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.
There is something about this building that reminded me of a building from my youth. My step-father was a flooring installer way back when as was installing carpets in a newly built home for seniors.
The architects of this building had decided to make all sorts of interesting angles and there were rooms that were triangles instead of rectangles. This may seem interesting, but from a builder’s stand point, it is more work.
From an environmental stand point, it increases the amount of waste material by several factors. Just from the flooring aspect, imagine if you have a rectangle of carpet that you literally cut in half down the diagonal to fit in a triangular space. You might think you could use the other half of that triangle in the next apartment, but in this case it didn’t work out that way.
Not only should we try to make designs beautiful and useful, we should also keep in mind the people who need to do the building as well as the materials being used, both permanent and wasted.
I’m certainly sensitive to the environmental impact of materials being used in making a building. Carpet is definitively a material that can breed waste – seams are something you try to avoid. Going around fireplace hearths, door nooks, and certainly angles, leads to lots of small pieces you can’t really use. That’s one good thing about carpet tile – the tile nature where seams are expected really helps keep the waste down.
So too with the materials in this building. Wood flooring planks can be cut multiple times to conform to angles in walls or go to around corners, and you can trim a bit off the end (straight, or to another angle) and still use the piece. The perforated metal panels on the exterior can, again being segments, be used on the converse side of the “quilt-seam” framing. Ditto with the stud framing inside, and the angular window segments. Glazing cut to fit the frame is recyclable. Overall, there isn’t a tonne of extra waste on this project vis-à-vis a more conventional box (of which the base form of this building is very much a box – the ultimate simple form).
Every building is a balancing act, and these issues are part of that act. Arbitrary angles (of which I’ve both seen plenty and been guilty of using) that don’t lend themselves to adding to rhythm, or to a grander concept/idea, or if they create weird dead zones, or if they just don’t end up making nice spaces, are an issue even beyond any extra material or labour they may need. They detract from a building. They’re like random explosion-y action comedy scenes in a movie. Exciting for the first 20 seconds, but then quite unpleasant.
But well used angles and curves and L-shaped buildings and all the rest are most pleasant and worth it, just as the rounded corners on our smartphones are very worth it, even if they use a bit more material, labour, and energy to produce.
For me, the Gantt museum is pretty fair (using the same rating as I use for movie reviews) on the use of its angles. I’m more excited about its use of and response to the site than I am about the specifics of the quilt design, though I am very enamoured with how they continued that quilt pattern to, again, respond to the site, and the otherwise solid, blank, and massive party-wall along the property’s edge.