Archive for the ‘building reviews’ Category

Piano Supersizes the Kimbell

Friday, May 28th, 2010

A glimpse inside the lobby of Renzo Piano's planned Kimbell Art Museum expansion. Rendering by Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

Here’s a question for you: What do Amsterdam, Atlanta, Basel, Bern, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco all have in common?

Answer: The presence of a McDonald’s, a Burger King, and a museum designed by the architect Renzo Piano.

With additional Piano museums completed in such Burger King-deprived corners of the world as Paris, France, and Noumea, New Caledonia, along with Japanese airports and Manhattan skyscrapers and countless under-construction projects rising around the globe, the architect’s office should be ready to put up at least a “millions served” sign. While such ambitious business expansion might initially seem like an unusual feat for an architect who is also widely acclaimed at an artistic level, his success was rooted in the simple economics of the recent worldwide demand for big-budget museums built to increase their cities’ tourist revenue. Although Piano’s work is subtler thana some of the trend’s most outrageous advances, from Frank Gehry’s visual explorations at the Guggenheim Bilbao to the uncharted new ethical territory now being breached by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s planned Barnes Foundation expansion, the Italian architect’s worldwide expansion inspires a similar level of awe in its own way.

Renzo Piano's mammoth extension to the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo credit: happy_stomach

The city of Fort Worth, Texas, however, seems destined to become one of Piano empire’s most difficult conquests. The designer’s scheme for an addition to the Kimbell Art Museum, unveiled yesterday, must attempt to apply the contemporary art world’s commercial demands to the work of an architect who resisted such material temptations with an almost religious level of conviction. Much to the dismay of his few customers, Kimbell designer (and former Piano employer) Louis I. Kahn operated, at a certain level, without regard for the particular specifics of what his clients wanted, or even for what his personal instincts as a designer suggested. Instead, he considered his architecture to be a search for the elusive essence of what, in his words, the building “wanted to be.” What was the basic, essential character of a school, or a church, or an art museum? His pursuit of an answer was always exhaustive, conducted through a design process that involved drawing up and rejecting scores of different schemes for each project before finding a balance that he felt was right.

In Ft. Worth, Kahn’s process resulted in a museum design which revolved around the singular purpose of creating optimal conditions for the perception of art. The building appears at first glance to be a simple row of ground-hugging vaults, modest in comparison to most recent cultural projects:

Photo credit: Diorama Sky

What the Kimbell lacks in exterior spectacle, however, it makes up for with its functional effectiveness. The museum’s one-story design enables it to take maximum advantage of the strong Texas sun, using natural light from above to more accurately render the colors in its displays of artwork. Sophisticated light deflectors, which the architect referred to as “daylight fixtures,” shelter the collection from the sun’s damaging side effects and glare.

Kahn’s mastery of daylighting, along with the museum’s intimate scale and careful attention to detail, resulted in the creation of a subtle shrine to the deliberate contemplation of art.

Photo credit: ApplePirate

What more could a cultural institution wish for? Tourist revenue and attention, perhaps. Where the Kimbell design was primarily concerned with displaying art, other landmark buildings before and since have placed emphasis on attracting visitors through their ticket lines in the first place. The Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao, for example, sought popular spectacle through their use of unusual curved forms, which stood out in contrast to their more traditional urban surroundings. The results still appear shocking today:

Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark Guggenheim Museum in New York. Photo credit: grytr

Frank Gehry's contemporary Guggenheim successor in Bilbao. Photo credit: disgustipado

Santiago Calatrava’s more recently completed Milwaukee Art Museum can even lure unsuspecting tourists with its motorized flapping wings:

After decades of watching larger and more extroverted buildings draw greater crowds, the Texas art museum directors understandably wanted to expand their institution’s capacity. The temptation would be familiar to anyone who has ever visited the drive-through window of one of the local fast food chains: “Would you like to supersize?”

The first time that they said “yes” was in 1989. As with yesterday’s proposal, that plan was inspired by a desire to better accommodate the crowds attracted by lucrative traveling exhibitions. The idea’s implementation, however, was crude; additional vaults would have simply been slapped onto each side of the Kimbell building, creating a chimera which critic Paul Goldberger described as “the architectural equivalent of a stretch limousine.” Vehement reactions from historic preservationists and Kahn’s relatives led the museum board to quickly pull their proposal.

Yesterday’s attempt took a more careful approach. Despite Piano’s prolific business success, design quality remains his primary objective; each of his projects is crafted with a subtle elegance and intense tectonic rigor likely inspired by his years spent working for Kahn. Piano’s diverse background will hopefully enable his interpretation of a Kimbell expansion to more effectively bridge the creative and commercial worlds.

The site plan of the future Kimbell complex, by Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

In order to achieve that goal, Piano’s new building must shoulder the burden of the institution’s ambitious expansion program while also tiptoeing around the serenity of his former master’s original museum. The resulting compromise, to be erected above the original Kimbell’s location in the previous site plan, hides its commercial scale by burying significant portions of its mass underground:

Section of the Kimbell expansion by Renzo Piano Building Workshop. Piano's new addition is on the left.

This move prevents the new building from overpowering the delicacy of its older predecessor, while also retaining some of the greenery of the original museum’s lawn as a gesture to the public. A look at Piano’s previous California Academy of Sciences project, however, reveals that the architect is also capable of envisioning more creative manipulations of a ground plane:

Photo credit: rossrenjilian

Although those grassy knolls were actually constructed on the roof of Piano’s California museum, not its ground level, the basic concept would have had interesting applications at the Kimbell. Slopes of earth could have been carved and stretched to create places to sit, perhaps in an effect similar to Maya Lin’s Wave Field, replacing the lost stretches of the old museum lawn. Where such an organic design might have posed a contemporary challenge to the Kimbell’s conservative styling, it would have done more to preserve the spiritual intentions of landscape architect Harriet Pattison’s current tranquil environment…

Photo credit: Dallas1200am

… than could likely be rescued in the wake of the glass and steel barge now slated to land there:

Rendering by Renzo Piano Building Workshop.

Although the new building’s axial alignment and fine details respect the old Kimbell’s proportions, the attempt is in danger of stepping a bit too far into the past; its stiff classical allusions and starched orthogonal lines could almost recall the monuments built by the Italian Fascists, or at least an Edward Durrell Stone building.

Other aspects of the new Kimbell are nicer. Piano at least keeps his creation a respectful distance away from Kahn’s work, 90 feet, although my gut reaction is that it should have been moved back even further. That placement will also supposedly bring more visitors to the Kimbell’s porches, which would support Kahn’s original intentions for the garden on the gloomy days when the excessive crowds don’t completely overrun it. In a world where every other museum aims to turn itself into a bustling circus, why not keep one good place to sit and think?

Ultimately, Piano seems to have tried his best to minimize the collateral damage of the aggressive program that he was given. Maybe the resulting museum will even has some positive effects if it liberates the old Kimbell from tourist loads that it wasn’t designed to handle. But ultimately, the situation reminds of a quote by the architect Cedric Price. As recounted by Lebbeus Woods, Price would ask his clients: “Do we really need this building?” If the new Kimbell is indeed necessary, then the public benefits provided by its spaces might even represent a continuation of the Athenian democratic values evoked by Kahn’s original museum. Otherwise, the Kimbell could go down in architectural history as an institution that fell for the kind of expansionist imperial hubris often associated with its first building’s Roman predecessors. We can only hope that Piano has been drawing with a very careful hand.

Barnard Diana Center’s Beauty is Skin Deep

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

From the outside, Barnard College’s newly opened Diana student center looks benign. Designed by architects Weiss and Manfredi to replace the school’s previous MacIntosh student union, a zealous exercise in 1960’s-style raw concrete, the new building’s contextually sensitive materials and proportions mark a successful return to the visual unity of the old campus. While the center’s facade panels, for example, were fabricated from thoroughly modern metal construction, their familiar red color selection enables the debutante Diana to smoothly relate to the ivy-draped brick of her more traditional elder neighbors. Once the daytime festivities conclude, the glass and steel of that facade can also perform a kaleidescope of visual skits in response to the glistening of the setting sun.

The elegance with which the Diana’s exterior manages to balance between the past and future becomes even more appreciable upon comparison with Columbia University’s own controversial attempt at the same facade problem across the street. Bernard Tschumi’s Columbia student center, Lerner Hall, was intended, like the Diana, to reinvigorate its community with contemporary resources while intertwining with its historic surroundings. Although Tschumi’s vision started out as the bolder of the two, with its glass campus-side facade of criss-crossing catwalks intended to elevate mundane student life to theatrical levels, the plan’s audacity soon turned into the source of its own downfall. A series of community complaints reduced the glass footage on Lerner’s street facade in favor of more contextual stone and brick elements. That revival of traditional architectural values also re-awakened another less pleasant University tradition; Lerner’s fortified street wall continues the Columbia past-time of turning a hard stone face to its surrounding community. The Diana, in comparison, attempts to connect its student life to the activity of the city outside by placing glass windows at the level of the sidewalk.

Columbia University’s Lerner Hall takes a defensive, traditional approach to its urban context.

Once the sidewalk outside Barnard’s campus re-opens, it will allow students in the Diana Center cafe to people watch while they eat.

Similar rivers of glass also run along the campus side of the Diana’s facade, carrying with them more than a subtle whiff of the exterior stairways in Alvar Aalto’s MIT Baker House. The intent, according to the Diana’s architects, was to create a porous, flowing structure. According to architect Marion Weiss in an interview on the Barnard website, “We want to encourage what I call peripheral vision, or accidental encounters, the cross-fertilization of disciplines that makes the liberal arts experience unique. By creating long sight-lines through several stories we hope that students will look up from their coffee and become intrigued by their colleagues’ work in other parts of the building.” Those intentions, while noble, do not play out as successfully in reality; several of the busiest communal spaces are detached from the building’s view corridors. Cost-cutting sounds like a plausible cause, along with security issues; I was disappointed to find that the building’s drawing and architecture studios, for example, are sealed off from visitors in a manner than could discourage collaboration between the arts.

Back on the ground, the Diana’s landscaping moves are more successful at uniting the campus. Where her MacIntosh predecessor blundered in front of the elegant courtyard of nearby Milbank Hall, the Diana’s massing gracefully defers to the campus’s older visual axis in order to make room for a restored walkway across the school. Tiered greenery adorns the path.

Another open space will take a more contemporary approach, if you know where to find it. It’s going to be a green roof. It’s not open yet, but hopefully it will be by the time the outdoor temperature increases enough for students to comfortably venture up there.

Once you walk inside, however, the Diana forgets her manners. Although the lobby initially greets you with a sympathetic gesture of human-scale proportions, the performance immediately stumbles on a raucous material selection note. For what is meant to be the community center of a small close-knit womens’ college, bare concrete and life-preserver orange do not make for a welcoming reception.

The circles try to help. It’s a familiar design trick; from the contemporary VW Beetle to the iPod, the circle has been tapped countless times for its nature as a basic, primal symbol capable of inspiring the most instinctive levels of emotion. And here the round furniture’s cheerful shapes and loose configurations do manage to provide some lonely respite for the eyes amidst the surrounding tyranny of gray.

As soon as you turn your head away from those stools, however, their comforting atmosphere is shattered. Apart from some token paint jobs, every space is a world of gray. The walls are hard glass. The ceilings are a clinical white. The light fixtures look like icicles. Squeals and screeches echo in your head. And the concrete is applied liberally, everywhere, in flat sheets, without care or tact. You might as well be studying inside a throbbing cement mixer drum. In the interior spaces where students will actively eat and work and socialize, the Diana reopens the very same brutalist wounds that its conception as a building project sought to smooth over.

And those concrete spaces don’t just look uncomfortable. They could also be a safety issue. The floors are slick. Granted, I initially found it fun to slide along the concrete when nobody was watching. But I was also wearing sneakers. What will happen on more formal occasions, when an illustrious guest speaker or a powerful alumna donor attempts to teeter across the slippery floor in high heels? The next time a reception or a reunion rolls around Barnard might wish to keep an ambulance, and a team of lawyers, close at hand.

Despite those drawbacks, it’s not hard to see how the Diana’s materials decisions happened. Barnard understandably wanted its new student center to speak to the modern era while also reinvigorating the college’s community life. Exposed concrete, at its best, could have fit that bill; it has a venerable history of appearing in buildings that were both honest and progressive. In the hands of the right architect, that modern material could even become passionate or civilized.

Louis Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art, for example, gracefully balances the cool concrete of its structural bones with inlays of refined woodwork. The overall impression is that you have been miraculously invited into a lord’s elegant drawing room.

Kahn's concrete is both refined and odd. Photograph by Flickr user David Gale Studios, used under Creative Commons.

Approaching Le Corbusier’s masterpiece at Ronchamp, where concrete is molded into paleolithic sculptural shapes, leads to a more emotional vision of the material’s humane potential. The church’s primal form trembles in response to the surrounding hill, immediately signaling that you have entered a sacred site. It feels like the kind of place where you might suddenly behold a column of witch doctors streaming out of the dark forest around you with their torches raised high, to gather and chant for the summoning of Gaia.

Le Corbusier's Ronchamp chapel will forever be mysterious. Photograph by Flickr user scarletgreen, licensed under Creative Commons.

The Diana’s concrete, however, does not rise to such occasions. The empty, clanging Barnard student center just looks like some place where you would go to play basketball.

Was that really Barnard’s intended atmosphere? The answer can be found in the campus’s many nooks and crannies where concerned whispers and gossip might begin to emerge. There you can find an older architectural voice that would be outraged by the contemporary insurrections of the Diana, yet it speaks with tact and grace.

It speaks of a forgotten time of elegance and craftsmanship …

… and the play of light and shadow …

… and it makes you wonder; are those footsteps echoing behind you just the sound of another student, or could they be a ghost?

By simultaneously conveying both a quaint, comfortable atmosphere and a more exciting sense of wonder and mystery, the older Barnard campus buildings provide an effective cultural match for a small womens’ college situated amidst the faster-paced resources of New York City. The new Diana, on the other hand, ignores its campus’s spiritual imperative in order to race after more contemporary design trends without taking the time to consider how, or if, they should be applied.

The school’s leadership could have found inspiration for an alternative philosophical approach surprisingly close to home; before coming to New York, Barnard President Debora Spar was previously involved with the Harvard Business School, where architect Robert A.M. Stern infamously won several building commissions by promising to style his designs in accordance with what he termed Harvard’s “branding.” The campus’s architecture, he argued, was to be approached as a part of the larger comprehensive image and philosophy of the school. Although Stern capitalized on the concept of branding to convince Harvard to adopt his preferred traditional architectural approach, the basic idea that a building should reflect the principles that its client stands for could also apply to other styles and institutions. Harvard built with chronological dishonesty in order to become more philosophically honest to itself.

One of Stern's commissions for the Harvard Business School. Photograph by Flickr user eszter, used under Creative Commons.

While it is always ill-advised for any organization operating in the 21st century to imitate the styles of the past, a similar analytical process to Stern’s could have served as an inspiration for Barnard to create a more responsive design informed by the results of genuine architectural soul searching. Unless, of course, the Diana’s cold personality was actually intentional all along.