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.