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. 

Originally Published in:

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.

Originally Published in:

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.

Originally Published in:

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

Chelsea’s Latest “What If?” Lantern House Lets The Light In

Chelsea’s Latest “What If?” Lantern House Lets The Light In

IN THE 21ST CENTURY, few figures have taken on more high-profile architectural and civic projects than the British designer Thomas Heatherwick. He and his team designed Google’s Mountain View corporate headquarters, conceived of a massive Manhattan tourist attraction (we covered his sensational Vessel observation deck structure in a previous column), imagined numerous public art pieces, built innovative bridges, and even created the striking 2012 Olympic cauldron, in which 204 copper petals converged dramatically to create a single cauldron in the opening ceremony.

Highly imaginative and often provocative, Heatherwick Studio always seems to work off of the same animating question: “what if?” Their designs are grand conceptual projects or elegant creative solutions, challenging conventional wisdom and asking whimsical questions. Never strictly architects, the studio’s work spans discipline, embracing facets of industrial design, furniture, and even fashion in its search to create things that surprise and delight their beholders. Each project feels like a fresh research initiative, striking out into new territory to explore new possibilities, materials, and concepts.

This meandering and freewheeling approach has netted Heatherwick Studio a diverse portfolio that includes both a handbag and a redesign of London’s double-decker buses. As a result, the studio was the subject of a major retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum, raising their profile considerably and sparking demand across the world. And nowhere is a bit of buzz more welcome than in the competitive and increasingly international world of New York real estate.

If there’s a “what if” behind Lantern House, Heatherwick Studio’s first residential project in the United States (SLCE Architects served as the architect of record), it seems to be: “what if every window was a bay window?” At once historic industrial and optimistically futuristic, Lantern House makes use of a custom masonry facade: a dramatic and generous paneled window that juts outward in all directions, expand-ing residents’ views, drawing in more light, and offering up an obvious “best seat in the house.” And while the building’s glass and brick may be familiar to the formerly-industrial neighborhood, its form is something entirely new.

Overlooking New York’s buzzy High Line park in the gallery-dotted West Chelsea neighborhood, Lantern House is comprised of two towers: one 22-story tower and another that rises ten stories. They are connected by an elegant glass lobby that sits cozily beneath the High Line. Each of the 181 condo residences features one of the building’s signature bulbous window units—or at least half of one, as most of the building’s “bubbles” encompass two floors.

Taken together, Lantern House evokes a stack of fishbowls or observation bubbles, each offering residents a fuller view of the city than a more conventional flat window would. Both a democratic gesture and a slight provocation, Lantern House seems to also ask the question “what if everyone got a corner office?” Of course, there’s a certain irony at play considering its context. Lantern House rises above one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods. Units at Lantern House range between $1.4 million for a one-bedroom unit and nearly $20 million for one of the project’s commanding penthouses. As one would expect, the project’s amenities and shared spaces are extravagant. There are an indoor saltwater pool and a fitness center that is bathed in daylight from the building’s huge windows. Unit interiors, designed by British firm March & White, are lush and natural, incorporating natural textures of marble, bronze, and oak.

In a city where real estate extravagance seems to know no bounds, Lantern House joins an increasingly crowded field of sig-nature projects with starchitect provenance. Not far from Lantern House are Zaha Hadid’s swooping condos at 520 West 28th Street and Bjarke Ingels’ angular towers at 76 Eleventh Avenue. In fact, one would be forgiven for mistaking Chelsea for some kind of international design competition. While it’s an exciting time for New York real estate, one wonders how our current era will be perceived by history. Lacking the cohesion of a dominant school or approach may yet result in a flamboyant jumble of “what ifs.”

Originally Published in:

THE NETWORK / MAY-JUNE 2020 – Amazing Buildings

A New Vancouver: How a Tribal  Development Could Transform a City

A New Vancouver: How a Tribal Development Could Transform a City

ANY DECENT STUDENT OF history knows that all across North America, cities and towns sit atop land effectively plundered from its original inhabitants. Many of our continent’s best-loved cities, perched on its prolific rivers and sheltered harbors, were once thriving tribal towns and settlements until they were wrested away by coercion and force.

As we continue to reckon with our country’s own complicated history, a landmark real estate deal in Canada may paint a picture of possible progress, as one First Nations tribe embarks on a project of massive scope in one of the world’s most expensive cities. It’s a story that illuminates a number of forces that shape urban life in 2020, as the project is informed by both the weight of colonial history and the pressures of a rapidly globalizing present.

After many years of negotiations, the Squamish Tribe of British Columbia has recently approved a plan to establish Sen̓ áḵw, an 11-tower, 6000-unit residential project in Kitsilano, one of Vancouver’s trendiest downtown neighborhoods. Slated to break ground next year, the unprecedented development will also be exempt from provincial rent controls, building codes, height restrictions, and certain taxes, creating a uniquely blank slate for rethinking a prized swath of the city. Administered entirely by the Squamish Nation, the project promises to both dramatically transform Vancouver’s skyline and improve the fortunes of a long-oppressed group —ultimately bringing in billions of dollars of revenue for the tribe over the next century. It’s a decidedly modern turn of events in a long-simmering conflict between Canada’s governments and its original inhabitants.

Located at the foot of the Burrard Bridge, the undeveloped parcel of land that will comprise the Sen̓ áḵw project has been at the heart of a long-running dispute between the native Squamish tribe and British Columbia’s provincial government. Originally a Squa-mish fishing village, the land was officially designated a tribal reservation in 1868 and expanded in 1877. However, in 1913 the province reneged on its deal to clear the way for industry and infrastructure in a rapidly expanding city. British Columbia annexed the Squamish territory and displaced the Squamish residents, shipping them away on a barge. In 1977, the Squamish embarked on a decades-long court action to reclaim ownership over the lands, culminating in a 2001 settlement that awarded the tribe nearly twelve acres of Kitsilano, a sliver of undeveloped land that then stood in the center of one of the world’s most in-demand cities.

Conceived in partnership with the developer Westbank, the ambitious project is designed for maximum density, sustainability, and to encourage the use of public transit by minimizing resident parking allocations. All told, Sen̓ áḵw will create 3.4 million square feet of housing, with the majority (between 70% and 90%) of the units designated as rentals. The 11 irregularly shaped towers—ranging in height but reaching up to 56 stories—will share dramatic angles, jutting balconies, and plenty of lush green life on their balconies and roofs. The proposed development of the Kitsilano area may prove influential, as it has already sparked speculation about a domino effect, inspiring further high-density development.

A flood of new housing could not be time-lier for Vancouver, a city that has been besieged by a housing crisis for more than a decade. A magnet for both Canadian migration and international interest (including a huge percentage of Chinese investment), the well-situated city simply hasn’t been able to keep up with demand. Last year’s announcement that Amazon would establish its HQ2 in the city certainly didn’t help matters much, ushering in a new class of well-paid workers into an already competitive market.

As communities around the world consider options for reconciling and restoring their relationships with their territories’ original inhabitants, Sen̓ áḵw is sure to drive a worthwhile conversation. While the windfall the modern Squamish will eventually see from the project doesn’t reconcile a century-old displacement, the project, with its responsible environmental stewardship and contribution to more equitable housing conditions, may well serve as a best-case scenario for a meaningful attempt at making things right. Not only does it allow hundreds of the Squamish Nation to return to the land their ancestors once knew. It also helps create homes for thousands of others in a city where housing is hard to find.

Originally published in:

THE NETWORK / MARCH-APRIL 2020 – Amazing Buildings