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David Adjaye realizes a ruby-red museum in San Antonio, Texas
River Walk This Way
Inside LMN Architects, the studio designing major urban projects from San Antonio to Vancouver
Awarded the 2016 AIA National Architecture Firm Award in December 2015, LMN Architects is having a moment. Perhaps most well known for its large urban projects—convention centers, performing arts centers and urban infrastructure—the Seattle firm has worked out of its downtown Seattle office in the 1959 international style Norton Building for the past 30 years. Founded in 1979, LMN is a one-studio firm with close to 150 employees. Its 40,000-square-foot office spans two-and-a-half floors.
“We believe the best way to comprehensively understand a space is to build physical models,” said LMN partner John Chau. “Models don’t lie...That’s why we like this building. It allows us to have spaces to do that.” The LMN office is mainly an open plan with downtown views, column-free studio spaces, model building areas, and conference rooms. A lower floor hosts LMN’s in-house digital fabrication shop. There’s a dual gantry CNC mill that LMN built about a year ago that features two cutting machines on a single cutting bed.
LMN discussed the challenges of building in the future: With less available land, sites will get smaller, necessitating building more efficiently and vertically to accommodate denser layers—more people, more infrastructure, and more ecology in the same space. “We no longer are just simply architects,” said Chau. “The need for all of us to collaborate more, communicate more, is even more critical—it’s important to know what the city council is thinking about, what its leads are. And it’s going back to being very informed citizens—we have the gift, ability, and the responsibility to help solve a lot of issues that arise.”
Tobin Center for the Performing Arts San Antonio, TX
The performing arts center opened late 2014—an effort to reinvigorate the 1926 San Antonio Municipal Auditorium designed by architect Atlee Ayres that had become outdated. “We built a new auditorium, but rotated the geometry to create a new outdoor space and new entry to the San Antonio River Walk,” said LMN partner Mark Reddington. LMN kept the historic facade and added a new structure, clad in a textured metal veil. The shroud encloses the auditorium and filters the light in different colors and angles. The interior lobby hosts custom tiles that curve in plan and section—each row shifts, creating a negative volume.
Inside the main concert hall, a perforated wood fascia backlit with LEDs allows for an array of colorful effects. The hall can hold up to 1,738 seats and 2,100 people with a flat floor setup. The performance hall also contains the first gala floor system in the U.S. The seats sit on motorized platforms that can fold over, creating a flat floor that can be used for other types of events like rock concerts. Inside the performing arts center is a 295-seat studio theater and the outdoor plaza facing the San Antonio River can hold up to 600 seats.
University of Iowa Voxman Music Building Iowa City, IA
Opening October 2016, the new 180,000-square-foot music school for the University of Iowa will replace the previous one sited along the Iowa River that flooded in 2008. LMN moved the new building 50 feet up the hill, orienting it with the center of the college town. The mostly glass exterior building will hold a 700-seat concert hall, a recital hall with 200 seats, and rooms for pipe organs, classes, rehearsal areas, and faculty. “We wanted to create a building that was an extension of the public experience of the street, so that people could wander in, go to a performance at the music school, or students could come in and visit a professor,” said Reddington.
The building’s small footprint necessitated going vertical, stacking up to five stories of isolated music rooms. LMN developed a theatroacoustics system, a high-performance ceiling system that optimizes acoustics while hiding some of the structural elements such as speakers, microphones, fire sprinklers, and stage lights. “[The theatroacoustics system] was actually a money saving move,” said LMN partner Stephen Van Dyck. “They’re all put together in one gesture. It kind of becomes transcendent beyond any one of those individual pieces,” said Reddington.
Vancouver Convention Centre West Vancouver, BC, Canada
After a series of false starts and shifting sites, LMN knew its design for the west addition to the Vancouver Convention Centre would finally happen if Vancouver won the 2010 Olympic Winter Games bid. The project was included in the bid as the media center. When the architects saw the front page of the Vancouver Sun with the winning news, they knew they would get the green light. “That’s how we knew it was real,” said Chau. The 1.2-million–square-foot convention center addition was completed in 2009. It occupies 22 acres—14 acres on land, eight acres over the water—of what was once a brownfield site.
The convention center boasts a six-acre green roof with 240,000 bees producing honey for the convention center restaurant. The interiors feature local British Columbia wood. The project also supports the maritime harbor ecosystem. “It’s linked into the landscape, habitat, and shore system,” said Reddington. “There’s a marine habitat that goes around the edge of the building and underneath.” LMN used the concrete loading dock as the infrastructure to support a reef, said Van Dyck.
Sound Transit U Link University of Washington Station Seattle, WA
LMN designed the University of Washington light rail station and surrounding open space that opened in March 2016. The boarding platform can accommodate up to 1,600 people. “We had to link in all of this stuff—a bridge, a bicycle pathway, a head house, escalators, stairs, and then the station block underground that is 500 feet long,” said Reddington. Perhaps the most challenging, but rewarding, part of the project was designing the smoke chamber. “For fire requirements you have to create a big smoke chamber,” said Reddington. “If there is a fire somewhere, it helps isolate the fire so people can get out and not have smoke running all the way through the entire station.”
LMN worked with Seattle artist Leo Saul Berk, who created “Subterranium,” an installation made with nearly 9,000 square feet of custom deep blue metal backlit panels that wrap the smoke chamber. The panels tell the story of the site’s geology. “By integrating a lot of things into a single system, you have the capacity of one system to solve many problems—like a smoke enclosure that is now the main sculptural expression of a subway station,” said Van Dyck.
St. Louis-based architecture firm Trivers Associates had to balance historic preservation concerns with modern performance standards when it recently rehabilitated a Beaux Arts federal courthouse located across from the Alamo in San Antonio.
Still, the firm was able to strike just the right balance, earning the project a LEED Platinum certification without disturbing Texas’ most hallowed ground.
Completed last summer, the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building and United States Courthouse became the first LEED Platinum building owned by the General Services Administration (GSA). The architects employed standard energy-saving techniques, sealing the building’s envelope and upgrading the building’s systems to high-efficiency mechanical and electrical ones, while striving to revive the building’s unique character.
“The building was in dire need of renovation,” said principal Andy Trivers. In addition to flunking the GSA’s energy performance standards, Hipolito lagged in security and accessibility, Trivers said.
An expansive Howard Cook fresco depicting Texas history adorned the lobby, but the whole front entrance of the federal courthouse had been shut down since 9/11, denying access to the public. The renovation inserted low shear-glass partitions that corral and guide visitors through the space to the security screening equipment at the back.
“It’s a delicate intervention of security that works with the historic element,” Trivers said. “Part of maintaining the historic character is not distracting [visitors] with contemporary interventions. All of these things had to be hidden.”
Vertical chases now hide heat-recovery equipment from the street view of the 1937 building, designed by architects Ralph Cameron and Paul Cret and constructed partially within the original walls of the Alamo.
“Essentially a huge ‘doughnut’” is the way Trivers described the six-story Hipolito building, which encloses a five-story light well. The architects inserted a green roof atop the second floor at the bottom of the light well and positioned solar photovoltaic and solar thermal panels on top of the building’s sixth floor.
All of the irrigation for the green roof, as well as for the rest of Hipolito’s landscaping, is collected on site. The building captures rainwater, as well as water from a small stream running underneath the building that the team discovered during initial site surveys.
The design also converted old postal service windows into touch screens, offering information about the building’s mechanical and electrical systems and earning the project a LEED point for education.
Courthouse judges value the use of daylight in historic buildings like Hipolito, Trivers said. “What they don’t love,” he added, “is that [historic buildings] don’t provide the technology they need.”
While retrofitting rooms to optimize daylight and integrate new technology, the design team also restored the building’s original electrical lighting fixtures. Those ornamental luminaires were shipped to Missouri, where St. Louis restoration company Antique Lighting rewired and rebuilt each piece using original materials.
It is impossible to underestimate the role that museum and gallery exhibitions have played in the history of modern architecture. Figures like Giuseppi Terragni, Lilly Reich, Bernard Rudofsky and, today, Neil Denari and Diller + Scofidio have all designed for and in the space of the gallery. They often designed exhibitions before they could get a building commission, or during slow economic times, but for all of these figures the gallery was a site where they could theorize or construct models that were still spinning in their heads but not yet possible to realize. Some of the most exciting ideas in 20th century Avant-garde architecture were first thought out in galleries, such as Frederick Kiesler’s Endless City, and his “L and T” method of installation design. In recent times, Diller + Scofidio’s Tourisms: suitCase Studies (1991) can surely be said to have lead to their design for The Brasserie, Boston’s ICA, and the just unveiled Gray Box gallery/theater at MoMA. Though the historic links from gallery to building are clear, critics often assert that architects in galleries do not produce architecture but art or, worse, architecture posing as art. This argument is often, but not always, a canard for architects who long for physical spaces where they can experiment, communicate with the public, and succeed or fail. The gallery space provides an opportunity for architects to experiment in real time, and space has never been more important than today when digital design can imagine the most hyperbolic forms, use of new materials, and geometries that may or may not be buildable. Benjamin Ball of Ball-Nogues Studio, a practice that has flourished in the design of installations, makes exactly this point about their work for galleries. Their goal, Ball admits, is to be in dialogue with the 75 years of artistic practice, but even more they want to do research about craft and the process of production.
Courtesy Design, Bitches
These issues of design intent, production, and even reception are all played out in the exhibition Almost Anything Goes: Architecture and Inclusivity at the Museum of Contemporary Arts Santa Barbara. Conceived and co-curated by Brigitte Kouo, a designer with an interest in architecture, and the museum’s director and chief curator Miki Garcia, it smartly selects a group of young Southern California designers all working in different areas of architectural research and production. Ball-Nogues Studio was a natural inclusion in this survey. They are joined by Amorphis, Atelier Manferdini, Design Bitches, dO|Su Studio Architecture, Digital Physical, and Variate Labs.
The entrance to the exhibit foregrounds an eight-foot-tall sculptural object, exo, 2013, created by DO/SU Studio Architecture and its principle Doris Sung. It is a creative study for a multiple layered building facade if it were made of thermo-bimetals, in this case aluminum, a “smart… material that inherently responds to temperature, curling when heated and flattening when cooled.” It aims to challenge our perception of a facade as only a protective coating when it could be, as Sung said, “a responsive and active skin.”
Scattered around the gallery are luscious candy colored tabletops created by Atelier Manferdini that foreground architecture’s “communicative value” and look good enough to eat. The architects in this exhibit are young so one wants to encourage all sorts of experimentation strategies, but also to warn them to be aware of the possible clichés of art world production. All of the works in the exhibition do focus on architecture. The sculptural wall pieces by Amorphis could benefit from an updated reading on the critiques of minimalism, but still they suggest a relationship between the viewer and the work of art mediated by personal conditions—a major concern of architects. Another installation that straddles the strategies of art but still makes a convincing case for what architects can bring to the debate are the photographs by Design Bitches that use personal images of the architects standing in for the male heroes of yore. They are quite convincing and hilarious. Design Bitches also has a beautifully crafted series of concrete bags arched across the gallery ceiling like clouds dripping rain that playing with notions of “heaviness and somber lightness.”
The old installation pros Ball-Nogues produced the most convincing object and creative design strategy with their Mickey Mouse ear–like paper lamp. It was created by shooting paper pulp though a pressured sprayer into molds of flexible inflatable fabric. These paper lamps are one-off prototypes in the gallery, but suggest a way of creating objects of mass production. Ball-Nogues Studio is now working on its first building in San Antonio, Texas.
Santa Barbara is a seductive landscape of historic mission architecture. One does not expect to find adventurous design here. So the curators are to be congratulated for making this exhibit happen in their enticing shopping mall gallery. It displays again the amazing depth and creativity of young architects in the Southern California region.