Nature-themed art exhibit brings Phipps offices and classrooms to life.


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In February 2013, Richard Piacentini noticed something was not right at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. 

Phipps had just spent $23.5 million to build one of the greenest buildings in the world, the Center for Sustainable Landscapes near the glasshouse in Oakland. Most of its heat was geothermal, rising up from deep within the earth. With solar panels and a bird-safe wind turbine, it produced more energy than it consumed. It even had its own weather station, and when monitors showed that the temperature was comfortable, the office windows opened automatically.

But on that day in February, the windows were shut tight. 

“It struck me how quiet and eerie it was,” said Mr. Piacentini, Phipps executive director.

The next day, dreaming about how to bring the space to life, he called sound artist Abby Aresty. So began the BETA Project, an exhibit by more than 40 artists that will open in mid-July. Some works are displayed in office space and will be visible only through special tours, but those in the atrium will be open to public.

BETA stands for Biophilia Enhanced Through Art, and it takes inspiration from the idea that humans are hardwired to crave connection with the flora and fauna that surround us. Through art, Mr. Piacentini wants visitors to feel inspired about the environment. 

“People think doing something sustainable means you have to give things up,” he said. “We try to show that sustainability can be beautiful.”

Phipps reinforced the atrium ceiling to bear the weight of a hanging carbon steel sculpture by Dee Briggs that looks like an enormous pea-tendril gone wild. A staircase spirals around it, and as visitors walk down, the sculpture seems to change shape -- now curlicued, now angular. It is minimalistic, Mr. Piacentini says, so as not to detract from views of the sky. 

The atrium wall blooms with Drew Hine’‍s flower-like glass bowls. Their surfaces are uneven, as if petals were mussed by the wind or bent under the weight of a bee.

These are just two works out of more than 100 that are part of the BETA Project, including two by Dale Chihuly that Phipps  bought after the conservatory’‍s popular exhibit of the glass artist’‍s work in 2007.

But the centerpiece of the project is Ms. Aresty’‍s “Of Earth and Sun,” a kind of concerto for birds, crickets, leaves and wind. Over the course of a year, Ms. Aresty recorded natural sounds all over Pittsburgh.The season, time of day and weather in which these noises were captured will be matched to the data picked up by the weather station on the roof. The soundtrack to a day in the center will mimic what that day might sound like in parks, cemeteries and leafy side streets all over the city. 

“I was interested in expanding the acoustic horizon of the space,” said Ms. Aresty, a composer and artist-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University. 

Instead of being played through speakers, Ms. Aresty‘‍s composition will be played through transducers. These cylinders, sleek as James Bond gadgets, are stuck onto the windows, transmitting vibrations to the glass itself. The panes become speakers, and the resulting surround-sound feels more like an invisible forest than a stereo system. 

“The building is coming alive with the sounds of nature,” Mr. Piacentini said.

Played through the surface of glass windows, sound is detached from its source and can be experienced as music. For Ms. Aresty, it is a way to get visitors to slow down and pay attention to more than just where a sound come from.

“It is sad for me, as someone obsessed with sound, that as soon as you can identify it, then you don’‍t listen anymore,” she said.

The BETA Project’‍s goal to stimulate all of the senses. So that noses aren’‍t given short shrift, the atrium is also filled with citrus trees.

Even the center’‍s most utilitarian objects have been transformed. The board room table, the embodiment of office work, is made from a pin oak cut from a yard in Whitehall. The tree needed to come down, so Jason Boone of Urban Tree brought what he calls his “hillbilly mill” to harvest it. The table maintains the tree’‍s curves and the striking pattern of its grain. 

Before making the table, Mr. Boone had to let the tree slab dry for three years on sticker-stacking, a lattice-like shelf that lets air circulate across the wood. Then, it sat for months in a wood kiln. As it awaited shaping and sanding, the artists got to know its every twist and knot. 

“The pores of wood are like facets in a diamond,” said Nate Lucas, one of Mr. Boone’‍s partners at Urban Tree. 

Many of the artists involved in the BETA Project have grown to love the natural materials they are working with. The artists at Urban Tree have seen their hands turned leathery and orange from the raw wood. Ms. Aresty returned recently to the vernal pool behind her parents’‍ former house in Massachusetts just to hear its spring peepers. And Phipps employees can feel that connection to the environment even while working at their desks.

“It is refreshing to work in a space like this,” said Joe Reed, an interactive marketing assistant. “What other workplace asks you to stop and look at nature each day?”

The CSL atrium is open to the public Mondays through Sundays 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and on Fridays until 10 p.m. Tours of the entire BETA exhibit, including the office spaces, are offered for members only by reservation every other Saturday from 11 a.m.-noon. Tours are free for members; however, space is very limited and reservations are required by the Thursday prior to each tour date. To reserve, contact members@phipps.conservatory.org or 412-622-6915, ext. 6505.

Eric Boodman: eboodman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3772.


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