Sign of the Times?

Sign of the Times?

The Messana Land Port of Entry with its supergrphic intact.
Michael Moran

The U.S.-Canadian border lost a bit of its luster last month after the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) pulled down a 180-foot-long supergraphic sign that had been affixed to the largest building at the recently completed Massena Land Port of Entry, in upstate New York southwest of Montreal.

The move left the project’s architects, Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, confused and somewhat dismayed, since the sign—which spelled out the words “United States” in bright, road-line yellow—had been approved by the General Services Administration (GSA), which owns the building, and officials at Customs and Border Protection, an agency of DHS and the facility’s tenant. “It’s pretty unusual,” said principal Laurie Hawkinson. “I felt like we had a good relationship with them. You’re all working on the project together.”

But in spite of extensive vetting during the design process and following construction, the agency deemed the sign a threat on two counts. “The signage was removed based on two issues: security and building maintenance,” Gregory Bennett, public affairs liaison for the Customs and Border Patrol Buffalo Field Office, told **AN. “That part of the design was not funded for maintenance,” Bennett added. He declined to elaborate on the nature of the agency’s security concerns.

The border cross before (top) and after the supergraphic had been removed. WIthout it, it presents a much more muted face to the public.
Michael Moran; Courtesy SM+H

The sign’s disappearance has disheartened the architects, who had wanted to convey a sense of optimism and energy at the border crossing. To that end, working with Pentagram on the graphics, they created twenty-foot-high letters that stretched across the width of the main building. The upper half of the massive letters were semi-obscured, alternating bands of transparent and transluscent polycarbonate panels, creating a bar code–like effect. “They weren’t just large letters,” Hawkinson said. “They were much more nuanced.”

Nor was this the firm’s first brush with border agencies. Indeed, Smith-Miller + Hawkinson had previously employed supergraphics at a land port project in Champlain, New York, where they stretched the words “United States of America” in a mesh screen across the row of vehicle portals. Principal Henry Smith-Miller noted that at Massena, officials may have been put off by the slightly blurred effect of the polycarbonate banding, which presented a much different aesthetic than at Champlain. “It could have been a taste issue,” he said.

Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram, noted that the gap between the intention of a design and its reception is not always predictable. “The idea that we were doing something controversial never even occurred to us,” he said. “Clearly the signage can be, and was, seen differently from what we intended.”

Despite the dustup over the signage, Hawkinson, Smith-Miller, and Bierut all commend the GSA’s Design Excellence Program, through which the project was initiated. The program helps to mediate and advocate for architects’ ideas, pushing ambitious design for everyday buildings. Though the GSA owns the buildings, they are built for tenant agencies that use, and must be comfortable in, the facilities.

In that spirit, the architects maintain they have created an efficient and highly functional land port. “I hope the facility makes the quality of life better for the people who work there,” Hawkinson said. Still, she added, the architecture stands diminished. “Public projects are tough,” she said. “It’s a 180-foot-long facade that’s now blank. The facade is no longer complete."

A version of this article appeared in AN 09.09.2009.