New Penn State Gallery spotlights its designer

October 15, 2010

By Steve Siegel, Freelance Writer (The Morning Call)

Remember when even Woolworth's looked modern? Anyone who grew up in the era when the gray speckled flooring and dirty marble panels of 1960s institutional architecture was considered fresh will be struck by a sense of awe and wonder at the work of Allentown architect Howard Kulp, of Howard Kulp Architects, P.C..

Even those too young to remember Post Modern dreariness will find Kulp's designs inspirational. His buildings are works of art you enter to dine, plan a vacation, get a makeover,even get your teeth straightened.

Undulating ceilings float like magic carpets, bar countertops glow like molten steel ingots, contrasting textures everywhere sooth the eye and mind.

Penn State Lehigh Valley, in celebration of the opening of its new art gallery on its Center Valley campus, is featuring an exhibit of some of Kulp's most artistic designs. It includes 35 photographs, drawings, and animated videos of residential and corporate projects, including TC Salon Spa's new Allentown location, the AAA building in Bethlehem, the ultra-cool Italian eatery Melt in the Promenade Shops in Saucon Valley and Rodale Press in Emmaus.

Kulp's work is a fitting subject for the gallery's premiere exhibit — he designed the space, as well as the school's library, fitness center and administrative areas. A Penn State alumnus (class of '73), he donated his services as a gift to the school. But Kulp, possessing that rare combination of high artistic skill and humbleness, had to be coaxed into presenting his work there.

"It took a little bit of arm-twisting to get Howard to think that he was an artist worthy of a one-man show," says Ann Lalik, gallery director and arts coordinator. "He was really at first kind of taken aback by the idea."

The idea for the show came up in June, when Lalik and Penn State Lehigh Valley chancellor Dr. Ann Williams were meeting with Kulp to discuss the projects he was doing for the school. Says Lalik, "We were looking around his office — he had many beautiful photos of his projects on the walls. Dr. Williams looked at me and said, 'Now wouldn't this be a good exhibit for our gallery?' I agreed."

The gallery is a bright 30-by-30 foot space, formerly a student lounge, nestled in a corner of the building's third floor. The space presented a number of challenges. With wall space limited by large windows in one corner, Lalik had five movable 8-by4-foot wide walls designed to give additional hanging space. The windows are treated with a film that provides both UV and heat protection. Exposed concrete floors and ceiling structure give the space a chic loft-like feeling. Energy-efficient LED lights hang from tracks overhead.

On entering the exhibit, it's easy to understand why Lalik and Williams were so impressed by the photographs in Kulp's office — they are works of art in themselves, beautifully composed and printed, the work of Bethlehem architectural photographer Steve Wolfe. Evident in each image, whether a travel agency or a physician's office, is Kulp's melding of traditional design elements with drama. More importantly, almost all of Kulp's work says fun.

"I tend to get clients that want that, after they see something I have done. Dr. Frey, for example, is a fun kind of guy. He wanted to have something down his hallway that was a little different," says Kulp, speaking about Dr. Gregg Frey's Orthodontic offices in Schnecksville. "So rather than just have a flat ceiling, we decided to do a vault with a wallpaper pattern of sky and clouds that turned out very realistic."

Adding to the playful atmosphere are a water feature and clever touches of contrasting texture, with panels of pronounced wood grain and pebbled walls.

"I like to have different textures in my designs, so wherever you turn your head there's always something different to look at." Kulp says.

Kulp uses many tricks to make large spaces appear more inviting and intimate. Interiors are made cozier by the subtle use of Lumicore panels, a translucent material in which bamboo and other organic materials are often laminated.

Kulp says his most challenging projects involve reworking pre-existing structures, such as turning the former Shanty restaurant in Allentown into the TC Salon Spa.

"The space had a very long hallway, but by putting an undulating ceiling in it and spacing the lights the way they are makes it appear shorter than it really is," says Kulp. "Because it was a very old building — built originally as an A&P way, way back — we wanted to hang a few things from the ceiling but the structure wouldn't allow it. So we had to literally come up from the floor to hang things. We also re-used details like some stained glass panels and the old A&P sign."

The salon's most dramatic feature can be seen from both outside and inside — the famous Hess crystal chandelier that hung in the old Patio restaurant is enclosed it in what looks like a huge glass display case, making a magnificent landmark for those navigating 19th street in the evening.

Often many of Kulp's solutions to complex design issues lie buried in the structure of the building itself. Clark Production Associates wanted a visually stunning building for its Bethlehem recording studios to impress their trendy New York City clients. Kulp designed a magnificent cathedral-like space with a vaulted ceiling and modernesque gothic arches.

There was just one problem: the site is located along the flight path of Lehigh Valley Airport.

"That was an interesting project. The actual recording studios literally sit on tons of sand for acoustic isolation. The walls have 12 layers of drywall, with the spaces between them also filled with sand. We of course had major issues with flights coming in overhead, so there's actually a roof within a roof," Kulp says.

Kulp has the most fun when his clients just let him do whatever he wants, which was the case with AAA's offices in Bethlehem and Lansdale. There's a reason the Bethlehem office looks like a Disneyland set, with the brightly colored accents of a storybook castle and a walkway that gently curves through the space like an invitingly open highway. "The whole idea is based on a Disneyland theme — that roadway leads you to the back of the building, where the Disney vacation desk is," says Kulp.

Everything about the AAA Lansdale office says travel, from the exposed ceiling strut that looks like part of a suspension bridge, to clear glass globes etched with the continents and softly lighted from below. One would never guess the building, with its cheerful waterfall and constantly changing light show, was once a Volvo dealership.

Featured in the exhibit along with the completed projects are examples of some proposed works. A pair of video monitors show animated videos of Kulp's designs for the South Bethlehem Greenway, a proposed park, office building, apartment, and nightclub complex to be located on the former railroad bed extending from St. Luke's converted Union Station outpatient center to the Sands Casino.