilled valuable lessons in the young man. “For me,” says Schliemann, “there is no separation between free and applied art. It only has to be good.” He envisions his role in an architectural project as going far beyond the mere provision of signs; for him, graphics, electronic displays and wayfinding “speak” to a building’s users, and are an integral part of the entire experience.
Charmingly soft-spoken, Schliemann describes the culture and spirit of collaboration that cements Entro’s longstanding relationships with some of the most notable architecture firms in Canada and abroad. Each party’s recognition of the strengths of an interdisciplinary approach and a mutual respect for each other have resulted in a vast number of successful projects in virtually every building sector there is—including civic, cultural, educational, health care, retail and corporate/commercial. In keeping with the architect’s vision, Entro’s aim is to inject artistic expression into the building by way of colour, form, text and image in creating a memorable and branded environment that reflects the ethos of the client.
This can be seen in the recently completed Daniels Spectrum project in Toronto’s rapidly transforming multicultural Regent Park neighbourhood. This three-storey arts and cultural centre is one of the facilities developed by the non-profit organization Artscape, with whom Entro had previously worked on the successful Wychwood Barns project located further north in the city. Designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects, Daniels Spectrum has emerged as a highly recognizable icon in the community, due in no small part to Entro’s contributions. Architecturally, a restrictive budget translates into what is essentially a plain metal box, but vertical bands of bold colour are liberally incorporated into the cladding, enlivening the streetscape and building on all sides. This motif is carried right through to the interior of the building, where Entro also contributed their skills in the design and production of an integrated and innovative signage and donor recognition system.
But the multi-hued stripes are not merely a random embellishment; the colours are meant to represent the various immigrant communities that populate Regent Park, and are inspired by the flags of far-flung nations. According to Schliemann, “Through the process of abstraction and assembly, the flags are hardly discernible anymore, but the repetition of strong colours and vertical rigour reflect the regal yet lively nature of flags.” Importantly, the building’s polychromatic appearance is also intended to appeal and respond to the sensibilities of the many neighbourhood residents from Africa, South Asia and South America, cultures that have a deeper engagement with colour in their environment.
Another example of Entro’s effective visual communication strategy can be seen in the new Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning at the Hospital for Sick Children, also designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects. Entro’s role moved beyond the basic signage and wayfinding program for the entirety of the project, and extended to the provision of bold, three-storey-high graphic motifs that adorn the walls of the six stacked atria (called “neighbourhoods”) in the building, animating the interior of what might otherwise be considered a cold and clinical medical research facility.
According to Schliemann, the inspiring and colourful patterns refer to the themes of research in each neighbourhood, and help situate building users while facilitating the clear identification of specific departments. For instance, the star-shaped graphic elements defining the Molecules, Therapies & Infectious Diseases neighbourhood on Floors 19-21 were inspired by scientific images of floating molecules and organic matter. And in the Brain & Behaviour neighbourhood on Floors 4-6, the repeated and overlapping triangular shapes have associations with crystalline and electrical aspects that reflect brain activities on a molecular level. The distinctive graphic motifs are not painted directly on the wall, but are instead printed on white vinyl fabric by PCL Graphics and applied as wallpaper in six separate prints tiled together.
As funding becomes increasingly scarce, there is increased reliance on private donations to sustain both public and private institutions. Consequently, donor recognition systems have become a requirement in most building programs, integrated as part of the interior and exterior architecture. This is executed in a most sophisticated fashion at the Peter Gilgan Centre, and speaks to the well-oiled collaborative process that Entro and the Diamond Schmitt team have established.
Highly visible on the building’s ground floor adjacent to the front entry, brilliant cobalt blue vertical glass fins bear the names of major donors, and form an integral part of the Bay Street façade—even at night, when they are dramatically enhanced by LED lighting. The theme is picked up on the interior, where a donor wall on the second-floor mezzanine features horizontal glass louvres affixed to a structural system of deep wooden mullions. Similar to the colour used on the exterior fins, the eight different shades here are drawn from the blue/green tones that Schliemann favours in his artwork, and contribute to the soothing quality of this compelling and transparent ocean-hued screen. The end result was arrived at only after several iterations of the wall were developed by Entro and architects Mike Szabo and Duncan Higgins, who designed the brackets and all technical aspects of the glass.
Having undergone several architectural iterations in its history (the most recent being the Frank Gehry expansion and renovation in 2008), the Art Gallery of Ontario subsequently unveiled its reconceived art education facility for children and adults—now called the Weston Family Learning Centre (WFLC)—in October 2011. Hariri Pontarini Architects opened up the building’s formerly impenetrable concrete western edge to Beverley Street, creating a transparent and welcoming space. Substantial architectural manipulations to the building interior facilitate community creativity and learning, including the provision of a variety of meeting rooms and teaching studios. The WFLC’s reinvention required a branding st
rategy, and Entro responded with a new graphic identity which is now evident on the western edge of the gallery’s Dundas Street façade, and which is used on all of the WFLC’s communication materials. Highly appealing, the bright reddish orange chosen as the dominant colour backgrounds three overlapping amorphic outlines that were inspired, appropriately, by a scribble—the blue, green and yellow wavy bands encircle the words “learning centre.”
Clarity of wayfinding is essential in an institution of this size, and Entro contributed an economical but effective signage system that fulfills its purpose, with large adhesive vinyl letters rendered in attractive and playfully bright colours. Worthy of note is the ingenious overhead coat rack designed by the architect team as a space-saving feature; the serpentining form is suspended from the ceiling and can be easily raised or lowered with the push of a button via a motorized pulley. To facilitate coat retrieval, Entro collaborated with the architects on the coat rack to create an organized and coded system, demarcating sections through numbered and coloured segments that echo the colours used in the WFLC’s wayfinding elements.
For more commercially oriented projects, Entro has proven its success in the creation of comprehensively branded environments. KPMB Architects’ TIFF Bell Lightbox (see CA, February 2011) has become a cultural hub and locus of activity in Toronto’s buzzing Entertainment District, the new headquarters for the Toronto International Film Festival and a host of other specialty film programs and exhibitions. Based upon a recommendation from KPMB—with whom Entro has a long-established working relationship—the client hired Schliemann and team, and tasked them with designing and implementing a comprehensive wayfinding and donor recognition system for the entire project. A fairly complex building program means that this was an extensive job, as the signage components begin on the exterior of the building and continue through to all the main circulation areas, theatre spaces, gift shop, exhibition and meeting spaces, and the two expansive donor walls on the second and third floors. Striking as they are, these walls are minimally elegant, unobtrusive and complementary to the interior architecture, comprised of large frosted glass panels illuminated from behind with LED strips.
Moreover, Entro is responsible for the brand identity and signage elements for the three Oliver & Bonacini restaurant properties situated within the Lightbox—Canteen, Luma, and the exclusive and private Malaparte event space on the sixth floor. With several properties scattered throughout the city, O&B is a slick Toronto-based restaurant chain with whom Entro has worked previously in developing their master brand, one that is expanding as new restaurants are being added to the group. The execution of brand identity is thorough: the vibrant restaurant logos are boldly expressed on the building’s glazed façades in numerous locations, clearly visible to passersby on both King and John Streets. With Entro in control of all of the Lightbox’s signage and branding elements, there is a seamless integration of architecture and design, and a palpable synergistic quality to the experience.
Perhaps one of the most distinctive projects that Entro has worked on is the building for the School of Pharmacy at the University of Waterloo (see CA, June 2010). Designed by Hariri Pontarini with Robbie/Young + Wright Architects, the School of Pharmacy is a highly expressive project whose rigorous orthogonal geometries contrast with the decorative floral motif of the glass panels that clad the building. Intended to reference natural healing and ancient remedies employing medicinal herbs, the four different species of plants represented on the School are the result of meticulous research on botanicals indigenous
to the Kitchener-Waterloo region. The building’s curtain-wall façades take on a rather Baroque feel through the colourful patterned glazing, invariably evoking stained glass of the 17th century.
Possessing an artist’s sensibility, Siamak Hariri knows how to infuse his buildings with uncommon beauty. He commissioned his brother-in-law and London-based artist Sky Glabush to create a delicate watercolour painting of these selected species, which was then passed on to Entro to determine how to apply and magnify the watercolour to an appropriate scale for the building’s expansive glass panels. The solution was to photo-transfer selected portions of the painting to DuPont vinyl film, forming an interlayer that is literally sandwiched between the panes of glass comprising the curtain wall. In keeping with the painterly and composed feel of the original watercolour, Schliemann’s hand is evident in the careful manipulation and placement of the plants and flowers on the façades: the foliage is more concentrated on the lower levels and entrances, becoming more sparse as it progresses up the building. The result is unlike anything else seen in recent memory, and the building has become a refreshing and poetic landmark in gritty downtown Kitchener.
Despite this article’s focus on local work in Ontario, Entro is currently engaged in a number of high-profile projects both here in North America and in more exotic locations. Contracts with the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art keep the firm busy in New York. An outpost of the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi anticipates Entro’s contributions, as does Project Jewel, a mixed-use complex at Singapore’s Changi Airport. But one project in particular that Schliemann eagerly awaits is the Bahá’í Temple of South America in Santiago, Chile by Hariri Pontarini Architects (see CA, December 2004). Involved during the very early stages of the project in the exquisite design of a handprinted and embossed book that no doubt helped HPA snag the competition victory, Entro is also contributing impeccably designed signage and wayfinding elements that will be featured in the project and on site. Schliemann’s role extended to the design of the textual quotes from Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í faith, which will be inscribed on the translucent white stone layer sheathing the interior surface of the temple’s intricate steel structure. Sure to be an architectural game-changer on a global scale, we—with bated breath—also await its completion.