Kimball Art Center by Bjarke Ingels Group

My friend Andy Wang, formerly of Curbed San Francisco, pointed me towards this new building in Park City, Utah, by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). I thought it was particularly interesting because I have been on this corner and had thought that it was really the only significant gap in the otherwise wonderful urban fabric of Park City.

The Kimball Art Center, Park City, Utah. From

I’m glad, first of all, that they decided to fill this underutilized public space with a building, and second of all, that its a building I think I’m going to like. I should say that I sort of wonder why I like Bjarke Ingels as an architect. A lot of his stuff is the sort of pointy architecture that looks like it wants to hurt you, a la Daniel Libeskind, who I really dislike, or is generally the sort of look-at-me starchitecture you see all over the place. That being said, Ingels stuff has a tectonic quality that I find really interesting, as is especially evident at the Mountain, probably Ingels’ most well-known project.

The Mountain, by BIG. From

This works even better when Ingels mixes his designs with natural materials such as brick or wood. One of my favorite buildings is his Maritime Youth House, which is a series of wooden hills on the edge of the sea.

The Maritime Youth House, by BIG. From

Ingels is also a master of turning architecture into large-scale geometry, which appeals to my mathematical mind. There are many examples of this, but probably best was the Danish pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010, where he convinced the Danish government to let him borrow the Little Mermaid statue from Copenhagen Harbor.

Expo 2010 Danish Pavilion, by BIG. From

This tectonic nature, use of natural materials, and large-scale geometry are all present in the Kimball Art Center, and I really enjoy it. In addition, it actual is quite a good urban design. The base parallels Main Street, continuing the streetwall and presenting its lower gallery on the perpendicular Heber Avenue frontage.

View along Main Street. From

Meanwhile, the rotated top floor gallery terminates the vista of the east section of Heber Avenue, which hits Main Street at an angle.

The view from Heber Avenue, showing both the lower and upper galleries. From

The interlocking timbers that make up the facade are both an echo of the traditional wooden cabin construction native to the area, as well as the mining history of Park City. The building, in fact, is essentially the same height as the Silver King Coalition Mine Building that previously occupied this site until it burned down in 1982. Ingels nods to history while lending a contemporary adaptation.

The building isn’t perfect. The Main Street frontage leaves a lot to be desired. On the side farther from the building, one can enjoy the larger move of the large-scale geometry and the windows of the upper gallery, but on the side closest to the building, one would only see a blank wooden wall. The building lacks the scale of architecture elements advocated by Nikos Salingaros. I also worry about flat roofs in areas that have heavy snowfall such as this. There seems to be a structurally sound core to the building that will hold it up, but I do wonder if in twenty years the roof will begin to leak.

Bjarke Ingels’ Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah, fills a major hole in the urban fabric, respects the history of the city and site, and uses a tectonic feeling, natural materials and large-scale geometry to create a very appealing solution to this site. His architecture is fun without being immature, and I hope he ends up doing more work stateside.


Rijkswaterstaat Head Office

Quick! What do you think of when you hear this phrase: underwater ghost moose?

If your answer was “public works,” congratulations, you’re either a Dutch architect or think like them (24H Architecture, to be precise). They designed this building in Assen for Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch agency in charge of roads and waterways. This building has a lot of things that I really like and a few blaring deficiencies. We’ll start on the outside and work our way in.

I don’t understand the complete lack of landscaping. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be some sort of pervious, green parking lot (since it appears to be a suburban location without the amenities of a real city), but you would think there would at least be some sod or something, especially on the mound that surrounds the building itself. Maybe it’s just not done, but then that raises the question, why would you send in the photographer when the project isn’t finished?

The south facade, while brutal even by the architect’s assessment, is very interesting. I feel like it fits for a group that builds roads. The pattern on the side suggests to me a chevron, representing speed, and the alignment and spacing of the windows almost looks like cars and trucks on a busy street. The areas between the chevrons have a very rough surface, and the stated intent of the architect was that these areas would eventually fill in with moss, which would greatly soften the look of this wall.

The north facade, by contrast, is much softer. Though there is a similar nihilism to the windows, something that Nikos Salingaros would be bothered by, the facade is soft wood, and almost looks like it would be more in place in a Finnishforest than on the side of a Dutch highway. The waving lines in front of the main part of the facade suggest the presence of water, the other main concern for the bureau. I really like the way these two facades work together. While the concrete suggests modernism and strength, the wood suggests softness, nature, and tradition. While I would much rather live in an all wood house than an all concrete one, I think that this building does a good job of taking the best of what concrete has to offer and making it fit comfortably with the wood.

I like the entrance. First of all, I think its good that they took the time to consider a ramp and integrate it into the design, rather than as an afterthought. I really like the steps that are filled with gravel and hope that they are fully permeable, and don’t just have concrete underneath them, which would frustrate the sustainability goals of the developer.

On the inside, the space opens up, with group workstations on the north wall and offices on the south, with a large open space in the middle. The wood is continued within, but generally lighter, which is appropriate for an interior. This space shows the different ways that wood can be employed, both as flooring, sheathing and structural elements. In some parts of the interior, the walls are decorated with aquatic or foliage patterns (both in blue, for some reason). The central space is made up of a fairly grand, three-tiered staircase. I will say that I find it attractive, but I wonder about its functionality. Will it have plants on it? Will it be a meeting space? If so, what elements would be necessary to make it safe? Is it just to be left as-is?

One thing that appears in some places is the interplay between detail surfaces, such as the wood that sheathes a lot of the interior, and the blank, yellow-green surfaces in some part. In some cases, blank spaces play well with the detail found in natural surfaces, such as on the white spaces next to the doors in the picture above, which almost have sort of a space-age feel. But to cover large expanses of wall with a single color and no manner of detailing, it just gets boring. It looks naked. It looks like you meant to put up pictures, but never got around to it. The kitchen in this building looks particularly bare. But who knows, maybe that’s where the motivational posters will go when this place is actually in use.

By the way, I just searched “underwater ghost moose” on Google, and got no results.

The Green Building

I am sorry that I will again have to start a post with apologies. First of all, I want to apologize for taking months to write another blog post. I don’t know how some of my fellow students do it. Although I think that my daily visits to Wimp, Cracked, TED, The Daily Show and others (as well as the obligatory Gmail and Facebook) have something to do with it. I’ve made a decision to try and cut back on my online time wasting, which will hopefully allow for more fruitful pursuits.

Second, I want to apologize to anyone who is coming to this site for reasons other than architecture and urbanism news. I’m continually amazed that my Book of Mormon musical post has generated more traffic than pretty much all my other posts combined, and while I appreciate the visits, I am a little worried about anyone who subscribed expecting commentary on either Mormonism or Broadway, only to get information on streets and buildings. At the same time, some people will get to this blog through Twitter, where I was very active a few months ago in tweeting and retweeting information about uprisings in Libya. While I continue to support the efforts of those fighting for freedom and democracy in that and other nations, this blog is meant to serve another purpose.

With those out of the way, we can move on to discussing a building that caught my eye a few months ago: the Green Building in Louisville, KY, redeveloped by FER Studio.

I’ll be honest. When I first looked at this building, my first instinct was to criticize it. I think a lot of it had to do with this being the first picture I saw of it. I understand that, as architects, the designers wanted you to see the soaring, brightly lit tower, but as an urban designer the first thing I saw was a very large parking lot that opened directly onto what seems to be a pedestrian-oriented street, and this upset me. Luckily, I can safely say that this is the worst thing about the building. Line the parking lot with some hedges or walls, a la Christopher Alexander’s shielded parking from A Pattern Language.

Although the tower wasn’t the first thing I noticed, it is striking and beautiful. The glazing, as well as the slant of the roof, allows for maximum light to get into the building, decreasing the need for artificial light and heating. At the same time, a series of louvers dims the light, so that it is not so overwhelming.

Another thing I think is interesting in the choice of photos is that there are very few images of the facade of the building. Architizer has two “dramatic” (ie at crappy angles) images, while FER’s page only has one shot from the other side of the street. While the facade of the building is important, I can see why the architects weren’t too excited about it; they successfully preserved a facade, and while it is a very nice one, it’s only about 1/3 their original work. Architects want to show what they did, and so they focus more on the building’s additions and interior.

I like the part of the facade that FER altered. As I have often mentioned, I am very fond of wood construction, both as a material and as a casting for concrete, which they used here. The wood leaves its grain pattern in the concrete, making it feel more alive and warm. The cafe seating provides a comfortable “3rd place” for the community, and generally makes the commercial use more inviting by providing a place that is outside the building but still within the influence of the store. By setting it back from the facade of the building, it is conceivable that the space could be used to escape the rain on a wet day, and that adventurous diners could still use the space despite the weather.

According to the blurb on Architizer, the building was originally a dry goods store, but has been converted to a cafe and gallery. This is a great example of adaptive reuse, and a reasonable example of historic preservation. I’m no expert, but I’ve been told that a problem with historic preservation in America is that preservationists not only want to preserve the building, but also its use, which in many cases is out of date. By changing the use, and making moderate adjustments to the exterior to allow for new uses, the main facade of the building, as well as its footprint and many of its materials, can be preserved, while serving a new and more appropriate use.

What really turned around my opinion of this building was the interior. I love it. I think a big part of that feeling for me is the reuse of the old wood. While using all new members would give the building a slick, right-out-of-the-box look, reusing the old wood and also leaving segments of brick wall exposed give the building a real “lived-in” feel, a sense of history and permanence. At the same time, the new wood on the upper floors, the large window panes and the black aluminum mullions, as well as the contemporary seating, decidedly say that this is a modern building. The openness and height of the rooms allows for the sun from the tower to better penetrate the building white the various balconies and hallways create a variety of unique spaces inside the building that are unavailable in many contemporary office structures.

This place has sustainable features all over it. The solar panels generate 15 kw/hr, which is supplemented by energy from a geothermal system. An underground ice storage system provides unique cooling savings. Although the green roof captures a lot of rain water, any excess is stored in three rain barrels and used for landscaping and irrigation of a small vertical farm which provides produce for the cafe.

Despite a bad initial impression, I was thoroughly impressed by this building. It is a great example for a part of Louisville that is currently undergoing fast improvement, and with a few small tweaks could be even better.

Stair House

The Stair House in Oda-City, Japan, was built by y+Mdo architects for a small family.

The house is essentially a large staircase.  There are a number of green features incorporated into the building.  For instance, the stairs face the south, and have small slit windows in between some, with larger windows under “benches.”  The windows work to minimize direct sunlight during summer, but allow it to warm the house in winter.  The low south entrance is also surrounded by a garden, which helps to cool the air at the entrance.  As the air warms, it rises to the top of the building due to its open floor plan, and can escape through the ventilation system.

I really like the interior of this house.  The large wood posts forming the underside of the steps give it a very solid look, amplified by the steel ties.  The integrated bookcases make a very efficient use of wall space.  The openness of the plan makes a simple single-family home feel like an urban loft.  It also makes it so that almost all the rooms are essentially south-facing, and receive at least some natural light.  I don’t like the exposed wiring leading to the hanging lights, but that’s about the only thing I can complain about from what I’ve seen of the house.

The roof, I think, looks like a lot of fun.  From up here you can see into the recreation area at what appears to be a high school across the street, and although the pictures I’ve seen don’t include it, there is probably a pretty wide sweeping view to the North as well.  I like that there are little things like guard rails along the edges and balconies—a common-sense item that I have seen lacking in the work of some of the architecture students here at Penn.  It seems like a great gathering place, and even in the architect’s drawings it mentions having a barbecue on the roof.

This home, whether intentionally or not, employs a number of Alexandrine patterns.  The three-story, south-facing slope resembles a single-family housing hill.  The garden is on the south side of the property.  The pergola defines the main entrance.  The roof has integrated stair seats.  There is plenty of indoor sunlight.  The kitchen is large and integrated into the living room area.  The open shelves create thick walls and include a waist-high shelf.  The floors use different materials to reflect relative formality.

This is not a house that I would have designed, and I’m glad to see something I like so much come from somewhere I never would have thought of.  A great house, and a great addition to architecture.

Millbrook House

Thomas Phifer built this house outside of the small village of Millbrook, New York.

First, the house is very much a procession, and it must be explained as such to be understood.  It took me a little while studying the layout of the house for it to make sense.  The first thing one sees as they come up the driveway is the guesthouse, perched over the parking area.

From here, one walks up the stepping stones to the left of the picture and up onto a flat grassy area that connects the guest house to the glass pavilion of the main house.

from Guesthouse is in the foreground left, glass pavilion is in the background center.

From inside the pavilion, one travels down a flight of stairs and underground to reach the individual “cabins” (in the first picture) which house bed and bathrooms.

My first thought when I saw this was that it was some sort of contemporary take on rowhouses, which probably led to my confusion about how the entire place was linked together.  I am always a fan of using wood as a material, but the boxiness of the cabins puts me off a bit.  Having lived in an apartment where we only got light from one direction, I can say that I’m not a big fan of it, and generally prefer to have light on two sides of every room, as Christopher Alexander recommends.  The gardens of the cabins though are quite beautiful and give each person their own little green space.  Also I was more enamored with the glass front of the cabins when I thought they were rowhouses and that the front room would be some sort of public room.  When I found out they were bedrooms, I was a little disconcerted, because I would feel uncomfortable about changing and such in front of that much glass.  However, the house is on a two acre site, and considering the area, there is probably sufficient foliage to provide privacy from the nearest street or neighbor.  Phifer also has set the bedrooms on the east side of the house so that they will receive morning sunlight, something else that Alexander recommends.  It’s probably a great place to wake up and go to bed, but not great for other activities.

The grassy area above the cabins presents me personally with some big questions.  Do the residents here have kids, or do they ever plan to have kids?  The area is protected from the drop-offs near the cabins by glass guard rails, but I worry about how well they would stay intact with rambunctious children (or adults, for that matter).

The panoramic views of the glass pavilion are beautiful, and this is the great advantage of any glass house.  However, it does raise some questions.  How energy efficient are these windows?  Double-glazed windows with argon inside them can be very efficient, but the architect doesn’t state anywhere in this article that they used such elements.  Also, I always worry about roofs that are completely flat, because they don’t shed water well and have a tendency to leak.  I don’t know if the architect has taken measures to mitigate such effects, but I prefer a sloped roof, preferably with wide overhangs.

Another interesting feature I think is the wall that holds back the earth of the grassy area, as can be seen in the second picture.  The wall is faced in patinated steel panels, which blend in very well with the color of the wood and look very natural.  I understand that there are many that may feel that this aesthetic is not appropriate for a residence, but being from the Steel City, I really appreciate it and think it works very well in this context.

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