BUILDINGS CLAD IN STORIES: THE RISE OF STATEMENT FAÇADES

BUILDINGS CLAD IN STORIES: THE RISE OF STATEMENT FAÇADES

EVERY STRUCTURE TELLS A story. Sometimes, it’s the relatively straightforward story of its function: train terminals, grain silos, and sports arenas generally follow the contours of their purposes. Sometimes, a building’s story is bound to commemoration or dedication. The Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, and the Parthenon all pay tribute to gods and favored mortals. And sometimes, a building’s iconic design becomes the story—as is the case with the Sydney Opera House, the Chrysler Building, or the Eiffel Tower.

However, in each of these stories, there’s room for interpretation. The Eiffel Tower’s stark geometries were famously the subject of fierce aesthetic debate. One can find both enduring romance and troubling ostentation in the Taj Mahal. And as we saw in our last issue, a train terminal’s story can launch an entire movement to restore historic architecture.

But now, in an age of monumental gestures and tourist-courting designs, we may be seeing the rise of a new class of buildings. These structures tell stories that are more didactic than open-ended, with their stories printed right on their skin. While murals, mosaics, and frescos are nothing new, these two buildings come with their interpretations pre-loaded—as if serving as architectural press releases for their regions.

Northwest of Hong Kong lies the Chinese city of Guangzhou, a wealthy port that historically connected the Pearl River to the international traders. It was here that the Silk Road met the South China Sea, and today it’s surrounded by China’s most populous and developed metropolitan region. Like many Chinese cities, Guangzhou has seen a surge of construction in recent decades, including the Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre.

Billowing like a silk scarf in the wind, the Grand Theatre would be notable enough for its rippled aluminum cladding, made up of thousands of triangular tiles. The nearly windowless crimson structure was purpose-built by Steven Chilton Architects for Franco Dragone, a theatrical impresario, and Cirque de Soleil alumnus with a flair for the flamboyant. The theatre houses a round amphitheater, rigged for acrobatics and containing a 9-meter-deep pool that can be raised or lowered for aquatic performances.

Perhaps most notably, however, is the Theatre’s embellished facade. The building’s bright red exterior boasts two layers of graphics. The subtler, darker background print recalls contemporary tattooing with its intricate, radiating line-work. Superimposed over this is a layer of golden illustrations that recall delicate embroidery and complete the effect of narrative tapestry. Based on a local myth, “100 Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix,” the building itself becomes a kind of allegory for art, patronage, and performance. The effect is like a picture book, as the building makes its case for Guangzhou as a hub for artistic endeavors.

Thousands of miles away from Guangzhou is another wealthy port city with a daring, donut-shaped cultural center: Dubai. In this case, it’s the audaciously named Museum of the Future, whose relatively vague mandate promises “a hopeful future for all” and pledges to be “a place of tolerance, inviting varied cultural, philosophical, social and spiritual outlooks.”

The $136 million project, led by Dubai’s Killa Design, contains four floors of exhibition space. Its 77-meter-tall metallic form looks like a stretched, asymmetrical ring—an opulent and shiny sculpture in the middle of the desert. Like its neighbor the Burj Khalifa, its goal is clear: to signify Dubai’s presence as a global beacon for trade and wealth and draw seven-star tourists to the lavish city.

Any reading of the Museum, however, is dominated by the building’s bold incorporation of Arabic calligraphy on its façade. The building is inscribed with excerpts from a poem written by the Prime Minister of United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. At night, the script—which also serves as the structure’s windows—is illuminated from within. Ironically, despite their prominence, the designers have yet to specify what the quotations actually say or signify. Without a transcript, the fragments mainly serve as an elaborate signature of the country’s autocratic leader.

As with the Grand Theatre, the Museum of the Future made extensive use of digital modeling technologies. Both projects feel so thoroughly contemporary that one can’t imagine them without software’s role in their conception. In fact, many of the Museum’s components were 3D-printed to bring its precise rendered forms to life, and the project even leveraged a “digital growth algorithm” to manage its wildly complex logistics.

With both buildings, one also senses the designer planned a digital appreciation, too. Both buildings feel tailor-made for Instagram feeds and blog posts with their singular ideas and narrative hooks. It’s fitting, then, that their stories are prescribed, controlled, and brief. It’ll be fascinating to see whether there’s room for interpretation of their stories in the future, or whether they simply serve as very expensive essays.

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THE NETWORK / JULY – AUGUST 2021 – Amazing Buildings

Correcting the RECORD: NEW YORK GETS A NEW GATEWAY

Correcting the RECORD: NEW YORK GETS A NEW GATEWAY

HISTORY IS NOT ALWAYS kind to great design. What seems like sure-footed progress in one era can often look more like series of missteps with additional hindsight and changing values. We’ve all seen renovations that only made things worse, robbing a property of its original charm, mistreating historical materials, or simply ruining the romance of a space.

However, what happened to New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963 stands alone as a crime against architecture. Its decapitation to make way for the new Madison Square Garden overhead—was so regrettable that it launched the historical preservation movement in the United States.

After more than five decades, New York is still reckoning with the legacy of the loss. However, in January 2021, the city partially healed an architectural wound with the opening of the Moynihan Train Hall. The result of a $1.6 billion conversion of a historic post office facility, the project finally returned a worthy threshold to one of the city’s busiest transit hubs through a little creative problem-solving and a commitment to civic grandeur.

Many young New Yorkers would be shocked to learn that Pennsylvania Station—a rundown and cramped punchline of a place with its low ceilings and confusing underground tunnels—once rivaled Grand Central Terminal in majesty. But when it was completed in 1910, Pennsylvania Station was an absolute marvel, spreading over two city blocks and flanked by dozens of elegant columns.

Designed by McKim, Mead, and White, the Beaux-Arts icon, when it opened it was the largest indoor space in the city, rivaling St. Peter’s Basilica in scale. Modeled after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, the station’s immense, light-filled main waiting room had a 150-foot ceiling, welcoming travelers to the city with a generous and impressive flourish.

However, as rail travel fell out of favor and the city’s priorities shifted, Pennsylvania Station gradually lost its luster. The building’s pink granite had taken on the grime of the city and haphazard maintenance left the building a shadow of its former self. By the 1950s, the Pennsylvania Railroad was seeking a buyer for the building’s air rights, citing upkeep costs for the massive complex.

But when the wrecking balls came in 1963, the citizens found themselves shocked by the station’s perfunctory destruction. When a New York Times photographer captured one of the building’s sculptures in a New Jersey landfill, regret came quickly. Within two years, the city passed a landmarks preservation act, which would save Grand Central Terminal and prevent the destruction of countless other historic buildings.

For decades, New Yorkers bemoaned Pennsylvania Station’s lost glory. But serendipitously, Pennsylvania Station wasn’t the only massive Beaux-Arts building in the neighborhood. McKim, Mead, and White had also designed the James A. Farley Building, which still stands on Eighth Avenue. Originally meant to adjoin and complement the station, the complex served as a mail-sorting hall with direct access to some of the tracks.

Throughout the 1990s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Senator from New York, began lobbying to repurpose a section of the Farley Building as a new train hall. In 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo seized the reins of the project and deputized Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to perform the conversion. Despite the pandemic, the project came across the finish line early and under budget, opening on the first day of 2021

The result is breathtaking—an optimistic and audacious combination of historical splendor and smart modern design. With its ample public space, retail tenants, and handsome waiting areas with walnut benches, it’s sure to become a destination for Instagram tourists looking to capture the New York of tomorrow.

The train hall’s stunning glass ceiling boasts exposed steel trusses and four bulbous vault sections that jut dramatically into the sky. And in the heart of it all is a beautiful Art Deco clock, reminiscent of an era when we looked up for the time instead of squirreling for our phone in our pockets and purses.

While the Moynihan Train Hall isn’t a full replacement for Pennsylvania Station, it gestures in the right direction: ahead. Talks are already underway to connect the building with the High Line pedestrian park and a long-planned initiative promises to extend the regional Metro-North railway system to the west side of Manhattan.

While Pennsylvania Station will never match its former glory, it could still return to its former prominence as old ideas—like rail travel and prominent civic spaces—come back into style once again.

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THE NETWORK / MAY – JUNE 2021 – Amazing Buildings

Gold Medal in Accessibility: the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum

Gold Medal in Accessibility: the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum

For decades, Colorado Springs has been a city defined by its prominent institutions. Home to the United States Air Force Academy, the city has seen the proliferation and gradual downsizing of massive industries, including dozens of prominent defense contractors and some of the country’s largest high-tech manufacturers. But the city also has another identity altogether.

With a mild climate, mountainous terrain, and high altitude, Colorado Springs prides itself as an ideal training ground. Home to the Pikes Peak Marathon, a grueling trial run with nearly 8,000 feet of vertical climb, Colorado Springs is a place that rewards the hardy and the tough—which is perhaps why it’s become a headquarters to those seeking Olympic glory. 

Known as Olympic City, USA, Colorado Springs is home to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, and 24 national federations for individual Olympic sports. The result is a city flourishing with sports therapists, fitness companies, and athletic administrators. And each year, approximately 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls will make the pilgrimage to Colorado to condition, hone their skills, and grow stronger. 

For tourists drawn to Colorado Springs for its world-class hiking and natural beauty, an Olympic attraction is an easy sell. More than 140,000 visitors already flock to the Olympic Training Center each year, touring the extensive complex that can host up to 500 top-tier athletes and coaches at any given time. 

And so, Colorado Springs was also the natural fit to host a dedicated attraction that honors the efforts and accomplishments of Team USA: the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum (USOPM).

Opened in July 2020, the complex was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who also helmed the extensive, $450 million renovation of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Compared to MoMA, USOPM is a far humbler affair at $91 million and 60,000 square feet. However, its influence could be just as monumental. 

Made up of two structures and an adjoining amphitheater-like plaza, the USOPM complex sits on the edge of Colorado Springs, ready to attract Olympic enthusiasts and architectural tourists alike. 

The main building’s elegant, origami-like shape is intended to evoke both nearby Pikes Peak and an athlete in motion. Clad in 9,000 entirely-unique reflective aluminum panels, the building feels simultaneously rounded and angular, the taut drape of the facade forming a kind of architectural spandex over four petal-like volumes. The building stretches upward like a runner in starting position, an abstract but recognizably athletic form. From above, the structure is modeled after a spinning discus-thrower. 

However, the most remarkable thing about the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum is its pioneering devotion to universal accessibility. Every effort has been made to accommodate visitors of all capabilities, ensuring total ADA compliance and developing the museum’s content in ways that reach all visitors. 

Exhibit cases take multiple viewing heights into account, ensuring those in wheelchairs get the full benefit of the displays. And guests are issued RFID-embedded lanyards that enable tailored engagement with interactive exhibits, prompting captions, descriptive audio, or translation where preferred. 

Crucially, though, the museum’s visitors take its journey together—no matter their abilities. Whereas many museums push accessibility features to the margins with afterthought ramps or hidden elevators, the USOPM has planned a common path open to all. Visitors share an elevator ride to the top floor and then descend continuously along a gradual, gentle ramp over its three stories and twelve galleries.

Due to the pandemic, the immediate future of the Olympics is uncertain, with the planned 2020 Tokyo Games pushed to 2021. Questions surround travel, attendance, and how the games themselves can adjust and accommodate the challenges we currently face.

Until we’re able to gather en masse again, the spirit of the Games, along with its icons: torches, medals, and uniforms, are on full display in Colorado Springs, where masked visitors can make their socially distanced way through the museum. In a perhaps-fitting twist, visitors’ RFID lanyards also make things safer in the time of Coronavirus. They enable the museum to monitor guest movement and prevent over-crowding—proof that thoughtful design isn’t merely a matter of altruism or generosity. It’s also our best way forward. 

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THE NETWORK / MARCH – APRIL 2021 – Amazing Buildings

A Modern Home for Ancient Relics: the Grand Egyptian Museum

A Modern Home for Ancient Relics: the Grand Egyptian Museum

By most estimates, the Great Pyramid of Giza—one of the most enduring icons of architecture and a pinnacle of human achievement—took between ten and twenty years to build. While the method and circumstances of the pyramid’s construction are still a matter of spirited debate, it seems clear that the structure went up in a flurry, rising taller above Cairo with each passing day. 

Less than a mile away, the Grand Egyptian Museum is on track to take significantly longer than the pyramid complex it celebrates. Kicking off in 2002, the ambitious project was originally slated to open back in 2011, but a series of financial challenges and logistical delays have hampered the project’s progress. 

The new museum is envisioned as a significant upgrade to the existing Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo, which was built in 1902 and now lags behind in modern security, preservation, and curatorial practices. Compared with its Grand counterpart, the original museum now seems almost hopelessly quaint, a regional curiosity or a relic of another era. 

Today, the $795 million Grand Egyptian Museum is hurtling toward an early-2021 opening date—though smart money would leave the door open for another postponement. While various 90-something “percentage complete” estimates have been tossed around by officials, the Coronavirus pandemic proved to be the final nail in the project’s 2020 sarcophagus.

Whenever it does open, the massive building will house some of the world’s most famous treasures, including the complete collection of Tutankhamun artifacts (together again for the first time since their excavation) and a 30-foot, 83 ton granite statue of Ramses II that used to stand above a Cairo roundabout.

The building’s initial design came from Dublin-based Heneghan and Peng, who won the project in an international design competition. While the aesthetics of the project have evolved over the past decade, the cumulative effect is still striking. A massive wedge of a building, the effect is somewhere between the Seven Wonders of the World and the Las Vegas strip. 

Built on an incline from the Nile basin to the desert plateau where Giza’s pyramids sit, the 5.2 million-square-foot structure boasts an imposing, translucent facade that incorporates plenty of pyramid-shaped forms, creating geometric harmony with its neighbor. Built from insulated concrete to combat the harsh desert weather, the scale of the building is appropriately grand, with lofty exhibit halls bathed in natural light. 

With room for 100,000 artifacts, the world-class museum is expected to see between five and eight million visitors a year. Hosting an unparalleled collection—on par with the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the Grand Egyptian Museum could prove to be a serious tourist driver for Egypt as a whole, as the museum’s extensive holdings are properly experienced as a multi-day affair. Consequently, Egypt is in talks to create a 52-acre hotel district near the attraction, ensuring that Giza is no longer just a tour bus stopover, but instead a destination in its own right. 

As one might expect, the project is not without controversy. In a country characterized by regular political unrest, an enormous and opulent tourist attraction is bound to raise eyebrows, a symbol of a country torn between its international reputation and its domestic politics. It was on the doorstep of the original Egyptian Museum, in Tahrir Square, that a 2011 popular revolution ignited, capturing the world’s attention. And it was the target of that same uprising, Hosni Mubarak, who laid the foundation stone for the Grand Egyptian Museum back in 2002.

Ancient Egypt will always captivate us. When 59 sarcophagi were discovered in October, the story became world news—as did the news of where they’d end up on display: the Grand Egyptian Museum. For centuries, the cultural riches of Egypt have been scattered across the world, removed from their original context. It seems that “Egypt” has become a wing of every museum in the world instead of a real place.

While the Grand Egyptian Museum’s legacy might be a complicated one, it does at least provide a single spiritual headquarters for our fascination with a civilization that feels both impossibly distant and tantalizingly recent. And while the building itself may be breathtaking and impressive, its most worthwhile feature might just be the panoramic view it offers of the pyramids. As with all great museums, the artifacts are the star. The building is a frame to support them.

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THE NETWORK / JANUARY – FEBRUARY 2021 – Amazing Buildings

For Sale: Corporate Headquarters, Never Used

For Sale: Corporate Headquarters, Never Used

As the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic stretch on, the future of work is feeling less and less certain. Our basic assumptions about the necessity of meeting in person seem to have evaporated, and a sudden shift to digitally enabled, remote productivity has meant nearly abandoned office parks, the rise of the serious home office setup, and perhaps even a wholesale reckoning with contemporary workplace trends. And perhaps no idea is under more scrutiny than the open-plan office.

For years, we’ve seen a pronounced shift toward the “one-big-room” workplace, as cubicles disappear and workers circulate and collaborate to suit their day’s tasks. But in an era of social distancing, the open office orchestrated explicitly to encourage chance run-ins and maximize commingling can start to feel like a liability. Idea-generating environments may also encourage other kinds of propagation, after all.

The movement away from central offices is about more than leaving conference rooms and commutes behind. It may also signal a monumental shift in how companies attract talent. Tech giants have long used remarkable work environments stocked with perks like on-site gyms, free food, and on-site dry cleaning to attract the best and the brightest. Those days may be ending. A number of tech stalwarts including Pinterest and Twitter have already freed up millions by terminating their costly Bay Area leases and sending their people off to work remotely.

Of course, it’s not just Silicon Valley that’s reconsidering their beloved physical headquarters. For one of the clearest pictures of how the workplace winds are changing, we only need to look a little further north.

Back in March, 1,4000 corporate employees of the Seattle area-based outdoor giant REI were looking forward to moving into their long-awaited new home. After four years of collaboration, development, and construction, REI was putting finishing touches on a 400,000 square-foot complex set on eight acres in Bellevue, Washington. Custom-built for the cooperatively run company, it was tailored specifically for its active, fleece-clad workforce. Compared in the press to a “summer camp for adults,” the sprawling environment boasts a “blueberry bog” and cozy fire pits both inside and out.

Guided by a design philosophy meant to maximize the integration of indoor and outdoor spaces, the campus is suffused with natural light thanks to massive windows, skylights, and myriad garage doors. An abundance of covered walkways ensures employees can work outside even in the midst of the Seattle drizzle. And to help employees reach their daily step goal, architecture firm NBBJ even included additional, non-essential stairs in the project’s design.

Like REI’s storefronts, the campus’s aesthetics are the pinnacle of post-industrial chic. Conference tables incorporate reclaimed dead trees and old bridge beams. Butcher block-style cubes of oak abound. However, the specifics of the complex were deliberately left unfinished, allowing the employees to dictate how and where they’d like to work. Ironically, this progressive and open-ended approach to space planning would make the complex easier to sell-off.

Coronavirus hit Seattle early. In March, REI employees received word that they’d be working remotely for safety reasons. And so, through the summer, their custom-built headquarters sat finished but unused, a pristine relic of a suddenly bygone era. Finally, in August, REI’s CEO Eric Artz made a stunning announcement: they’d never be moving in. REI put the state-of-the-art facility on the market in the midst of total market uncertainty. It would prove to be a profitable gamble.

It turns out that not everyone is ready to give up on commanding corporate spaces. In September, it was announced that Facebook would pay $368 million for REI’s brand-new campus—roughly double the cost of the project’s development. REI would instead shift to a scheme that spread its workforce across scattered satellite offices and home offices.

Despite the fact that Facebook has already announced its plans to work remotely until at least summer 2021, the potential value of the Bellevue Campus connected to light rail and convenient to Seattle’s airport—was clearly too rich to pass up. While the future of work may be uncertain, it’s clear that flagship real estate projects aren’t disappearing any time soon.

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THE NETWORK / NOVEMBER – DECEMBER 2020 – Amazing Buildings

Net Positive: Norway’s Powerhouse Brattørkaia Turns Energy Consumption Around

Net Positive: Norway’s Powerhouse Brattørkaia Turns Energy Consumption Around

ACCORDING TO THE WORLD Green Building Council, construction and buildings currently account for approximately 39% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. However, that figure could (and may well have to) drop precipitously with broader adoption of sustainable building practices. As more governments and builders take the emerging global climate crisis seriously, certifications like LEED and BREEAM have progressed from a badge of honor to standard operating procedures and green materials have become standard. At the highest levels of design, environmental impact is now nearly as fundamental consideration as questions of form and material.

Building sustainably requires keen consideration of context, taking advantage of the building’s natural surroundings and available resources to control a building’s temperature, harness natural light, and process waste. As such, it’s far easier to build sustainably in temperate areas, where temperature holds steady and the sunlight is plentiful.

So how do you build sustainably in more extreme climates? Aren’t solar panels a luxury of the equatorial? What about Trondheim, Norway’s northernmost major city, where daylight fluctuates wildly between seasons and temperatures stay below freezing for months during the dark winter seasons? That’s a lot of heating and lighting.

Trondheim is an unlikely location for an energy-neutral building, let alone an energy-positive one. Nevertheless, Snøhetta architecture’s Powerhouse Brattørkaia is exactly that: an 18,000 square-meter office building that, on average, produces more than twice the energy than it consumes daily. Thanks to nearly three thousand square meters of solar paneling, the fittingly named Power-house Brattørkaia generates enough power for itself, its neighbors, and a regional transportation network that includes electric buses, cars, and a local ferry system. The building was awarded BREEAM’s highest rating of Outstanding.

Rising in a striking, angular mass, Powerhouse Brattørkaia over-looks the port without overwhelming its neighbors, a precisely cut gem of a building. The imposing structure’s steeply-canted wedge shape offers a large and perfectly-angled roof for harvesting solar energy. The building’s highly efficient 1,157 solar panels are oriented around a circular cut-out that creates a generous central garden atrium, affording natural light to all its inhabitants. No matter where your desk is at Powerhouse Brattørkaia, a window isn’t far away.

As one might expect, the building leverages a host of green best practices to keep energy consumption low. While clad in handsome black aluminum, the majority of the building’s massing is concrete, ensuring a high degree of insulation to keep the building warm through Norway’s long winters. A heat pump system takes advantage of a nearby fjord to efficiently control the building’s temperature with seawater, and collected rainwater is used for the building’s toilets. When needed, the building’s sophisticated LED lighting system responds to supplement ambient daylight and can detect human presence to ensure efficiency. The result is a building that uses about half as much energy on lighting as a comparably-sized office building would.

A partnership between Snøhetta, the Swedish construction giant Skanska, the environmental organization ZERO, and the consulting company Asplan Viak, the Powerhouse initiative is meant to inspire sustainable buildings with an ambitious new target inspired by the Paris Agreement. The Powerhouse designation isn’t merely a reflection of a building’s day-to-day energy consumption; the project’s energy accounting also includes the creation of the project’s building materials, emissions produced in its construction, ongoing operational demands, and finally, the eventual energy costs of its eventual demolition and disposal.

Powerhouse Brattørkaia is one of four existing Powerhouse projects. Others in the portfolio include a breathtaking Montessori school and an ambitious renovation of a 1980’s office complex, proving that energy positivity isn’t restricted to new construction projects.

If the Powerhouse philosophy of energy positive building sounds ambitious, it’s because it is. Snøhetta’s founder Kjetil Trædal Thorsen is pursuing nothing less than a paradigm shift in building design, spurred by a sense of climate urgency. “Energy-positive buildings are the buildings of the future,” says Thorsen. “The mantra of the design industry should not be ‘form follows function’ but ‘form follows environment. ”

Originally Published in:

THE NETWORK / SEPTEMBER – OCTOBER 2020 – Amazing Buildings