11 October 2007

Architectural Historiography 1: Growing-up in Antonin Raymond’s Kawasaki House of 1934

Views and rendering of the modernist Kawasaki House in Tokyo, completed in 1934. Architect: Antonin Raymond

It would be safe to say, that the most common question addressed to an architect is why one opted for this career path in the first place. How this question is posed – alternating in our own experience, from incredulous to a veiled awe – generates various responses. We have learned to craft ours in a very straightforward way, as we gain more experience and with the added benefit of refreshing hindsight. There are also pragmatic tools – books, recent exhibits, and travel to places we used to live – that generate other ways to recall personal influences in choosing this field, overlooked in a simple resumé.

In my own case, I am more aware today of periods from my own up-bringing – notably living in Japan - that continue to influence how I approach architecture. In fact, some of this history plays a role - retroactively that is - far more important now then one would have ever assumed at the time.

Growing up in Tokyo in the early 60’ies and then in mid-70ies (my father was a career diplomat) I was afforded the chance to live in two modernist homes designed by Antonin Raymond, the expatriate-architect, friend of Noguchi, former collaborator of Frank Lloyd Wright on the Imperial Hotel, and un-sung pioneer of the European avant-garde in Japan. The most influential of the two houses, was the seminal Kawasaki residence of 1934, built in reinforced concrete, with curved windows, flat roofs and round pilotis columns emulating, and following by just a few years, LeCorbusier's Villa Savoye (The Franco-Swiss architect referred to Raymond’s studio in his Oeuvre Complete, third volume of 1934– not an unworthy footnote to claim a position as an earlier precursor of the Modern Movement).

The Kawasaki House was for 50 years a landmark destination in Tokyo, for its white-washed walls and modernist aesthetic, ideal for fashion photo-shoots for the up-and-coming Rippongi district. It was, to quote Raymond himself: “The result…of the earliest truly modern residences in the world: monolithic reinforced concrete, natural concrete finish on the exterior, proper orientation of all rooms to the South, each room going out into the garden and the whole thing very simple and natural”. It was torn down in the 80’s to make room for a large multi-storey housing complex for the US Embassy; only the 100 year-old Ginkgo tree was spared.

Many have not heard of Raymond and his partner Noémi, a husband-and-wife design-duo not unlike the Eames, who shared a passion for design that encompassed furniture, textiles, lighting and craft construction. This is not entirely surprising as their forty-plus-year practice was focused almost exclusively on their adopted home in Tokyo and their summer residence in Karuizawa, apart from a brief stint in New Hope, Pa, residing with furniture master George Nakashima during the war. We forgive history for the frequent loss of reference to the Raymond’s and their work – much less for the destruction of some of their most noted buildings over the last decades - yet two monographs and a recent exhibition in Philadelphia (“Crafting a Modern World, The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noemi Rayomd), attempt to set this right.

For me, I can clearly picture the Kawasaki House, and I use the memory of its floor-plan – an “H” shape around a central interior courtyard open to the sky, divided into western and Japanese parts – as a visual memory tool. The house, though destroyed, continues to live quite a real second-life in my own mind: I can feel the coolness of the concrete columns, hold the steel railings overlooking the pool as on a transatlantic ship, with the same vividness, as trying to recall the surfaces of our office elevator, which I just left several hours ago. That is the great quality of memory - and the necessary anxiety it creates – where it plays on in our lives, keeping collective eye over us and at times influencing our design work.

The merging in Raymond’s work, of modernist tectonics, with an understanding of Japanese traditional and craft construction, apparent in his later work in the 50-60ies, is so widely emulated today that it is hard to imagine how innovative his work was at the time. This synthesis, which we continue to explore in some of our residential projects, is still, 75 years later, considered variously and critically as mannerist, minimalist, or too modern. Raymond is still waiting for recognition, belatedly so.

The Kawasaki house, one of only three houses he executed in the purest of form of early modernism, is where I decided to become an architect – at the time I believe I used the word draftsperson – at age 14. I did not know at the time, that this was already an historic structure, an utopian vision that had laid the ground work for the architecture of postwar Japan – by Maekawa, Yoshimura, Tange and others, all students of Antonin Raymond - but I was in love with it, for its openness, the free-form plan, the circular stair, that only a child could really appreciate.

Notes: Raymond, “Turning point in My Career” 1959 quoted in JA 33, 1997, forward by Ken Oshima
“Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noemi Raymond”, an exhibition organized by University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives, 2006, “Belated Recognition” a forward by Kenneth Frampton
Photographs and rendering: from University of Pennsylvania edition above.

10 October 2007

Mediation and Visitable Storage at the Louvre-Lens

To mediate a visitor’s experience of an artwork, one first must address what curatorial “voice” the visitor will hear. The mediation programme (les actions de mediations) is a new core vision for the Louvre-Lens. Our design for mediation spaces encourages a diversity of formats, spaces and means of access – both virtual and real, in sound and light, projected or to touch, reinforced for those that are impaired, isolated away from the art or directly overlapping with the art itself – to provide multiple choices, multiple voices for the museum visitor. We have designed a series of variable mediation nodes, which are dispersed throughout the galleries, in addition to larger more social mediation rooms. They form a network of interactive spaces, at times separate from the gallery flow, at times like a kiosk at the crossroads of flux, which opens and expands to allow a group of visitors to view. Literally, the kiosks are active nodes that open, to reveal an artwork in an adjacent gallery, framed by the very surface that was used for projection. At other times, mediation takes the form of an interactive projection on or within a casework that renders visible, the draft pencil line under a final oil work; or a “blue conservation light” that makes visible the restoration in ancient stonewares – these, coupled with social rest spaces, access to printed material and signage – create the network of voices that define the visitor’s mediated experience.

Viewable and Visitable Storage
To understand the breath of the Louvre collection, it is important to the visitor to be able to understand the dual role of the institution in the first place: to both preserve and present art that it has inherited, amassed and collected. The origin of the collections – from royal patronage, to spoils of war – is one voice in the narrative of the Louvre collection. The sheer quantity of works, and the stringent conservation requirements – protection from harmful uv light, stable humidity and minimal handling – vary for each artifact type, material or period of execution, and may provide an amazing narrative to the scholar and young visitor alike.
We have developed several designs for viewable storage spaces, which meet the conservation requirements, while providing more direct visitor access to a core sampling of the Louvre’s collection.
These would take the form of large glass enclosed volumes, dedicated to one specific art material with matching relatively humidity needs and support systems. These volumes, with their moveable support partitions, can be “curated”, to allow for fortuitous comparisons of material, when seen on their moveable storage panels. With interactive display and projections, a narrative can be directly “overlaid” on these glass volumes, mediating and educating the visitor on a specific art material. These variable storage cabinets, located predominately within the publicly accessible conservation area, are also conceived to be located at mediation spaces off the direct flux of the galleries, adding a new layer to the museum experience. Other forms of variable storage, are seen as glass shelving compartments – similar to compact library storage that are compressed to access only two opposite facing sides – are proposed in some transition gallery spaces. These can be “curated” by limiting which shelving unit is viewable, while keeping the other artifacts away from light.
The large art storage facility, directly linked to the delivery and conservation labs, is found on the lower level, viewed from the main reception hall via an immense oculus in the floor, 16 meter in diameter. The visitor on first entering the museum is afforded views into the core of the museum facility, through the glass walls of the mediateque, to the viewable storage areas. The glass walls of the public spaces that define the viewable storage are electrified privacy glass that allows them to be rendered opaque – for conservation reasons.
Thus, at will, the museum can expose their core holding collection, or the works in transit to the Louvre-Lens, to the general public. The museum thus reconciles protection and presentation by placing this unique facility at the core of the public spaces.

©Tim Culbert Architect
for Equipe Sanaa (winning joint-venture team for the Louvre satellite competition 2005 (Sanaa + Imrey Culbert + Mosbach) Photo credit: TCulbert; Design image credit: Imrey Culbert

05 October 2007

Completion of the Museum of Modern Art (MUDAM) Luxembourg

Views of the completed MUDAM naturally daylight galleries Luxembourg, August 2007

Recently completed and opened to the public this past summer, 2007, the two galleries are noteworthy for the calm diffused, clerestories windows, created by the single-spanning concrete shells. The curved form, cast in concrete on site with a complex form work made by boat-workers from Marseille, France, were the longest pre-fab cast shell structures built in Europe in over 50 years - varying from 22 to 28 meters - with no control joints. They act in the classic, time-tested way, as light-baffles aligned due North.

This form, long preferred for car factories in Northern Europe, had not been executed until we developed the design, and its execution, for the MUDAM (the engineering was by Schroeder et Associes, assisted by RFR of Paris, and audited by LERA of New York; the lighting design profiling was studied in the Artificial Sky laboratory of ArupLighting, London, with Andy Sedgwick; the design geometry of the concrete shells and the gallery itself, were designed by Tim Culbert, then an associate-partner of Pei's).

Of particular interest in the shell construction, is the lack of structural ties in the plane of the glass, thus each shell is entirely independent of the next. The axial moment of the shells under self-loading, braced only at the perimeter walls, were originally thought as not possible to execute, requiring the glazed plane to act in concert with the structure deflections of the concrete. Our design work, both on the concrete profiling and the glazing, was aimed at minimizing any additional structural elements in the glazing plane - both to reinforce the structure integrity of the cast shell, as well as to preserve the maximum of North facing views to the sky. The orientation and form of the shells, act as baffles for the direct and indirect sunlight.

After more than two years of study, in structural design, natural daylighting simulation and in test casting of the concrete shells on site , we were able to successfully execute our design without any control joints. Pei, who had little to do with this aspect of the project design, was assuredly pleased, as the concrete form work and concrete finish, emulated the fine architectural concrete he has been noted for, at the Louvre and the National Gallery (As in the Louvre Pyramid ceiling, the concrete form work was comprised of recycled Douglas Fir boards, 77 millimeters wide, wire brushed, with a mix comprised of marble dust to increase the surface reflectivity of the concrete).

Notes: The Musée d’Art Modern Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg was designed by I.M. Pei, from 1990 – 2007, the longest design-execution project in the architect’s career (up-staging the Kennedy Center which took 16 years to complete). Tim Culbert was the lead design architect overseeing the project from design through complete shell construction and close-out.

All images courtesy of photographer Thomas Mayer (Thomas Mayer Archive, copyright)

Belated Recognition: Building the MUDAM, Luxembourg

Photographs: Concrete shell roofs being lifted in place, Luxembourg, November 1999

The author/architect Tim Culbert standing under a cast shell he designed for the MUDAM galleries, 1995-2000.

The museum, featuring recent European contemporary art, opened to the public in July 2007.

When we started our practice in 2000, we had just overseen the completion of Peter Rice's posthumous fink-cable structure for the glazed sculpture courtyards for the Museum of Modern Art, Luxembourg. The entire building structure was completed, and glazed in, while the cladding and final fit-outs of the public and gallery spaces were yet to be started. Having overseen the Pei designed building from the start - first as a draftsperson for the original design in 1990, eventually as the project architect on the construction site 10 years later - we had never imagined it would take another 7 years to open to the public.

Well here it is, in all of its slightly dated grandeur - a bizarre mismatch of a very classic Pei building in its relentless focus on geometry, to house no classic art, not even modernist art of the classic period - the Ecole de Paris as originally conceived - but an idiosyncratic "non-collection" of contemporary art, hobbled together by the combative director/curator Marie-Claude Beaud. The mismatch - Client-Architect as well as Building-Art, was one of the many reasons for the hugely extended design-construction-fit-out period, and encompasses the poor choice of sitting the building on an historical military fort protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

Despite the above, with the building overshadowing both the site and the raison d'être of the museum itself, the MUDAM as it was later conceived and baptized (Musée d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean), there are a few noteworthy spaces we were responsible for in design and execution, notably the stunning top floor, naturally day-light galleries.

The engineering and execution of the concret sheds are of interest (see posting below). Of more importance to us, the designers of the MUDAM gallery and in our on-going museum work in our studio at IMREY CULBERT, is the resulting natural lighting it achieves.

Effortlessly spanning the gallery length, the shells give a real physical presence to the spaces, both in terms of scale but also in the much harder to define notion of light quality: an ethereal indirect lighting, in diffused tones, on all six faces of the galleries. The galleries, an eschewed rectangle with two chamfered ends (thus six sides), have art display walls, over 6 meters tall, that face due South, due North, with contrast differences that are barely noticeable. The target performance we aimed for on natural and artificial lighting, where we work strenuously to avoid light-level contrast between adjoining surfaces - a real eye-sore in many early classic day-lit galleries - were exceeded here: all six gallery walls have close to identical light levels at all times of the day, all done with a passive, single form, roof profile, and unshaded clerestory windows.

Ten years after we designed this roof, with Andy Sedgwick of Arup to fine tune the daylighting profile for the MUDAM, it has become standard practice to use solar sun-tracking, to define museum roof skylights or laylights. Some museums end up using more complex active systems, as in the Baeyler Museum in Basel in a depth of 4 meters, or equally complex but passive custom shell-screens installed at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas in a depth of only 40 millimeters (both by Renzo Piano) to do the same job. Namely: to allow for natural daylighting in the museum gallery, for the quality of color rendering that natural light provides, and to allow visitors a view of the sky - thus the time of day and varying sky cover conditions - while not allowing a single ray of direct sun to hit an art work, or the gallery floor. This may sound easy, but it has taken the last century in museum construction, ever since the first natural skylights were opened in the Grand Galerie of the Louvre in the 1810’s (first conceived by Hubert Robert in 1796, but executed much later) to get it right.

Working again with ArupLighting, Imrey Culbert defined the natural daylighting for the future Louvre-Lens satellite museum that was key to the winning design. Currently in our joint-venture with Sanaa, we are developing a new approach to solar mitigation in what will be the largest glazed museum roof in Europe when completed in 2011. Stay Posted.

10 September 2007

Museography and Interpretation: A State of Encounter

Looking at artworks requires the viewer to be simultaneously drawn in and held at bay from the art. It should be both a conscious and unconscious experience, as perception itself. How artworks are displayed, the installation designs themselves, perform this necessary action.

When we work with other architects on museum projects – whether that may be Renzo Piano, Kazuyo Sejima or I.M.Pei – our work is to make sure that the art is never sidelined, never taken hostage, as the building is designed.

When we take on an exhibit design project, we begin discussions around the art works themselves, constructing a framework for viewing. Overlapping the perception of a work in some form or another, with the work itself: this is one way of creating meaning for the visitor.

Exhibition design is to entice the most effective emotional response of an artwork for the widest audience. To do so, our approach has been to enlist, so-to-speak, the language of the art itself to create a framework for the display. We call this the museography, the museological installation.

The blueprint for a successful museography project is to believe that all voices in the design can find their place, including those of the artists themselves.

In contemporary museum installations the battle is often half won at the start: working with the likes of Vito Acconci, Takashi Murakami and Yoko Ono, as we have done, we are not allowed to forget that the perception of art comes first.

Our work is to make that eminently clear, to delay interpretation of the works, giving time for our gaze to sink in.

“…meaning is contingent on context, how it is encountered.” Nancy Spector, on the work of artist Felix Gonzales-Torre

Palimpsest: Museography and Museological practice in Exhibit Design

Derrida’s erasing-erased writing - his palimpsest - is the re-inscription that continually displaces the reversed hierarchies of metaphysics.
Leavey intro. to Derrida, 1980, p.11 (quoted by Keep)

When we were first approached to do an exhibit installation – a short term display of rarefied objects in a New York Gallery – we had no precedents to work from, much less context a given context to generate a design, as we had been accustomed to in our architectural and urban work.

This lack of models, created its own anxieties, so we were quick to fill this void with a genuine strategy that spoke to the origin of the artworks, in this case Zenga tea bowls and ink drawings on hanging scrolls. By definition, these works needed an austere space, inviting a departure from what the gallery spaces had to offer. The only recourse for us was to perform a kind of erasure of the existing gallery. To provide the optimal viewing of these works, our efforts would focus on erasing the hard “givens” of the gallery, reversing obvious hierarchies, and eventually re-inscribing new traces on the gallery floor.

Our second and third exhibits conserved and reused portions of the previous installation, to save time and money. We had caught on to the other dimension of our, yet, unnamed strategy: it is an economic choice as well.

Much later, after experimenting with more than 14 exhibits within one series of galleries, our approach to each new design became a genuine working method. Erasure and rewriting over a previous layout – a palimpsest - provided the model we had been searching for. Neither a device, nor a metaphor for our process, the palimpsest is an action that allows for a layered approach to exhibit design.

The palimpsest performs a dual role: it may reinforce a curatorial voice, while simultaneously allowing a viewer to have an intuitive response to a series of art works. This layering of voices, the permeability of the design, is what we strive for in our museum work. We do this with a keen interest in art - both ancient and contemporary - and for sheer pleasure.

That was just shy of ten years ago. Now we have moved on to doing more permanent gallery and museum designs, while keeping faith with the palimpsest.

Note: We are indebted to Alexandra Munroe, former director of the Japan Society Gallery in New York, who commissioned our firm to design all 13 of the exhibits under her tenure from 1998 to 2006, and to her catalog forward titled: Palimpsest: Nearby Mu Xin, for the exhibition at Yale Art Gallery and the Asia Society, "The Art of Mu Xin" 2001-2002.
Image Credit: IMREY CULBERT for YES YOKO ONO Retrospective, Japan Society 2001

04 September 2007

Louvre-Lens: Museography as palimpsest

The New Museum Galleries
The galleries are naturally lit from above. A gentle downward curving translucent membrane hung from the roof, forms the ceiling and functions as both filter and projection screen. The membrane, a suspended layer below the building cable-net structure, becomes an ethereal surface on which exterior incident natural light and, perhaps, an ornate ceiling image, are held in a continuous state of flux depending on the time of day and season.
This stands in contrast with the night time image: artificial lighting, from adjustable fixtures stealthy mounted within the roof structure, will paint at times a carefully balanced diffused glow, or alternatively a vibrant fresco of light on this floating ceiling. The suspended membranes form a unique constellation of floating planes that define specific galleries, achieving viewing intimacy and lower light levels where needed.
Under this lit ceiling, the galleries spread-out in an expansive width, afforded by a columnless structure and walls that reach 6 meters high. Five unequal volumes, each with gently curving facades that respond to the site topography, make up the gallery spaces. They are linked at corners only, spreading out organically from the reception volume, to take full advantage of the linear characteristic of this reclaimed mining site.
This free-form overlap of volumes creates an intuitive flux within the space, as one is drawn towards the open corners, to the edges of the spaces. From within the galleries one can perceive the gently warped volumes. Through the exterior glass openings one perceives the adjacent gallery volume, creating an ease of “readability” to the layout of the museum campus. The splayed layout of the building forms reinforces what would typically be treated in extraneous wayfinding: this is a museum easily traveled by all visitors, of all walks of life.

The Renewable Galleries
Within the large gallery volumes, interior partition layouts, evolve progressively from one end to the other of the renewable galleries, reinforcing this same intuitive visitor path and – as we consciously designed for – creating the natural adjacencies between nearby gallery spaces.
The time-line galleries are distributed like a comb, with teeth and dents (dent-creuse) that dovetail with the volumes of the theme-based galleries of discovery. In effect the time-line expands and contracts with the more enclosed renewable galleries: this typology allows for a densely architectural driven time-line, a journey that can be experienced up or down the chronology (en remontant le temps ou l’inverse), depending on how a visitor is drawn from one discovery gallery to the next, or alternatively into an adjacent mediation space. The sinuous glass tubes, allows for a return flux that affords uninterrupted views of the landscaped site and sculpture installations in the museum park.
This organic layout, random (aleatoire) to a large degree, both flexible and highly determined, seeks to reconcile the dual agenda of the Louvre-Lens: to provide emotion and pedagogie in viewing the collection. The proposed galleries and layouts will provide the context for multiple viewers to see the same group of works in the collection in more diverse, more candid ways.
The “particular” nature of the spaces as we have designed them, are coupled with renewable spaces that walk the fine-line between virtual contextualizations – the floating membrane as one of them – to real contextualizations. This strategy will allow for display strategies that are built around a plurality of curatorial voices. More importantly they will “speak” to a more diverse public, they will be “read” for once as both pedagogie and emotion, art and science, desire and amazement, and not in terms of opposites or contrasts, periods or materials, departments and schools of thought.
The approach to museography and it’s too often polar opposite – the architecture of museum volumes – is now turned on its head. The museum volumes define the museology in a happy marriage of both opposites and similarities, allowing for a myriad of solutions of installations that avoid the pitfalls of either overly flexible spaces, or alternatively overly determined forms. The perfect fit for this unique vision as defined by the Louvre – to create a “musee d’art et d’essai”, to escape the constraints of the museum itself – is to create a truly transversal presentation of the collection. This is achieved by defining specific volumes as transversal offshoots that expand and contract along the time line (promenade-exploration).
Within these, alternate scenographic installations – large installations, dioramas, compressed ceilings for light sensitive works, can be created at will, based on a vocabulary of parts: this is the Louvre-Lens’ palimpsest: A place that reflects its history; a place or a surface that is rewritten, overwritten or erased a new.
Reconfiguring the gallery installations with relative ease, to escape the confines of the singular permanent features of the musee-mere in Paris, will allow for many “rubbings-out and putting-in” for each subsequent installation. This is true polyvalence. The palimpsest is not simply a metaphor for polyvalence, but the product of our design solution: it will allow for a many-layered nature to the installations where various traces of a prior exhibit are conserved in the following art installation.
The museum “plateau”, one single level covering some 350 linear meters, will be by its very nature a palimpsest for art. We hope it encourages a many-layered approach to selecting and hanging art - with a certain nod to chronological display outside of art historical categories - with flash-backs and flash-forward, curious juxtapositions of art friend and foe alike. In this way, the idea of a sole meaning to any art, an originating voice – one that the Palais du Louvre can never fully achieve – is almost naturally subverted, deferring meaning for future exhibitions, for future generations.

Temporary Galleries
Our preoccupations on diversity of scaled spaces, flexibility of format presentation, ceiling treatment and notably lighting – both artificial and natural – informed our solution for the temporary gallery. Linked most directly to the art-storage spaces and buffer installation rooms in the basement, the temporary gallery features an additional active layer of top-light mitigation, to allow for all types of art display in a controlled lighting environment, to complete blackout. The columless space is designed with a matrix flow diagram that allows for non-structural walls to define either small three sided gallery spaces along a spine, or alternatively more enclosed floating volumes within the larger space. The various typologies of layouts we have developed allow for a fluidity in visitor flow, a certain “souplesse”of use and natural hierarchy of spaces while avoiding the pitfalls of over flexibility.

The design reconciles polyvalence and flexibility. Flexibility is built into the design, by the very nature of large volumes, the light control systems, both natural and artificial, and the intuitive flux encouraged by the proportions of the spaces.

©Tim Culbert Architect
for Equipe Sanaa (winning joint-venture team for the Louvre satellite competition 2005 (Sanaa + Imrey Culbert); Image credit: Sanaa + Imrey Culbert + Mosbach / excerpt from video file by bhch, NY

Limits and Possibilities of Design

Our passion for architecture stems from our deep belief in architecture’s capacity to “speak” to the needs, values and goals of its users. For architecture to do this, it must know its users very well. That is why we strive to be good listeners and why we take ample time to understand and evaluate the design and challenges, both formal and technical, of a given program for each project is unique.

For architecture to succeed, it must have an acute sense of its own limits and possibilities. That is why we devote significant resources to in-house research and development, constantly developing our awareness of products and building systems.

This is especially important in today’s ascendancy of green and low-energy design. We encourage respect for the environment and its diverse users in all of our design work as well as in our office.