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Details in Contemporary Architecture: As Built

By Christine Killory and Rene Davids (editors)

Princeton Architectural Press, 2007, 208 pages, $55

Sharp Center for Design, Toronto, by Alsop Architects

The Sharp Centre for Design, Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto, Alsop Architects Ltd., and Robbie/Young + Wright Architects

By Carter B. Horsley

The first volume in a new series by Princeton Architectural Press entitled As Built, "Details in Contemporary Architecture" highlights 24 interesting projects in the United States and one in Canada that were completed in the past two years.

In her preface, editor Christine Killory notes that "popular interest in architecture and the celebrity of architects has intensified in this media saturated age, but serious publications devoted to architecture are disappearing, while the quality of many that remain has declined."

Ms. Killory goes on to state that:

"Whenever American architects gather in numbers ther are ritual lamentations about architecture's loss of respect, power, and influence, for which it is fair to say architects themselves have been largely responsible. The last fifty years have witnessed a systematic retreat at all levels of the profession as vast areas of the built landscape became architect-free zones, new materials technologies, building types, and profound social change went unacknowledged, and market share was lost to cannier, more pragmatic players. To lessen legal exposure, architects became cautious and risk-averse, demoting themselves from supervisors to observers on the job site. Some prominent architects assumed responsibility for the preliminary design of their projects only, staying on as project consultants but leaving the onerous, exacting, labor-intensive disciplines of construction documents, contract administration, and project delivery to others. As they became more preoccupied with architecture's scenographic qualities and responsive to noisy popular media, architects learned to market their work based on its value as image or entertainment, even as the overall quality of American buildings declined. Many abandoned the mundane purposefulness of everyday life altogether for the postmodern theory swamps, or virtual worlds where passion for architecture can be severed form reality. On many dysfunctional building teams, architects focus mainly on design while engineers, consultants, and contractors have little interest in it, if any....American building culture - traditionally risk averse, conservative, and confrontational - has lately shown signs of greater openness to material innovation and more collaborative relationships. As it has everywhere else, the digital revolution has forever changed America architectural design, practice, construction technology, buildings, and drawings. Whereas in the past architects translated an imagined three-dimensional conception of a building into two-dimensional drawings, they now create a computer model of the concept and generate the two-dimensional document required to build it....While many architects first turned to computers to realize new forms, they now recognize that by expanding their knowledge base and taking on additonal risk, they can begin to regain control of the building process....Over a third of the projects included in this first issue of AsBuilt are by architecture firms who have main offices in other countries, or principals who were born and trained overseas and have to come to American to practice....The shortcoming of American building practices have recently been the focus of unflattering comparisons with those of Europe and Japan, but there isn't another country on earth that has so many foreign architects working on commissions of every size. As a result America is getter better architecture, greater access to more sophisticated technology and materials, and building construction is held to an increasing higher standard."

This is a non-nonsense book about a lot of sensational and wonderful projects that is filled with fabulous photographs and drawings and good technical commentary. If the book has a fault, it is that it makes little effort to put the selected projects in their design context, but that is not a major fault as the projects' importance is generally self-evident.

The most spectacular project, which, not surprisingly, is the cover illustration of the book is the Sharp Centre for Design in Toronto that was designed by Alsop Architects Ltd. of London and Robbie/Young + Wright Architects Inc. of Toronto.

The project is an addition to the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) and it is elevated on 12 steel columns eight stories off the ground and its two stories of art studios, lecture theaters, exhibition spaces and faculty offices hovers over existing brick structures. The void under the elevated structure provides outdoor expansion space for the college.

The addition is supported by six pairs of tapering steel legs that the editors note "touch the ground in an apparently random fashion." It is also supported by a conventional concrete stair and elevator core. "Like all exposed steel in the Sharp Centre, the legs are covered with many coats of intumescent paint, a fire-proofing material that swells when exposed to intense heat, increasing in volume and decreasing in density, to provide a protective cushion around each leg. Although all the legs are the same size, seven are multicolored and five are finished in black to make them appear thinner, an even more persuasive optical illusion at night when the black legs become less visible and seem to disappear; the architects wanted the building to have a completely different nighttime look....As a cost-saving measure, what was intended to be a multicolored translucent cladding is instead a corrugated aluminum skin painted in black and white to resemble pixilation, a visual effect intended to blur the scale of the building and affect the way is perceived," the editors maintained.

The building harkens back to the great walking cities of Archigram, which were rather ungainly, and its bright colors convey a pleasant sense of humor and, given its elevation, levity.

The Sharp Centre is spectacular and significant because it suggests that there are meaningful and excellent ways to build over older, nay, historic, structures and hopefully it will begin to influence the nasty and often unsophisticated community debates.

It is amazing how many "roof-top additions" there are in Manhattan and how poorly done most of them are, especially now that we have this fanciful and fine example to emulate.

497 Greenwich Street

The Greenwich Street Project at 497 Greenwich Street in Manhattan, Winka Dubbeldam of Archi-tectonic, 2005

The book does illustrate the Greenwich Street Project at 497 Greenwich Street in Manhattan that was designed by Winka Dubbeldam of Archi-tectonic. It is an "up-and-over" roof-top addition in that it consists of a new 11-story building those wavy glass facade extends over the top of an adjacent six-story former warehouse whose red-brick facade is retained. "Asymmetrical waves of glass move diagonally across the facade following the sloping profile of the setback angle....Awning windows hinged at the top in the glass wall satisfy a code-related ventilation requirement for residential buildings," the editors observed.

The Greenwich Street Project is relatively modest but was one of the first of a new wave of interesting modern small size buildings in TriBeCa, SoHo, the Lower East Side and Chelsea that indicated that architecture was again alive in New York. It is quite remarkable that such a sophisticated project could have been completed near the beginning of the current design renaissance in Manhattan.

Chicago, of course, has many landmarks but also a lot of very unattractive new skyscrapers that make some pedestrian New York office buildings look good. On the other hand, Chicago has Millennium Park and its Pritzker Pavilion by Frank O. Gehry that gives the city a cerebral, cultural heart like New York's Lewisohn Stadium at the City College of New York that served as the city's major summer cultural center for decades until it was demolished for an uninspired megastructure academic building.

BP Bridge, Pritzker Pavilion by Gehry

BP Bridge, Pritzker Pavilion and Great Lawn, Chicago, 2005, Gehry Partners LLP

The editors provide the following commentary about the BP Bridge, Pritzker Pavilion and Great Lawn at Millennium Park by Gehry Partners LLP of Los Angeles:

"Chicago's Millennium Park is 16.5 acres and built over existing and expanded rail lines, bus lanes and two new parking levels. The open area includes the four-thousand seat Pritzker Pavilion, the Great Lawn with space for an audience of an additional seven thousand people, and the BP Bridge, all designed by Gehry Partners with structural engineering by SOM. The BP Bridge spans Columbus Drive to link Millennium Park with Daley Bicentennial Plaza and park land on lake-front areas to the east. The 925-foot-long serpentine bridge provides view of the Chicago skyline, Millennium Park, and Grant Park along the shores of Lake Michigan. The extra length made possible by the bridge's sinuous curves allows for an overall slope of five percent, facilitating easy access and a comfortable path of travel for the physically challenged, while affording a shifting series of perspectives of Millennium Park and the Chicago skyline. The bridge has a concrete and steel support structure and spans the roadway wth a single supporting column. Its sharply angled side sections effectively minimize the overall appearance of the structure; Clad in more than nine thousand brushed stainless steel panels with an ipe hardwood deck, the BP Bridge acts as an acoustic barrier for the traffic noise on Columbis Drive and Michican Avenue on the west side of the park. The great lawn is covered by a three-dimensional trellis of stainless steel, which supports lighting and many of nearly two hundred speakers positioned throughout the pavilion and lawn, efficiently amplifying sound without blocking views of the stage. The Great Lawn itself includes 95,000 square feet of reinforced natural turf lawn designed for extreme traffic use and runoff recovery through use of emerging turf technology,and a layered high performance drainage system. Because the structural deck was designed to support 4 feet of growing medium, the planting design is not limited to the grid of the structural columns in the parking garage below The result is varying profiles of growing medium with sand drainage project ranging in depth from 8 inches of 4 feet deep. The entire deck was waterproofed with a hot-applied rubberized membrane system. Styrofoam fill was used to create landforms, which do not exceed the designed load capacity of the structural deck. Two reinforced concrete cast-in-place garages support most of the roof deck, while a combination of steel structure and precast concrete structure tees span the railroad tracks."

The Pritzker Pavilion is one of the most successful of Gehry's twisted ribbon-like shiny designs and the bridge is very fine. The trellis, however, seems rather archaic or primitive in the context of the pavilion and bridge but it serves an important purpose.

"South Mountain Community College Performing Arts Center in Phoenix by Jones Studio Inc.

South Mountain Community College Performing Arts Center, Phoenix, Arizona, Jones Studio Inc., Phoenix

The site for the South Mountain Community College Performing Arts Center in Phoenix borders the world's largest municipal park, South Mountain Park Preserve. The design by Jones Studio Inc. of Phoenix is a rather subtle interweaving of seemingly random linearity that has a lot of the elegance of some designs by Herzog & de Meuron.

The book's entry for this project noted that "the challenge of the site was to integrate the rich textures of the surrounding landscape - palo verdes, brittlebush, and gravel - into the new construction. The design team decided to produce an abstract box that would somehow change over the course of the day, using the college's philosophy of training students to recognize aspects of everyday life as performance opportuniities to develop the building concept. The performance hall, including the exterior lobby, house, and stage, is sited near the main entrance to the campus. The elevatored exterior lobby, constructed of aluminum grating and galvanized purlins, puts members of the audience on stage before and after performances; lit like a lantern it announces to the community that an event is in progress. The building is made up of two separate boxes: an outer box covered with rusted metal and glass,and an inner box that contains the theater itself. The lobby and circulation spaces occur in the space between. The building is constucted of sandblasted concrete masonry units with the exception of the screen in front of the performance hall, which is steel-framed and clad in overlapping weathering steel profiles that gradually peel away to reveal glazing in areas where light locks are not required. Like the needles of a saguaro cactus, the layered folds of the steel sections act like louvers to dissipate heat, shade wall surfaces, and provide a tough outer shell for the snesitive area within, the sound chamber."

Caltrains District 7 Headquarters by Morphosis

Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, Los Angeles, Morphosis, Santa Monica

A horizontality that is somewhat similar to that of the South Mountain Community College Performing Arts Center in Phoenix is evident in the design of the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in Los Angeles, but it is a cooler and more high-tech style.

"Although no windows are visible," the book's entry on the project maintains, "there are many windows hidden by the building's most distinctive element, a scrim wall with blue-gray coated perforated aluminim panels and operable windows, which are covered by a mechanical skin of many moving parts, alternately open or close as they respond to changing temperature and light levels. Some of the three-dimensional panels are fixed, but over a thousand others open and close automatically, controlled by computerized light and temperature sensors on the west side of the building in the morning and on the east side in the afternoon...."

Seattle Public Library by OMA and LMN

Seattle (Washington) Public Library, Office for Metropolitan Architecture of Rotterdam, Netherlands, and LMN Architects of Seattle

If the Sharp Center for Design is the most sensational new project in Canada, then the Seattle Public Library in Washington by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and LMN Architects is the most sensational in the United States, a vertiginous, bulging, explosive and energetic project that makes some of Gehry's designs seem tame. It does not have the poetic, sail-like beauty of Gehry's recent IAC headquarters for Barry Diller on West Street in Manhattan, but it brings a new sense of monumentality to urban architecture far beyond its relatively modest size.

The book provides the following commentary:

"The twelve-story, 362,987-square-foot Seattle Public Library sits on a steep urban site with a 29-foot height differential between its boundaries on Fourth and Fifth Avenues. The library's distinctive exterior skin, a steel, glass, and aluminum diamond-shaped grid, began with the simple concept of wrapping the entire building in a continous layer of transparency. This layer, with its faceted planes, outlines the elevated platforms on the exterior while creating a variety of inter-connected spaces on the interior....Integral to the design development of the curtain wall was the envelope's thermal performance. except for the roof, louvers, and exposed concrete foundation walls, the exterior envelope is comprised entirely of vision glass. This posed a considerable challenge to the design team given the current energy codes and the level of thermal performance the curtain-wall system would be required to achieve. The entire envelope, including all of its component parts, was included in the energy calculations. To help meet the required performance level, appoximately half of the insulated glazing panels were fabricated with airspaces containing krypton gas and newly developed high performance low-E coatings. In addition, to combat increased solar heat gain experienced during the summer months, an aluminum expanded metal mesh interlayer was chosen for the glass panels receiving the most sun. The mesh's mini louvers provided a shielding of direct sun as well as views to the exterior though the mesh. Ideal for shading, the microdiamond pattern of the metal mesh also mimics the large diamond pattern of the curtain-wall mullions....To clean the expanses of exterior glass, a process inspired by mountain climbing is used. Traditional outriggers at the roof of the building allow window washers to descend each elevation from top to bottom on bosun chairs. while the skylight and vertical facades are scaled more easily the underslung surfaces require additional measures to reach the glass. Stainless-steel eyebolts, which protrude through the mullion body and top and spaced at close intervals. Each eyebolt is attached back to seismic steel members, providing load-carying capacity. Window washers use carabiners to connect to these eybolts in order to pull themselves within reach of the glass."

Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theater by Studio Gang

Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theater, Rock Valley College, Rockville, Illinois, Studio Gang Architects of Chicago

A renovation of the Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theater at Rock Valley College in Rockville, Illinois, required a three-year, three-phase project that was designed by Studio Gang Architects of Chicago. It is relatively small project but extremely well executed and quite exciting.

"The first phase, completed in 2001, expanded the seating bowl from around six hundred to almost eleven hundred seats," according to its entry in the book, "and created a curving, 18-foot-high concrete structure at the back of the theater house new bathrooms and ticket booths. The second phase, finished in 2003, consisted of an addition housing a 50-foot -tall fly tower and a proscenium stage house with sliding transluscent doors. A cooper-clad steel frame proscenium with 30-foot-high translucent all-weather doors faces the open-air seating bowl. For the third phase, completed in 2003, the architect worked with Uni-Systems, a Minneapolis-based firm specializing in moving structures, to create a kinetic, faceted roof that consists of triangular stainless steel-clad panels supported by stell columns and trusses. When the roof opens, six of its panels rise in succession to form a six-pointed star revealing the sky. The theater's multi-pitched canopy has a lower fixed section of twenty panels 100 square feet in plan, and surrounds a higher 90-ton movable assembly over the seating area, a hexagon in plan with forty-foot sides, and six triangular panels that cantilever from steel trusses bearing on free-standing columns. ....When closed, audience members see a hexagonal pitched roof. As the roof opens, each panel rotates up in sequence, in a clockwise motion over fifty-four degrees about the perimeter, quietly and quickly in just over twelve minutes There are no visible clues that indicate how the roof moves....The unusal design required that the roof components be installed in reverse order."

University of Chicago Graduate School of Business by Vinoly

University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, Chicago, Rafael Vinoly Architects PC, New York

The old Penn Station that was demolished in Manhattan in the 1960s was most notable for its great skylit waiting room and plans to build a new replacement in a stodgy old post office facility across from Madison Square Garden fail to capture the vaulting character of the great spaces of the original station. One project, unfortunately not in New York, that comes quite close in spirit and space is Rafael Vinoly's design for the Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago.

"The University of Chicago campus," the book notes, "is organized around a sequence of quads that gives the institution its remarkable character - the architecture of the unversity is renowned for both its stylistic consistency and the quality of its public rooms....The program had to...fit into an architecturally significant location bordering Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie-style Frederick C. Robie House and Bertram Goodhue's gothic Rockefeller Chapel. The design for the Graduate School of Business makes the quad a public room enclosed in a winter garden, a six-story glass atrium that can be used year-round and functions as the main ceremonial space of the school. Natural light from the Winter Garden reaches the interior of the building through a ring of triple-height spaces surrounded by study rooms. Three circulation cores surrounding the Winter Garden connect all the levels of the building or use by the students, faculty, and the public at large....Cantilevered floors and horizontal limestone details on the facade are a nod to the building's celebrated neighbor [Robie]. Curved steel beams that form Gothic arches - a key design motif of campus architecture and a major visual element of the Rockefeller Chapel - support the glazed roof of the Winter Garden. The roof is formed by quadriparite point vaults of tubular steel that transfer loads and forces through very thin structural members, an efficient structure that maximizes its transparency....The convex surface of the glass ceiling accelerates the convection of hot air toward the top of the space where it is then exhausted, allowing the room to be naturally ventilated throught the year. Mechanical shades shield the space below from heat gain and glare, and the flaring cylindrical forms of the columns resemble the silhouettes of trees in a garden. The funneled shapes of the roof vaults draw rainwater into and through the hollow centers of each of the four structural columns, then into a reservoir: Blair Kamin, architecture crtic at The Chciago Tribune, described them as the world's most beautiful gutters."

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