Spoke Installation in The Washington Post


In some residential neighborhoods, art is bigger than ever. Large murals, sculptures and installations help buildings stand out and give them an identity

By Audrey Hoffer

JULY 12, 2018

Gigantic, colorful murals and art installations are popping up in the most unlikely places.

In Crystal City, Va., four 12-story buildings are wrapped in designs painted on transparent vinyl panels.

In Baltimore, a 20-foot-high cement wall is painted with portraits of beloved local historical figures.

And in Scottsdale, Ariz., huge red, yellow and blue toylike sculptural pieces are scattered outside a residence.

Across the country, the face of residential neighborhoods is changing, as developers team with artists to make their buildings stand out with original artwork. These aesthetic projects are altering the normal expectations of what a neighborhood looks like, and what developers are spending their money on.

“We’re always looking for what differentiates our buildings and neighborhoods, what will make people want to live in them, what will make them inspiring,” said Brian Coulter, chief development officer for JBG Smith in Chevy Chase, Md.

No Kings Collective painted this mural on the underpass beneath the building at 1851 S. Bell St. in Crystal City. Above left, a mural by Jason Woodside on Jefferson Davis Highway and 23rd Street in Crystal City. Above right, a mural by Juan Pineda on 23rd and Clark streets in Crystal City. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

When JBG Smith acquired four buildings in Crystal City — a mixed-use neighborhood of government-occupied buildings, tall residences and street-level restaurants that didn’t exude excitement — company officials wanted to add color and vibrancy.

JBG Smith called on Peter Nesbett to serve as creative consultant and tap his Rolodex of artists who could enhance the street’s visual appeal.

“The Crystal City panels are a fantastic opportunity to explore art at gargantuan levels for the aesthetic improvement of an existing neighborhood,” Nesbett said. He brought on board artists Tim Doud and Adrienne Shisko to create the mural building wraps.

“We pride ourselves in considering the total environment. We think a lot about the space on the ground, 20 feet out and 20 feet up — bottom of the building, street level, entry doors — because that’s people’s viewpoint. That’s why we also painted sidewalks, crosswalks and driveways. We wanted to provide unexpected moments as people walk around,” Coulter said.

Annapolis artist Jeff Huntington painted this multi-portrait of Francis Scott Key, Billie Holiday and Edgar Allan Poe on a concrete wall around the Anthem House, an apartment building in the Locust Point neighborhood of Baltimore. (Younts Design Inc.)

Aconcrete wall rings Anthem House, the nine-story apartment building at the gateway to the Locust Point neighborhood in Baltimore.

“We saw the wall as an opportunity to bind the building with the neighborhood and celebrate the city’s history,” said Rohit Anand, principal in the Tysons Corner, Va., office of KTGY Architecture and Planning, and the building’s architect.

The developer hired Annapolis artist Jeff Huntington to paint a multi-portrait mural of Francis Scott Key, who composed the national anthem in Baltimore, and city legends Billie Holiday and Edgar Allan Poe.

“Art has the opportunity, if done right, to become part of the building and neighborhood’s identity. It can become iconic. People will say, ‘I live in the mural building or meet me by the mural,’” said Anand.

In Evanston, Ill., John McLinden, managing partner of Hubbard Street Group, grappled with a concrete embankment across the street from the 12-story Centrum Evanston residential tower.

The 16-foot-high-by-90-foot-long wall surrounded a transportation hub.

“We went to the city and the neighbors and asked to take ownership of this wall,” McLinden said. “We hired artist Shawn Bullen. We worked with him on themes. He sent us sketches. We said, ‘Go for it.’ ”

In Evanston, Ill., artist Shawn Bullen painted a fast-moving train, the Chicago skyline, the Grosse Point lighthouse and a gigantic bee pulling the train on a wall across the street from the 12-story Centrum Evanston residential tower. (Hubbard Street Group)

The result is a collage of images — a fast-moving train, the Chicago skyline, local landmark Grosse Point Lighthouse and a mammoth bee pulling the train. “It exudes energy and is uplifting. I do believe that the best real estate developers create value and a sense of place,” McLinden said. “Art gives our building an identity and makes it distinctive.”

Public art doesn’t only take the shape of murals. “We look at our properties as laboratories to try out different kinds of art, like ceramics, kinetic pieces or sculptures, because a mural isn’t always the right answer,” Coulter said. Inside the glass-walled street-side corridors of the Crystal City buildings, artists Maggie O’Neil, Dominique Fiero and Peter Chang of No Kings Collective created glass transparencies and textural installations.

Rob Bond, president of Bond Cos. and principal of Morgan Bond Co,, put more than 35 art pieces in communal places inside the 15-story residential tower Spoke in Chicago.

Nick Fisher painted dog portraits on the wall of the dog wash room of Spoke, a residential tower in Chicago. Aimee Beaubien decorated two walls and the ceiling in the lounge. (Jim Tschetter with IC360 Images,

For example, artist Aimée Beaubien decorated two walls and the ceiling in and around exposed pipes, in the family lounge, with an installation of turquoise, green and teal leaves with pink splashes.

And, in the dogwash room, artist Nick Fisher painted portraits on the wall of more than a dozen dogs, with names including Bessie, Lancelot, Toogs and Chilbert IV.

“I wanted to have fun with the building. I wanted a wow factor and something for people to talk about,” Bond said. “Art should be considered a building cost, as any other hard construction costs, like steel and brick.”

Developers find the money. “Art is easy to fit into the budget when you make it a priority,” McLinden said.

In Chicago, Related Midwest decorated the street-facing lobby of the 60-story luxury apartment building OneEleven with artist Diana Thater’s nine-screen, layered-video projection. “It’s a museum-quality piece practically right on the sidewalk and visible to all walking by,” said Ann Thompson, senior vice president of architecture and design.

“Art is a point of differentiation in our development projects. Just like a single-family home doesn’t feel like a home until you put art on the wall, so our projects don’t feel complete without an art component, she said.

Garages are usually overlooked as uneventful spaces. The 30-story Landmark West Loop residential tower in Chicago includes a six-floor garage at its base. Related Midwest decorated it with Venetian glass-tiled mosaics. But instead of hiring an artist, officials worked with several dozen local teenagers from After School Matters to design, create and install 20 mosaic wall hangings.

In Los Angeles, the 30-foot-by-50-foot facade of Next on Sixth, a seven-story apartment building in Koreatown, faced a traffic intersection at a 45-degree angle. “It was the focal point of the intersection, and at that scale filled the skyline for pedestrians and motorists,” said Kevin Farrell, president and chief operating officer of Fifield Realty Corp.

Farrell hired art consultant Warren Brand, founder of Branded Arts, a company that organizes art projects for real estate developers, architectural firms and communities. Brand recommended artist Sam Rodriguez as the best to create art to fit the location’s culture.

Rodriguez painted a girl’s face. “Look carefully at her nose,” said Brand. “You’ll see a Korean symbol, which stands for flower. You can also see her eyes are two colors. The image is subtle, but the message is that this is a diverse and blossoming community.”

“At the reception for the mural’s public opening, more than one person said to me, ‘I feel like the building has always been there.’ It immediately became part of the landscape,” Farrell said.

The art consultants hired by developers serve as the nexus to artists. They represent new business lines branching out of the real estate industry.

Curator Engine, the link between local artists and developers in Phoenix, recommended artist Joe Pagac to developer Nate Stum of Live LMC to paint this Maria Callas mural on the rear facade of the building. (Ryan Parra)

Curator Engine in Phoenix, founded by Tim McElligott, is a link between local artists and developers.

After receiving an MBA at Arizona State University, McElligott wanted to start a business building careers for art students and local artists. He looked for opportunities to sell art at a price point enabling artists to make a living. Curator Engine identifies residential development projects and makes it easy for developers to incorporate art so their projects stand out.

In Scottsdale, Ariz., developers are required to contribute 1 percent of the value of their construction project — whether for residential, commercial or government buildings — to the city’s art program, said Kim Curry-Evans, director of Scottsdale Public Art. About 115 public artworks are on display.

Oversize toy building blocks by artist Christopher Weed are spread around the Soho Scottsdale property, a luxury live-and-work community. And one floor of the facade is covered with a mural — evoking the human connection to technology — by artist Lauren Lee.

There seems to be an appetite for public art when it’s offered. “I’ve found that neighborhood groups love it, local officials are in agreement, everyone says, ‘Let’s see how we can make this cool.’ It’s nice that we can have a love fest over art,” McLinden said.


“Many people make decisions in an urban landscape, and there are opportunities to introduce artists into the formula. When developers understand this dynamic, it can be a big plus to the community, as well as to the artists,” said Nesbett, executive director of Washington Project for the Arts.

Coulter of JBG Smith said, “Our commitment to creativity runs deep. It’s not a gimmick where we put murals on a building and check an art box. At the end of the day, if we do it right, the art fires all our cylinders — people want to pay to live in our buildings. It’s good for our investors, and our company is successful.”

Credits: By Audrey Hoffer.