10 November 2012

Louvre-Lens Museum Opening: Seven years in the making


December 2012

Public Opening: December 12, 2012 

Lead Design Architect Tim Culbert, formerly of Imrey Culbert and now founder and principal of Atelier CULBERT is pleased to announce the inauguration of the new satellite museum for the Louvre, located in the northern former mining city of Lens, France. In a joint venture with SANAA of Tokyo, Culbert is the co-author of the building design with Kazuyo Sejima - having invited his Japanese counterpart to join a team he created in 2005.

The joint-venture team included Mosbach Landscape Design of Paris, and engineers ArupLighting of London and Bollinger + Gohmann of Frankfurt for the international competition that included 116 firms worldwide.

The Louvre-Lens project represents a significant cultural and political success for the Region of the Nord pas-de-Calais, close to the Belgium border, which spent 10 years prior to the museum launch bidding against other northern French cities as a unique "decentralized" location of France's art heritage. Since the construction launch of the satellite museum, the Louvre Museum has proceeded with its expansion plans, notably with the recent opening of the Cours d'Islam in Paris and the Louvre Abu Dhabi by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, currently under construction.

Concept Sketch by T. Culbert
Tim Culbert, an American architect raised in Japan and Switzerland with a degree in architecture from France, considered the Louvre-Lens competition to be a perfect platform to merge both his personal background, with his knowledge of both French and Japanese cultures to address the paradigm shift of the museum in today's society. Creating a Japanese-American team for the Louvre competition was an overt attempt to address all of these in one building type with an approach that would put on equal footing landscaping, art installation, visitor flow and architectural forms.

The completed building and installed galleries fuses artifacts, painting and sculpture with architecture, circulation and nature, engaging the visitor in a new social space and expanding the imagery and visitor's confrontation with the Louvre's archive of artistic practice. The transversality that is achieved, integrates and regenerates classic art forms and techniques, embracing an overt approach to a "panoramic culture", bridging classic art departments or formats, appropriate to a new generation of viewers, as well as an experienced viewership seeking alternatives to how cultural history is represented. The building is a receptacle, ethereal - at times invisible - backdrop to this agenda, allowing for a broad range of experiments on how meaning is made through perception. To paraphrase the artist Anselm Kiefer, the new Louvre-Lens takes a risk - 'expanding and building an arch across time; stretching the curving rainbow of art across historical intervals'1.

Entrance Hall
The original design text and presentation in 2005 included the following text (and oral presentation to the Senate by Tim Culbert), remains relevant to describe the built work 7 years later: "The design for the new satellite of the Louvre consists of gently curving pavilions that dovetail with the landscape – a 62-hectare former mining site – creating a “museum-park”.  The roofs of the galleries are entirely glazed and slightly diffused, ideal natural daylighting under the grey skies of Lens. The ethereal quality of the façade – a single height of brushed aluminum alternating with clear glass – and the slight curvature of the pavilions will create blurred reflections of the surrounding landscape. This out-of-focus impression speaks to the new mission of Louvre-Lens: to question reality and perception, to teach how to look at art anew.  Gallery volumes are gently linked at their corners, allowing for a transversal experience of the rotating exhibits. The design reinforces the curatorial blueprint, effectively repealing the classic art departments that have defined – and confined – the collection in the Louvre Palace over the last two centuries." TC

Designed as a series of wings that spread-out from a 4,000 square meter central hall, the project acknowledges and undoes the hierarchical typology of the Paris museum itself, with difficult to reach multi-floor "wings" around the below-grade entrance hall designed by I.M. Pei. At the Louvre-Lens, the gallery wings and public spaces are all on one level and spread out asymmetrically from the entirely glazed entrance hall, creating a tension in its relationship with the landscape, while not entirely dismantling the concept of centrality and cartesian symbolism of the "original" Louvre.

The satellite museum will include a visitor-guided storage and conservation area, located at the core of the cluster of buildings - directly below and accessible from the main hall building itself -  to speak to its dual mission for the preservation and display of artifacts and artworks.

Competition Rendering
The 30,000 square meter, 150 million Euro stand-alone building is the first museum designed and built in France by SANAA and Imrey Culbert.

The international competition was won by SANAA and Imrey Culbert with Mosbach (Landscape Design) and a large international design and engineering team from France, England and Germany and took 7 years to complete.

Client: the Region Nord Pas-de-Calais in partnership with the Louvre Museum in Paris. Complete project specifications and team credits can be found at www.louvrlens.fr

05 March 2012

Another Museum RFP: Nothing fits automatically

In submitting to this RFP for a new museum wing in Florida, after a 4 year seduction period with the benefactor, we probably should have taken to heart this cover title on a recent issue of MARK: ‘Architecture is like fashion. Nothing fits you automatically’.

Well the jury of Florida bureaucrats thought otherwise – though we did make if from the broad 50 firm pre-selection to the final 4 – selecting a team (and not a design) hoping to get a piece of the old Greco-Roman J.P. Getty Museum at 1/8 the cost per square foot, while aiming to make it Asian Art friendly. It only shows that there is no fit – automatic, even wishful– with such opposing mandates to start with. We gave it our best bet anyway, as one would be hard pressed to find a firm with 25 years of museum design and Asian art display in its background…………..we were just did not ready to sell the unbuildable – or the least the appropriate –for this addition to the 1925 museum wing housing Raphael “cartoons” on this seaside town. We shall see what comes of this in a few years. In any event, we gave the jury three design directions, with two schemes for the existing wing to be rehabilitated, though none were asked for in the interview process for the architect selection. Here are some of the thoughts we shared just last month.

1987-2012: 25 Years of Museum Design

Given the project’s ambition and the nature of the benefactor’s Asian collection and her collecting approach – original and idiosyncratic - and not to create a generic space for the experience of art, the potential here is for a project that aims to create different modes of relationship between art and the viewer than most encyclopedic or traditional museums tend to do.

Named a “pavilion”, rather than an addition or a wing, as is commonly done, the search committee has taken a delightful risk, matching the collector’s vision: that the budget-conscious project is to be seen primarily as one of transitory experience. If we are not mistaken, the etymological origin of Pavilion is the word papillion, French for butterfly, whose short life is so transitory.

The reference is more than metaphor: In our design thinking in each of our alternate schemes at this early phase, the pavilion literally takes flight above its base, taking the visitor with it. There is now an interior encounter to instigate through design, non-cloistered programming, that will allow for an interconnectedness with the program of the Asian Art Center and the rest of the historic museum wings.

The New West Wing Scheme 1: An ethereal experience for art viewing

This scheme uses a variety of strategies to bring what is primarily visual - in Asian Art to the non-initiated - “back into physical space to elicit an embodied response” under natural daylight.

From peripheral to central: the complexity of the linear West Wing scheme is based on an architectural “double-take”. From a distance as well as approaching the wing, there will be a moment when something shifts from being peripheral (the museum’s historic wings, the overall site overlooking the bay will dominate) to being the center of attention. This shift will change over the course of the day: at morning the new wing will be a dominant feature reflecting back to the visitor a visual completion of the courtyard; in the late afternoon as the sun sets through the vertical glass, this new wing will in essence disappear, become negligible to the view towards and beyond it to the bay. Mostly built underground with generous ramps to enter and exit, it’s vertical profile will be modest: in essence this new wing is a land-art project giving priority to a progressive discovery of the building in the site and to the viewing of art itself.

The Jade Pavilion and Study Center Scheme 2: A contemporary architectural statement with Asian themes

This scheme is built along the pond’s edge to the East allows for an architectural idiom that is distinct from the traditional “U” forming Renaissance galleries, uses strategies proper to Asian art to bring the visual experience of the artifacts into a physical space in more direct architectural form.

Built off axis to the historic museum wings with a geometric skylight of glass and sun-shading control above - it will be both visually stunning and provide for a different type of “double-take” experience: on program, the dual or multiplicity of offerings of the space - what all museums need to account for - exhibition (where natural daylight is an advantage, for the of jade in floating unique casework), with spaces for more in-depth study of the art centre’s offering, easily accessible in direct visual connection to the artwork. The jade pavilion is thus a contemporary interpretation of an art specific gallery, functioning as an introductory exhibition space, an entrance into the realm of Asian art, and a free-access study center on multiple levels.

South Wing Renovation Scheme 3: Vertical linkages between viewing and studying spaces

Spread through the main gallery floor level and with visual openings to the 2nd level, this wing will allow for a duality of curated exhibits for works sensitive to light in spaces that today have virtually no natural daylight and provide a visual link to accessible storage and art study on the upper level. The key to the “double-take” offering here is to keep the visitor of all ages or backgrounds, aware that they may take multiple routes in their initiation into Asian art, and that a separate more intimate zone of study upstairs and spread through the gallery is available with visual connections to the artworks at the same time. The linkages or co-mingling, between viewed artifacts and studying works is what will make the renovated South Wing or Asian gallery central to the experience of the new Ringling. Creating vertical height by a central void, will allow for the necessary vertical linkages between viewing and learning.

The SW Corner Scheme 4: Intertwining support programs and an exterior performative space

To wisely invest in providing for renovation and new Asian exhibit galleries and art study spaces - less in a monumental entrance pavilion at the furthest corner of the site - we envisaged a scheme of a support base to link the West Wing and the Conservation Wing, provide much needed loading and storage area, underground tunnel and electric visitor car storage and a large exterior terrace for sculpture display above for contemporary or ancient works allowing the existing wings to remain largely untouched except at their level 1. This new exterior terrace may become a performative space for art curatorship: we could see Big Bambu by Doug and Mike Starn, two contemporary artists highly influenced by Asian Art, installed here or a piece by Xu Bing - each would serve to “elicit an embodied response” to art.

A new Entrance Wing Scheme 5: Merging Asian art and social encounters in a new entrance wing

This scheme as defined in the program gives dominance to the art study center in the West wing to be renovated and an “open-format” entrance pavilion that will operate on a very functional level. Merging an architectural design ‘sympathetic’ with the existing Renaissance styled wings and to provide for public and conservation entrance at this corner of the site is a wise and efficient proposal, though not our preferred. Our analysis of the program and experience in museum design, will call for a greater intertwining of viewable storage, study center and exhibits in user-directed areas within this new pavilion. Ideally situated close to the bay’s edge and the pond, we see it function as an exit pavilion as well based on potential visitor routes into the large surrounding gardens, with commissioned contemporary Asian Art dominating a large void within this volume. In this way new and repeat visitors will be made that much more aware of art, their place in its viewing, how spectatorship is created and questioned.

The risk in this scheme, is a wing designed less around the nature of the collection and falling into the a pattern of many museum expansions with the bulk of the project investment going towards entrance/public facilities and not the art galleries and viewing experience that are the “raison d’être” of the institution.

The SW corner naturally calls for an expansion here, though we are less inclined to see it as a monumental entrance per se – as the RFP calls for - but to develop a new format to the pavilion that will provide dynamic visual and social encounters for a vistorship unversed in Asian Art.

Anyone of these schemes, or iterations of them, would have been a good ‘fit’.

Images: The Swiss artist Zimoun unique installations of sound and movement on view at the Ringling Museum of Art; Banyan Trees on the Gulf Coast sitting of the museum.

21 September 2010

A bright spot for architecture: Museum Design

Press from the Los Angeles Times, September 18th, 2010

"Architecture is going through a pretty dark period at the moment, with the troubled economy weighing heavily on the profession. But there is one surprising bright spot amid the gloom: museum design.

Even as a handful of high-profile museum expansions have been scaled back or canceled because of the recession, many more are going forward -- in cities around the world, and in diverse range of styles. Renzo Piano is opening another of his precise, restrained gallery buildings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art even as New York firm Diller, Scofidio & Renfro advances designs for Los Angeles, Berkeley and Washington D. C.

Zaha Hadid's MAXXI museum in Rome and a new branch of the Pompidou, by Shigeru Ban and the French architect Jean de Gastines, are in their first months of operation, while an outpost of the Louvre in the northern French city of Lens, designed by New York firm Imrey Culbert and Tokyo architects SANAA, is under construction. An additional Louvre branch, plus yet another Guggenheim, are planned for the United Arab Emirates state of Abu Dhabi.

As I argue in this Critic's Notebook, the most intriguing of those museum projects are interested in moving past tired arguments about how respectful the architecture is -- or isn't -- to the art on dispaly. Instead, they have something important to say about the relationship between the museum and the city."

Christopher Hawthorne, The Los Angeles Times

29 April 2010

Shared impulses/Opposite results: the work of Schütte and Nouvel in Madrid

Jean Nouvel's expansion of the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia) lacks, not surprisingly, any modesty. As a recent visitor to the museum several years after its completion, giving it time to have found its own "pace" among Madrid's 52 other museums, its own exhibition rotation, and as a former employee of the Pritzker-Prize architect, I expected two things of this visit, neither of which came about: some degree of awe - the feeling of something completely appropriate but totally unexpected- just right for this context; and secondly some unease, a provocation that he, the architect, had again surprised me with something less than neutral, disarming, yet just right for this program, that is to say for the museum spectator.

In the case of his latest museum, those feelings were displaced altogether. The grandiose entrance courtyard created by the expansion, was exactly as the renderings: lifeless, with an impression of a nighttime scene while in broad daylight (thanks to his red and reflective surfaces, now his trademarks); and purely formalistic with a razor-edge overhanging roof spanning the full site and blocking the Madrid sky.

In this way Nouvel's huge expansion has imposed itself on the site, on a context that needed far more modesty and a much better sense of scale and detailing; all it is, is a device of the architect’s own making, his own signature. The original Reina Sofia building is now rendered invisible, by the new facades and the floating roof, literally shielded from view. The circulation between the new and old galleries is left painfully unresolved.

The irony of it, or at least a saving grace for my visit, was the retrospective exhibit in the old galleries dedicated to the German artist Thomas Schütte. What could be more appropriate, then to be confronted by an artist that similarly has been driven by contradictory impulses: to be absolutely modern, as Nouvel advocates for, while eluding any “confinement” within current practice.

As one critic describes the avant-garde, it is a wish to avoid being superceded by any step in a historical progression, and this seems to be the one link between Schülte’s artistic approach, as well as Nouvel's. In Schütte's case - where the long white-washed galleries were a perfect stage for his series of hand-crafted models of Bauhaus styled-factories or museums as mausoleums - it is a reassuring provocation. We don't have to live in these mausoleums and the device he applies is one of "disarming" us, the visitor. Schütte succeeds, then, where Nouvel fails.

Somehow these models become quaint and we appreciate their handmade-ness, over their overt coldness and rigidity; even if there is in fact nothing quaint here at all. The lack of irony in Schülte’s work takes hold in this museum setting, and we are free to move on to the irony of a Pierre Huyghes drawing around the corner – or best of all to the even more literal “Guernica” accosted by huge crowds in it's own gallery as in a Thomas Struth photograph. From there we move to another corner gallery that leads to a dead-end, so that once again we, the visitors, are foiled in trying to navigate the link between the Nouvel and Sabatini wings of the museum. Physically and worse, subjectively, we are left pained by this experience.

"At the center of Schülte’s work is not an artistic genius but a certain void, an absence - an inner space presented in a way similar to the neutral space of a modern museum, not an eruptive space, as found in the work of many of his colleagues. He ironically demonstrates his subjectivity by demonstrating a loss of subjectivity".

The new architectural expansion delivers what this museum did not need: a far too heavy dose of contemporary subjectivity and architect-as-genius authorship. Schütte’s models appear subtle and magnificent in the "Retrospección" exhibit, where they would normally conjure loss and distance anywhere else. This may have to do with the generous space, the form of the old vaulted galleries, with beautiful natural daylight. Yet it may also have to do with how they act as a welcome antidote to the adjacent Nouvel galleries that are seen first by the visitor and for opposite reasons then one might think: the understatement of the sculpture models, the artisanal approach to their making is reactionary when seen against Nouvel’s love of machined materials, his preference for seemingly effortless structure or unexpressed cantilevers.

In this respect, the Schütte 's models make the ultimate sacrifice – appearing superfluous, when in fact it is the context, the museum itself, that has become superfluous to the art here at the ‘Nouvel’Reina Sofia.

Italics: See Boris Groys “The Case of Thomas Schütte”, Dia Art Foundation, Robert Lehman Lectures on Contemporary Art, No.3 and Thomas Schütte, Retrospección, Reina Sophia, February-May 2010.

19 April 2010

There is more then one artful way to expand a museum

In a New York Times article by art critic Roberta Smith her wishful thinking on the Piano-designed expansion in the Meatpacking District was right on: "A new downtown Whitney has to make art look good, make people feel good in it, inspire curators to do their best and give the place some kind of identity — a profile — the way Dia’s old building did. Which is to say that it doesn’t have to have tourist-attracting bells and whistles.... It just has to give people a breathtaking, vision-expanding experience of art. This is as much a matter of proportion, openness and light as square footage, as the old Dia proved repeatedly." I would add Dia:Beacon to that compliment.

If the Whitney would expand at the old DIA Chelsea site as it has been rumored, or better yet, if the DIA would take on the site originally proposed for the Whitney without a starchitect to design it, most of us would be content. In all cases, New Yorkers would not be getting the short end of the deal, but more space for art - as despite the number of museums in the city they all remain log-jammed with visitors. So, for us, more museums the better.

I would take Smith to task for one comment, however, when she states that we should put all our faith in the current museum building trend in the hands of dealers and artists (NYT, April 12, 2010): "Whom should the people in charge of museums listen to? Perhaps to those who have consistently made art look best because they are most directly dependent on it looking best: artists and dealers. A well-chosen committee of such people would probably be able to pare down and improve....... the design even more."

It has been a proven track record that artists are generally the poorest at considering how art (theirs or others) should be viewed; and dealers experience in what a wide range of visitors need to take away from art viewing (the visitor is their to learn something after all and not just have a breathtaking moment) is far more complex than providing for airy spaces, even as beautiful as they come in the pared-down versions by Gaggosian.

Smith fails to mention that there are professionals out there, committing most of their time and energy to actually doing what she says the dismal quality of museums built in the US lack - or her expectation on what the Whitney expansion will deliver – great new galleries and installations rather then another event-space with art tucked into a corner: "The success of an undertaking like this hinges not on the size but on the quality of the space, which is never thought about enough and never by the people who really know what they’re doing where museums are concerned." Our young track record should be a good antidote to that comment, but more is a stake then how our practice is doing.

This week, Smith writes, as others , that the museum curatorship should be pulled out into the streets just as we see architects taking the reigns of museums (newly parted director of the Miami Museum of Art now under construction; the current director of the stalled expansion of St. Louis Museum of Art are two examples of note). In essence we are seeing revisionism of the advice given freely ten years ago and which colored every article on the building of new museums and expansions at the time (the Getty and Bilbao notably): art dealers are not to be trusted. To let the least trained in the field run the museums, and rely on the artists to advise on how best to install them are ideas that are doomed approaches and hopefully the Whitney and Dia's expansions - financial and land logistics apart - will take that advice for what it is - a provocation and self-interested reversal of what journalist have espoused before.

But this discourse is becoming mainstream: we are seeing collectors and their artists take over full-handedly the New Museum (Skin Fruit by Jeff Koons and Dakis Joannou) with questionable results; art dealers leading major museums (the much written about Jeffrey Dietch at the much maligned MoCA); and dealer-sponsored art fairs have taken the wind out of so many "block-buster" exhibits (the Serra retrospective and the current Marina Abramovic are exceptions). But the off-off pier fairs, favored by newly minted artists and galleries, such as Independent, are worthy new collaborations and art viewing strategies that are far more inspiring then the art/dealer paradigm advocated by Smith.

There are professionals, however, that have lasted the time to see the nature of Smith's discourse reversal (dealers are now to be trusted, to catch-up on wasted time ignoring each other), as committed as ever to both the art and the visitor (a changing, hard to pin-down group). And there are those new in the field that are doing stunning jobs, without the baggage of an older generation of curators (the Times highlighted a few of these under 30-curators in "The New Guards Step-up", March 18, 2010). And there are newly minted museum designers – or museographers, a word taken from the French - that are filling the void of a field that was largely held by theatre lighting designers and in-house museum installers for the last 25 years. All of this is good news, in the right hands.

These new museographers are advising colleagues (architects or exhibit designers) and museums on everything from the proportions and lighting of spaces, to vitrine fabrication and performance, to exhibit installation themselves. Coupled with an eye for three dimensional space and a trained background in art (or the reverse: trained in 3D space design, with an eye for art and aesthetics), the new museographers should take back from all of the Pritzker architects the core value and the core vision of museum projects - putting art back in mind.

Footnote: The writer - an architect and museographer - is an unabashed lover of the Marcel Breuer's Whitney, designed the galleries and vitrines for Piano's "event-space expansion" of the Morgan, as Smith would call it and has worked in various roles on the design of museum projects by 5 Pritzker-Architects - Nouvel, Koolhaas, Pei, SANAA, Piano - mostly invisible to the public and journalistic world. A thank you to Roberta Smith for raising the unanswerable question on how to expand a museum, such as the Whitney and to Rirkrit Tiravanija for his reflective ping pong table at Independent.

Competition Up-Date: Ex Aequo (2nd Place) on the MNBAQ

Copyright all images: BarkowLeibinger + Imrey Culbert Architectes

We are hitting our stride in placing second - or Ex-Aequo - on the international museum circuit. This is not always bad news: those that place first are usually not paid the promised funds for these invited competitions, but have them deducted from the first contract phase. This means - as is the case of the recent competition won by OMA for the National Museum in Quebec (MNBAQ) - that the group of runner-ups can hope for payment in the next weeks after a grueling 6 month selection period. To those not in the profession this may seem a questionable business model: Unpaid RFPs to land in a select group that includes two design phases, model production and an oral with no financial advance. Yet this is the dominant practice today if one is to secure a coveted museum project abroad (in the US, the practice is on pre-selection and interviews, with a few rare exceptions such as the Smithsonian's NMAAHC and the on-going SFMoMA expansions).

In the specific case of the MNBAQ, we set-out again to find a good partner to aim for the invited Stage 1, who had not yet done a museum project but would bring to our team experience in industrial/efficient/green design, for a 12,000 new building aimed at a very low square foot-cost (1/3 of the norm stateside). BarkowLeibinger fit the bill nicely. We created the team for the RFP, complemented by our frequent collaborators: Buro Happold, ArupLighting et al to make the first round out of 108 teams from 19 countries. The odds, as in any lottery, were highly weighted against all of us, without star power. But we aimed right, in the sense, that we read the PR announcements correctly, then looked into the specific invited jury members, the various local press announcements on the project aims over the course of the last 2 years, to expect that the jury would select half of the teams from within Canada, the other half abroad, one from each country perhaps.

Phase 1 line-up turned out indeed to include 15 firms and each team had 2 months to present a design. Phase 2, narrowed the selection down to five firms, of which we were one: BarkowLeibinger+ImreyCulbert; OMA, Rem Koolhaas; Nieto Sobejano; Allied Works Architecture; and David Chipperfield Architects. Here we were pretty pleased having bested a few favored architects working today: Gigon Guyer Architects of Switzerland, David Adjaye Associates, Kengo Kuma and BIG among others.

At the end of Phase 2, another 2 months of design, model making, schematic design engineering and cost estimating - including an oral presentation - gave the project to Rem Koolhaas out of the New York office under partner Shohei Shigematsu. The OMA scheme harkens back to the simplicity, 60'ies inspired typologies that Koolhaas played with in the mid-80'ies, minus his fabulous rhetoric, perceptive programmatic reading and clear genius - yet lost on us here was the following project description submitted with the design: “Our ambition is to create a dramatic new presence for the city, while maintaining a respectful, even stealthy approach to the museum’s neighbors and the existing museum.” There is nothing stealth about the OMA project, and actually little need for dramatic presence either on the site - largely a parkland considered a national monument where the final military campaigns were held between the British and French in 1759 (the British won) and disparate buildings, from a former Prison, a Church and Presbytery, to a failed 1990 expansion entrance to the museum compound and a large Neo-Classical building, the first phase of the museum when it sole focus was the Natural History of the region. Pressed up against a 19th Century church and requiring the demolition of its monastery building, the OMA project could have applied its rhetoric of being stealthy (sic) in such a context - instead we see an entirely glass-clad building stacking up to a huge cantilever at the front entrance. A project that will certainly come in over budget.

Despite this, the project's response to the competition brief is truly a good scheme, providing for the variation of gallery formats for art that spans Inuit artifacts, to industrial design, to Quebec romanticism painting, to traveling exhibits from the Louvre or the Rodin Museum in Paris. In other words, a traditional, provincial take on an encyclopedic museum, that has struggled for 75 years to find an identity of its own (it’s most recent naming - MNBAQ - is the last and most recent iteration as a Beaux Arts Museum). So, perhaps Koolhaas/Shigematsu's scheme will indeed be a catalyst for greater cultural tourism in Quebec, as the town's fathers hope for and its single women director. In any event, with more visitors or not, it will be an outlandish presence along Quebec's main drag to its historic center. Let's hope it improves in the next design phases, or that the environmental concerns of a region blanketed by snow most of the year, will obligate more radical changes to the design to reduce operating costs and to better serve its neighbors and its art. Our second place, for the second time to OMA, is not that bad a place to be just now.

Note that the invited jury members included: Architects Xavier de Geyter and Nasrine Seraji.

To see the OMA project go to:

15 April 2010

Manfred Grohmenn's Calculated Eccentricity

"Style is just the outside of content"
Jean-Luc Godard

Last month I was driving through the Canton of Vaud, where Godard has lived for years in relative isolation, returning from a visit to the Rolex Center in Lausanne. This is the latest building by SANAA to be completed this year, part of the expansive university campus of EPFL that fronts Lac Geneva. All said, it's a great building. Style is the main theme, however, and it is worth pretty much every penny of it. The content, as Godard referred to, is not in the architecture per se, but in the users, the mobile devices and the relaxed way the EFPL students have appropriated the building, working in groups, lounging on the sloped floors or alone at a white-on-white Eamesesque round table with an Artemide lamp.

I did write lamp. One of the key beauty moments of the project other then the steep undulating floor plane that will soon be on the cover of most design mags once the project is fully complete, is the lack of any light fixture in the ceiling. All lighting is either from single desk lamps placed randomly on tables or rare up-light fixtures - huge "light cans" in fact - on the slender steel columns that are equally randomly placed throughout the building. The ceiling can then appear as a calm, uncluttered surface that follows in parallel with the slopping floors.

In terms of style, then, it is found in the project's overall fluid and randomness of form (this does not go unappreciated to most visitors: the project has become a place to visit on weekends by young families, retirees on an outing and some star-struck architects literally frozen in place as they contemplate what they never thought would be possible to build - an image of an idealized future - that every paragraph in the Swiss building code would rule-out); randomness found equally in terms of the structural design of the large spanning undulating concrete slab touching the ground at odd locations, as well as with the steel columns that support the roof above.

This overall freeform appearance - the stylistic randomness - clearly was less difficult to conceive formally, as to build. This is the work of Manfred Grohmenn, the structural engineer, who is largely quoted on the design theory of the project in the local Lausanne press. He would probably cringe at the concept of randomness in a colloquial sense, but in fact this is the greatest per formative challenge (or fun, at the expense of the project) offered to structural engineers today: optimizing slenderness, stress and strain (all measures of structural performance-based loading calculations, their alignments or lack of, or their susceptibility to buckling) in asymmetrical architectural designs.

Manfred's response to this challenge is what makes the supporting form seem effortless. There are few lateral braces in the project, huge in fact, that catches one’s eye every so often, and clearly says that this eccentric design, was a difficult exercise in eccentricity of structural loading. It appears that no vertical weight, is positioned to pass vertically to the ground, but has to be taken up off-center by the "floating" concrete floor of the building. This introduces a rotation that would normally pull the roof over to one side - an eccentricity (a structural engineering term) that is quite literal in this project - as all of the walls in the project are in glass offering no bracing and there are few if any cores to stabilize the building as would be the case in a typical building type.

The apparent effortlessness of the project, the ease with which it appears to float and land simply on various curved edges of the elliptical openings that define the interior spaces (and roofscape, if ever seen from above), is the hard work of German engineers Bollinger + Grohmenn, working in tandem with the local contractors. They have given style to the outside of SANAA's Rolex Center - in the best sense of the term - leaving the content and the choreography of uses to the students within. Let's hope that the soon to read blogs and articles on the project give equal weight to both qualities of this striking project by our friends in Tokyo.