Often a blank page, or the most featureless of sites, can be the most daunting. What should the first move be, when the first move can be anything? By contrast, constraints, far from being frustratingly limiting, can be the driver(s) of great creativity.
So it’s cool for me that the architects spoke hard to convince the Harvey B Gantt museum to put their new building on a ridiculously narrow (50′) and long (400′) slice of property in the heart of downtown Charlotte. A choice seemingly even more crazy, given that the site was already occupied by a loading ramp, carving down into the earth, for an adjacent building. Oh, and the site sloped rather significantly.
Kinda nuts. But from those constraints, they wrought themselves something quite nice.
Just by virtue of that narrow site, the building is naturally tall and slender. They took advantage of that, and the almost billboard-like 400′ long face, by wrapping it in an abstract pattern of traditional quilting, made out of perforated metal panels. This perforation is great – besides helping keep the building cool as ventilated shading, more importantly the transparency creates striking depth and richness that gives a very soft and full feel to the building’s face (much like the quilt that inspired it). The pattern itself is strategically peeled back in places for glazing or to let the sky through. It could have devolved into a chaotic mess, but good proportioning and a certain rhythm helps keep it in balance.
Even better, is that this quilt motif continues along to the backside of the building, onto the firewall that separates it from the adjacent site (which one day may have a building placed on it, mere inches away). This otherwise featureless expanse is instead animated by the pattern that, in a stroke of brilliance, glows at night. It’s sculpture for the city.
Inside, taking the concept from a photograph of an old neighbourhood school and it’s prominent staircase (it was known as the Jacob’s Ladder School), twin stairways bring visitors from either end of the building to a central atrium on the second floor. The angular forms of the quilt pattern continue within, with the stairs and ceiling planes. The galleries themselves are, however, simple black boxes,. This allows for great flexibility but is a bit of a downer, seeming a bit like afterthoughts within the more articulated shell.
Choosing to work on this challenging site was the right way to go. It’s a great location for the museum at the heart of the city, and the constraints helped spur on this elegant wrapped box, bringing in a whole raft of historical contexts, from its skin to the heart of the building and the re-interpretation of the school.
Taking the hard road can indeed be so worth it.