May 12, 2023

Manhattan's Duck: Inside the new American Museum of Natural History

It was a verdant green New York spring day. Climbing up the stairs leaving the 81st St subway station, I am greeted by the earthy aroma of Central Park after a late April rain shower. It was a welcome moment of natural respite as I wandered the gridded streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

To my surprise, in the middle of the block along Columbus Avenue, I am once again refreshed by nature. There is a building that resembles a huge boulder. Clad in Milford pink granite that references the museum’s east entrance, its windows are shaped like the wind-swept cliffs of some ancient canyon. It is The 230,000-square-foot, $465 million Gilder Center for Science, Education, and Innovation, and it is the newest—if unusual—addition to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).

A building that looks like a natural rock formation is unexpected among the Manhattan grid. It would be more likely found at a zoo, or a theme park, or perhaps along Route 66, where buildings that look like large objects define the landscape—their shapes often advertising their function, such as a hot-dog-shaped hot dog stands or giant donuts attracting potential customers. Long Island’s celebrated “Big Duck” duck farmstand has become an icon for the region and a reference point for architects.

The Gilder Center is just one of a few Manhattan “ducks.” Perhaps the most well-known is Morris Lapidus’s Maritime Hotel, the beloved westside establishment with circular boat windows. However, while the geologically inflected design for AMNH does advertise the function of the AMNH, it does more than just look like rocks or or glaciers. “Our starting point for the design wasn’t necessarily visuals of nature,” Studio Gang principal Jeanne Gang said. “But once we started thinking like that, we became inspired by natural forms like canyons and melted ice”

The new building uses these highly visual design strategies to create new publics as the sculptural facade wraps around the building and into the building’s interior, creating a five-story cave-like atrium with a grand staircase at its center that acts as a spectacular welcoming space for visitors.

“It is almost like a solid object that has been carved out,” Gang said. “We used software and physical models to simulate the effects of these natural processes, such as water flowing over and eroding the surfaces.”

The holes in the atrium’s interior “facade” were determined by constraints such as views, structure, and circulation paths. The structural concrete is left exposed as the finish material, helping people understand how the building was made and aligning with the museum’s mission to expand education around natural history. “What the museum liked is that people on a basic level would say, “That is something I know,” Gang said. “It was a good alignment between the physics of the structures and the shapes that the museum felt their audience would connect with.”

Connecting the museum’s 10 buildings, the atrium’s voluptuous concrete recalls early experiments in reinforced concrete such as the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland. The rock-like walls are made of “shotcrete,” a technique where builders spray concrete over a skeleton of rebar and smooth it by hand. It was developed in the early 1900s by AMNH taxidermist Carl Akeley, and it is still used at the museum in the design of taxidermy dioramas. It is also used at zoos to create animal habitats. (In the late 19th century and early 20th, concrete was often marketed as “artificial stone,”)

By wrapping the atrium in this material, it gives a bold, expressive wrapper to the more quotidian, pragmatic architecture behind—where collections, education centers, and galleries await visitors. The design recalls old Western false front buildings with front walls that extend above the roofline to appear larger and act as signs advertising their function. However, the atrium’s sculptural forms are more than a typical false front, as they act as the building’s structure as well.

The visual connection to the research materials is a public interface between the back of house and the public spaces, giving glimpses of the different functions of the museum, and offering views into the education, research, and gallery spaces. “We recognize that most people who come through our doors don’t even know we have research collections,” AMNH Dean of Science for Collections Scott A. Schaefer said. “The new building brings that research out into the open and lets the public know what we have and why.”

It is similar to the strategy used at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, where New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro placed apertures in the museum’s archival spaces, exposing their contents to the public spaces such as the lobby and staircases, which share an organic, sinuous aesthetic.

The building is very contemporary, especially in a city full of straightforward corporate boxes. If those rectilinear, repetitive glass and steel buildings represent one vision of the future, then the Gilder Center’s nature-inspired forms are another.

January 23, 2013

Evil Twins

Evil Twins are the antagonists, opposites, and look-alikes of storytelling. They tend to have distinct physical differences: goatees being the most common, along with the occasional scar or alternate outfit. An evil twin is typically not a biological twin, but rather exists as a physical duplicate, albeit with a different world view, who has entered the story from a parallel universe or other sci-fi phenomena (i.e. Star Trek's Mirror Mirror).

As architectural copying intensifies, the Evil Twin could be adopted as a fictional device to promote a critical method for duplication. Some quick thoughts on architectural Evil Twins follows:

But first, be advised, the recent pirated Zaha building is not an Evil Twin of the original - it's more of a biological twin - a Canal Street rip off of the original. It's for people who prefer GAP over Versace; Ford over Ferrari. The copy has no agenda - no alternate view of reality, no reason to undermine the original, and an agenda obsessed with achieving the same effect for less money. Interesting, but not an Evil Twin.

ARM's Negative of the Villa Savoye might be a better candidate for an Evil Twin. It's appearance, some 70 years after the original, seems to have time warped into Earth from an alternate universe. Also, the sinister "goatee" of ARM's copy has been manifested through the applique of chunky jet black panels - seems visible.  The most terrifying aspect of ARM's copy is the roof deck, which appears to be a 1:1 copy until further examination reveals your mind has been fooled.

Perhaps one of the best Evil Twins I've ever seen - and what sparked my interest in the topic - is the recent reemergence of a beloved pavilion in a small Midwestern river town, Rising Sun (Indiana). The cloaking of a utilitarian public restroom building with camouflaged aesthetics of the town's pavilion, coupled with a very sinister reversal of program (public to private) is masterful. The evil twin trope of the goatee manifested as an aluminum front door. And, unlike Corb's and Zaha's twins, this building is doing something more - it goes beyond mere copying towards mockery, perhaps even jealousy. It is not quite a copy, but desperately wants to be. And in not fully succeeding in replication, it calls attention to a new possible future for the further reduction of architecture to image.

June 12, 2012

Alibis in Link and Video Format

If everyone jumped off a bridge, I probably would not follow them.  However, if they all made "what I've been up to lately" posts, I would definitely follow them.

So here's what I've been up to lately...

Most bloggin has been done over at the A/N Blog.  I may or may not have used my real name, but either way, you can read it all here.

Also, there was my review of the MoMA show "Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream" in the April issue of Icon.  It's not online, but the issue is available here.

Then there was an interview with Kevin Brass of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), about supertall buildings, and why we still care about them. You can check that out on Vice Magazine's technology website, Motherboard.

Also, there was this lecture series (part of a larger series at D-Crit) which I curated.  It includes Aaron Betsky of the Cincinnati Art Museum, Jimenez Lai of Bureau Spectacular, Damon Rich of the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), and a bonus track, a Q+A with Michael Meredith of MOS. Together, it represents a near-complete overview of Mockitecture. All videos are embedded below.

May 31, 2012

Painted Ladies of the Past and Future

2012 a la 1977 via Instagram
The ensuing attempt to rebuild the home on more stable foundations, according to the specifications of countermodernists and nostalgic dreamers, complete with its cellar and its attic, its aged walls and comforting fireplace, has, however, inevitably fallen victim to a complaint inseparable from all nostalgic enterprises: that of the triumph of image over substance. In its aspiration to recover the past, postmodernism has generally substituted the signs of its absence, perhaps, in the process, engendering a house more truly haunted than that of modernism, but, for all this, hardly a more comforting or stable entity. – Anthony Vidler
Painted Ladies are the endangered species of the built environment. Governmental regulation protects their habitat and, ultimately, their ability to survive. They thrive in small communities where outsider buildings are not welcome. This makes new construction in the proximity of other Painted Ladies especially curious, subjected to the politics of taste and fashion. In this manner, San Francisco might be read as a zoo - a sort of preserve for the Painted Lady species. Tourists, on streetcar safaris, eagerly snap photos of the 'ladies.

A New-Old Painted Lady
Encountering new buildings cloaked with an old Painted Lady fashion (New-Old) is a bewildering experience made even stranger with the help of old photo filters. This is an architecture that begs us to return to a past we remember but never lived. An architecture obsessed with vintage fashion: something undeniably authentic and "nonchalantly cool."
Sun drenched nostalgia: low quality allure
To buy new items would demonstrate caring, making a considered choice. [...] A denial of quality and a distancing from contemporary discourse might prove hip-ness through expressing a lack of one's own investment in differentiating the good from the average. […] We have been raised in a post-modern world, brought up to believe there is no essential truth, no perfect answer. With all things equal, we aspire to a past when society was idealistic about its output, when people were optimistic about the future. - Samuel Szwarcbord
The Painted Lady, as we know her today, represents a historicised image-based fashion. Might other more current or forward looking Painted Ladies be possible? As we continue to decorate our buildings in vintage fashion, where can the Painted Ladies' evil twin be found!? Where are the buildings dressed in futuristic fashion?

Where are the green screen wall assemblies, websites wrapped onto buildings, and pixelated solar panel facades?? What about spatially aliased spaces??? Moire-patterned brick walls???? Where is the shingle system that is best viewed with a pair of disposable 3D glasses????? It's time that we, as artists and image makers, accept the idea of a society where digital media is more "real" to us than our physical surroundings.

Painted Lady Fashion...ANOTHER New-Old Building. Still waiting for the New-New Buildings...

April 29, 2012

The Instant City

The citizens of Farmville hated their life. They lived in such an awful, low quality, orthogonal environment.

They desperately wanted to escape, but were terrified to leave their home. Google Earth was all they knew of the outside world...

Nevertheless, a group of punk outcasts banded together to plan what would be their new home away from home: a spectacular utopian dream place. They called themselves the Farmville Five.

They collectively drew the plan of their new city in a remarkable twenty three seconds. It didn't take long, but they all agreed it was a timeless and monumental design. They dubbed this radical vision the Instant City dreamed of its geometrical purity in the most romantic of ways.

With new web-site cities popping up everywhere, the group decided to make their city as fast as possible. But alas! In the chaos and hastiness to make their dreams come true, they built the city from a low quality copy of their original plans.

They caught the mistake, but it was too late. Someone had saved their Instant City for Web & Devices in Photoshop, as a Low (0) Quality JPEG. It was to too late. The City was already rendering, ever so slowly. 

The geometrical purity and crispness of their plan was decimated by the beeps and boops of three story tall pixels in the most disorienting of manners. It was cold and eerily quiet, as the Farmville Five decided to sleep under the stars, in the streets of their hastily made Instant City.

The sun rose the next morning. The buildings of the Instant City were still rendering, but now their disturbed massing was more evident: ten-story behemoths articulated with potholes, wavy depressions, and a relentless - almost maddening - softness. The crispness of Farmville was nowhere to be found.

Curiosity filled the streets as the mistake-ridden plan was cautiously explored. Never before had the preciseness of the computer yielded such unpredictable results... 

It was a strange and terrifying place. Buildings shook and shuttered in the wind, which came whipping down along massive boulevards. This spatialization of pixels had never been seen on such a massive scale before. 

One of the Farmville Five was found disoriented atop one of the highest buildings, occupying a rather unruly pixel. He was quiet and contemplative, and seemed disturbingly at home among the bloopers.

Some of the Others had began setting up furniture and claiming territory in the newly discovered landscape. The Instant City was coming alive in the most unplanned of ways.

The outskirts of the Instant City were a mess. Nothing was planned. To make matters worse, the landscape was full of hasily defined Grasshopper scripts and Google Sketchup components. These follies appeared as quickly as the vanished, however, until one accidentally became baked into the infrastructure of the city.

These fringe areas of the City were a maze of complexity, stripped of the borrowed nostalgia the Farmville Five had grown accustomed to. Oh, how to escape from this uselessness!!??

They made their way back to the VRay Core, where the City was at its most spectacular.

Here, the buildings were still empty, but full of energy. Hastily made skins of steel and glass all generated from a 23 second Sharpie marker line sketch. Just as new cars have their distinctive "new car smell," the buildings of the Instant City smelled of iPhone and document scanning apps, Rhinoceros commands (especially Heightfield from Image & Contouring), Grasshopper Piping definitions, Google Sketchup Warehouse components (21st century readymades), and default VRay Materials...a very plastic-y smell.

Farmville seemed endlessly far away and the group was homesick...

...and lost amidst the ruins of the future.

April 7, 2012

America's Pastime and the New Romanticism

The architecture of America's Pastime is riddled with emblems of nostalgia and patriotism: a construct of contemporary romanticism.

Beginning in the early-ninties, epitomized by Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a radical wave of New Urbanist NeO-rEtRoIsM shook the crumbling concrete foundations of heoric, all-in-one 70's avant garde sports arenas. New-Old buildings were the hottest thing since Old-Old buildings.

The multi-purpose "all-in-one" arena of the 1970's: ballpark as heroic object independent from the City. (source
Neo-Retro Contextualism of the 1990's: ballpark as well-mannered piece of the City. (source)
When Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened on April 6, 1992, a new era of Major League Baseball began. The park was brand new, but still old-fashioned. State-of-the-art, yet quaint. At less than a day old, it was already a classic. 
Oriole Park at Camden Yards inspired a generation of ballpark construction. No longer would communities across America build multipurpose stadiums devoid of character, surrounded by vast parking lots. Ballparks would now be created to nestle neatly into existing and historic neighborhoods and play key roles in the revitalization of urban America.
The bastardization of this movement occurred roughly one decade later (March 31, 2003) when the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Ohio was completed. Criticism of the stadium began at its conception, often focusing on the further dissolution of the idea of the ballpark as a heroic, structurally rigorous object of authenticity:

Overlay of Entertainment onto the Neo-Retro ballpark, circa 2000's (source)
"They made a neutral space and then they filled it with diversions."
"a theme park with a bad structure,"
"There is no logic to the way the structural system was developed."
"The building lacks a singular spirit. It's a restaurant and it's this plaza, and then the field and the billboards. It felt like we were in eight different places."
"There is nothing well composed about it. They didn't even do a good job of place-making, which is one of the most basic urban design concepts."
"It looks to me like there were 20 people saying: `I need a smokestack. I need double-hung windows because it reminds me of Crosley Field.'"
Desperation, due to chronically low attendance numbers (see Here and Here), has yielded an even more spectacular result in Miami, home of the re-branded Marlins. Their recently (2012) completed stadium features two signature aquariums behind home plate, constructed of 1-1/2" thick bullet proof acrylic to ensure no foul ball "accidents." The result yields a new vision of the contemporary ballpark, camouflaged as an entertainment-saturated theme park spectacle: A collision of Disney and SeaWorld; Vegas and Cooperstown.  

At some point in history, America's pastime offered an escape from reality, providing entertainment and pleasure to the masses. Inherent in this new 21st century evolution of stadia, however repulsive to the discriminating eyes of architects, lies an incredibly redeeming quality. Entertainment has somehow extended beyond the capacity of the game, and into the core of the building. Carlos Rojas of Cincinnati-based Environ Group puts it like this:
"The things we have criticized will make those slow innings go by a little faster.  There's a lot of visual excitement; it's like going to Barnum & Bailey's circus ... The magic happens once you get in your seat." 
In this manner, the romanticized notion of "America's Pastime" has become overrun by an even more romantic idea of the ballpark as a palace of visual excitement: a magical, re-imagined circus.

April 4, 2012

Help Kickstart the Hefner-Bueys House

Chicago-based Jimenez Lai, up-and-coming architect of the fantastic and spectacular, is performing a house in a London storefront. For several weeks, Lai will live in a "super-furniture" (a house that is just a bit too small) inside the London gallery.  They are going to Youtube it. He is attempting to Kickstart the project, and there are some very unique, collectible artworks being offered in return for help...

"The Hefner/Beuys House by Jimenez Lai is a cartoonish architectural installation that extends its story into the realm of performance art. Citing two predecessors of performance artists, Joseph Beuys and Hugh Hefner, this project also asks - who is the real extrovert between the two? Hefner may be the obvious answer, but Beuys relocated himself out of his context to a stage-like environment whereas Hefner simply stayed in his mansion."

Please visit The Architecture Foundation for more details

"This installation is a Super Furniture. It is a building that is slightly too small, and a furniture that is kind of too big. Two of the past project that are a part of the Super-Furniture Series include the Briefcase House and White Elephant (Privately Soft). The previous iterations of this series has been widely covered, published and discussed, including BLDGBLOG, ArchDaily, archinect, EvoloArchitizer, etc. In addition, the transformation of the practice from comics to installation can be witnessed in a very early coverage by archinect in 2006."