Up Close: Peter Erni

Peter Erni

Peter Erni, LEED AP, is a Principal in HGA’s Los Angeles office, where he leads strategic growth of arts, cultural and community work for higher education, civic and arts clients. Here, he highlights how arts and community projects can have a positive impact on college campuses.

What is your favorite early memory of visiting an arts or community facility?

Perhaps my most striking early memory is my first time visiting the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. I found the monumentality of both the art and the building extraordinary. On this, my first trip to Washington, DC, I toured most of the buildings one typically sees when visiting the Mall, including the Hirshhorn and National Air and Space Museum, but none had anywhere near the effect on me that the East Building had. Its scale and abstract presence on the landscape, almost geological, rendered to a degree of precision that appeared otherworldly. Details such as the cascading waterfall and scalloped escalator wall suggest timeless forces at work. Little did I know at the time that I would have the honor of working with the building’s architect, I.M. Pei, barely 10 years later!

How can the arts enhance the student campus experience?

Exposure to art contributes to a sense of wellbeing. It reduces stress, encourages contemplation, and improves focus. Whether one is directly involved in their production, or experiences the work of others, there are never too many opportunities to engage the arts on campus. I would broaden the definition of art to include not just the forms and settings that are most familiar—galleries, site sculpture, performance—but elements such as landscape and building interiors. Art need not just be confined to delineated spaces—studios, theaters, recital halls. Consider extending artistic experiences across the campus and utilize elements such as the sound of water or the way light falls through a bosque of trees.

In our culture of incessant blue-screen distraction, the value of art, not as entertainment or commodity but as a means to reconnect with a larger sense of self, is perhaps more important than ever. The spaces and settings that create these experiences invariably become social attractors, inviting students and faculty to gather, and potentially serving as platforms for additional artistic endeavors. These gestures need not be grand. Rice University, for instance, requires that every new building incorporate the school’s mascot into its design. It doesn’t stipulate how or where. A walk through the campus becomes a treasure hunt, with installations ranging from a traditional niche sculpture to a coded brickwork pattern.

How can you help clients envision creative opportunities for arts and community facilities?

Successful design solutions are rooted in a deep understanding of the facility mission, informed by a shared understanding of design, operational, cost, and other criteria. I’m a strong believer in the value of robust predesign efforts that set out to define, to the greatest extent possible, the expectations for building performance. This can include anything from program definition and site utilization to operations and maintenance requirements. A detailed basis of design is central to streamlining design development; it enables everyone who has a stake in a facility’s design, use and operation to communicate their objectives for the project. Predesign conversations not only clarify the task of the design team, they build trust and comradery. With that shared understanding as a departure point, the design team is much freer to explore design opportunities; to take the risks that lead to truly iconic design solutions.

I’ve led a number of predesign and planning efforts and am always thrilled at the chance to spend time with the future users of a building, to internalize their aspirations and interests for a project, and to, in turn, share how architecture, as an armature for their institutional mission, can serve as springboard for their larger ambitions.

What is your ideal project?

Architecture has the ability to transform experience; to create spaces that foster interaction, invite contemplation, and reinvigorate the spirit. Good architecture, regardless of scale or type, leverages these potentialities in the service of a project’s mission. In doing so, it engages an elevated level of sustainability, beyond programmatic efficiency and operational performance; one that acknowledges, embraces, and ultimately elevates the human condition. Whether at the level of a single classroom or a symphony hall, such consideration in design yields the spaces we return to again and again—they inspire, energize, and comfort. I’ve had the good fortune to work on many projects that embrace such an approach—projects that bring owners, users, and design teams together in thoughtful collaboration, guided by an expansive vision and deep understanding of mission, resulting in exceptional facilities and lasting relationships. In a word, ideal.