Sometimes words are superfluous


Amid the cornfields and strip malls of Maryland's Eastern Shore, an unconventional billboard will soon shimmer wordlessly in the sun.

To many onlookers it may seem a gleaming enigma. But for the executives of one European company, it will be a clear sign of their firm's growing presence in the United States.

It will also bring a touch of architectural sophistication to a part of Maryland that former Gov. William Donald Schaefer once famously likened to an outhouse.

The message-less signboard will be part of the U.S. headquarters of GKD, a German manufacturer of woven metal screens and other architectural products.

Intended to serve as both a factory for GKD and a showplace for its products, the $3 million building will be the first in the U.S. by Dominique Perrault, a leading French architect best known as the designer of the $1 billion French National Library in Paris and other large-scale projects in Europe. Construction will begin this summer on the outskirts of Cambridge and is scheduled for completion next spring.

"It's very interesting for me to have this possibility to work in the U.S.A.," Perrault, 49, said during a recent lecture at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "I taught at the [University of Illinois] Urbana campus five years ago, and I was involved in a competition for [New York's] Museum of Modern Art. But it's different to face a real project" in the U.S.

Part of a worldwide organization called WovenSolutions, GKD also makes and installs filters and conveyor belts. Its woven metal fabrics are produced in various weights, textures and degrees of transparency and flexibility. They can be used in a variety of architectural applications, from ceilings, walls and floor coverings to balustrades, sunscreens and exterior facades.

In Princeton, N. J., architects used GKD fabrics to create an elegant screen for a parking garage. The stainless steel mesh is not only noncorrosive but also self-cleaning, and allows air to flow in and out for natural ventilation. GKD markets its architectural materials as the outgrowth of a "75 year tradition of German engineering, precision manufacturing and technical innovation," and many architects are starting to use them.

The ideal choice

When company executives decided to build a factory and administrative center in the U.S., they wanted an architect who not only uses their products but also could create an attention-getting building that will make others want to use them as well.

Known for creating taut, modern buildings that derive their strength from the expressive use of materials, Perrault was an ideal choice. His dual penchants for precision and innovation make him exactly the sort of architect that GKD wants to reach. Plus, his $1 billion library used more GKD products than any other building. "The best order they ever had," he says.

As it turned out, Perrault was seeking to establish a presence in the United States after making a name for himself in Europe -- not unlike GKD. From Rem Koolhaas and Renzo Piano to Christian de Portzamparc and Jean Nouvel, leading European architects are making inroads in America these days, and Perrault is well equipped to do the same.

Educated in Paris in architecture, town planning and history, he has won France's Great National Prize of Architecture and the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, among other awards. His career took off in 1989, when he won an international competition to design the French National Library, the last of former French President Francois Mitterand's grands projets. It opened in 1995 with four 22-story towers around a sunken garden -- and more than 10 million printed works inside.

Perrault's other large projects include a stadium in Barcelona, a velodrome and Olympic-sized pool in Berlin, and an extension of the Court of Justice of the European Communities in Luxembourg. In all of his work, he explores the interplay between building and landscape.

"I am very interested by the question, when does the architecture appear and when does the architecture disappear?" he said in his lecture. "I think the most important aspect of the architect's work is to control the presence and the absence."

Through his previous work, Perrault had become friends with GKD's executives and has gained their support to try new applications of their products. For his first American building, he is working with Ziger Snead LLP of Baltimore, another designer known for its expressive use of materials and the project's architect of record. Jamie Snead, Wayne Norbeck and Jeff Morgan are on Ziger Snead's team. Willow Construction LLC of Easton is the construction manager.

'Dramatically different'

The 42,000-square-foot structure will rise in the Chesapeake Industrial Park, a relatively nondescript business center half a mile off Route 50 in Cambridge. Providing room for up to 80 employees, the building will replace rented quarters that GKD now occupies in Cambridge. The company's U.S. affiliate previously was based in Florida, but its president, Tom Powley, grew up in Cambridge and wanted to move it back there.

Besides offices and manufacturing space, the building will contain a gallery where designers and their clients will be able to see and touch samples of GKD's materials and learn how they can be used.

Given its out-of-the-way location, the building might have been a big, dumb, industrial box. But Perrault elevated it to a work of art by making the entire structure a billboard for the company and its products.

As visitors drive toward the headquarters, they will see a long, elevated screen of stainless steel mesh -- one of the many woven fabrics in GKD's collection. There will be no letters or images on the screen, just the material itself.

"It's a sign without words, a billboard for the products inside," explains architect Jamie Snead. "It's so striking, so dramatically different, I don't think anybody will miss it."

Rising 30 feet high and measuring 10 times longer than the average billboard, the metal screen will change colors depending on the time of day, the weather conditions and how the sunlight hits it. It also fits neatly with Perrault's ongoing investigations concerning the appearance and disappearance of architecture, since it can be read both as a solid object and a transparent screen.

Behind this screen, the two-story factory and office complex will incorporate other GKD materials, such as sliding mesh panels that will be used as sunscreens over second level windows, suspended mesh ceilings in the conference rooms, and tatami-style floor mats made of stainless steel. Interior spaces will have a European sensibility, with exposed concrete floors, painted steel beams and plenty of skylights in the manufacturing area.

The result is a building that embodies the same traits as GKD's products: an inspired blend of beauty and practicality, form and function, technology and craftsmanship. "It could be a good ad for this company," Perrault says.

An inspiration

Industrial parks may seem unlikely spots in which to find major works of architecture, but the lack of design restrictions in most of them can be liberating for talented designers.

In 1982, British architect Richard Rogers gained widespread attention for his laboratories and corporate center for PA Technology in Princeton, N.J. Four years earlier, American architect Frank Gehry drew acclaim for his interior of Mid-Atlantic Toyota's East Coast headquarters in Glen Burnie's Baymeadow Industrial Park, complete with an authentic tearoom for visiting Japanese dignitaries.

The challenge for GKD is that many American architects aren't accustomed to working with the woven metal fabrics it makes, and they don't have much incentive to begin. Company leaders are counting on the U.S. headquarters to inspire them to experiment.

By bringing Dominique Perrault to America, they've rewarded a powerful ally and scored an architectural coup. His shimmering sign without words just may be the secret weapon they need to give their products an edge in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

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