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In the 12 ½ years since the Twin Towers were destroyed in a ghastly act of international terrorism, the 16 acres known as Ground Zero have stood largely apart from the city. Now, the fences are down on the South and West sides of the site, and the Memorial Plaza is beginning to function as a public space. While Michael Arad’s pools are effective in reminding visitors of the scale and magnitude of the destruction, Peter Walker’s unfolding sequence of trees, benches, lawn, ivy, and pavers softens the plaza and allows visitors to experience it in a variety of ways. Some may not think of 9/11 at all.
The just opened 9/11 Memorial Museum ensures that the horror of that single day will never be scrubbed from the site, even as much of the acreage returns to commercial purposes. Given the subject matter, the architecture of the museum is almost beside the point, which is to say that it effectively frames and backgrounds the artifacts, images, and sounds that viscerally evoke the experience of that day and its wrenching aftermath.
Visitors enter Snøhetta’s iceberg-like visitor’s pavilion, which is light and airy, but marred by a TSA-style security screening station. Large angled windows look out on to the plaza leading to escalators that begin the descent into the below-grade museum designed by Davis Brody Bond.
The descent is a long one. The architects created a deliberate sequence of ramps, stairs, and escalators that take visitors 70 feet below ground, a process that takes between 10 and 20 minutes, creating significant physical and psychological distance from the city above. The effect is purposefully somber. It is hard not to think about death.
A handful of artifacts—like a massive steel beam from the World Trade Center and the so-called “survivors’ stair”—and a few panels of text and discreet video projections are integrated into the 600-foot-long ramp, which the architects call “the ribbon.” The ramps are wide, offering plenty of room for visitors to move at their own paces, either alone or with fellow visitors. “We tried to strike a balance between a contemplative and a communal experience,” said Carl Krebs, the project’s lead architect with Steven Davis, both of Davis Brody Bond.
Wenge hardwood lines the ramp that terminates in a switchback that overlooks a vast space with an expanse of the exposed slurry wall and the steel beam known as the “last column.” As the procession continues, the visitor becomes increasingly acclimated to the experience. Where the ribbon reaches bedrock there is a vast wall covered in a large installation by artist Spencer Finch, comprising nearly 3,000 blue panels in different shades, each representing one of the victims. The panels frame the controversial quote from Virgil, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” A private space for the families is located behind the wall, containing the unidentified remains of victims. Flanking the wall are two galleries, one dedicated to an exhibition about 9/11 (which could change over time) and a permanent exhibition dedicated to memorializing the victims themselves. The bedrock level also includes several other artifacts, such as a half destroyed fire truck and a fragment of an elevator mechanism.
The two galleries sit on the exact footprints of the towers and visitors cross over the line of the original foundations to enter them. The exterior of each gallery, which rises to the ceiling, is clad in foamed aluminum panels. The surfaces are carefully lit (lighting design was by Fisher Marantz Stone), giving them a slightly ethereal, shimmering quality. While following the exact outline of the towers, the design does not attempt to replicate their appearance. The nearly 100,000-square-foot museum is largely devoid of scenographic elements. “Memory, authenticity, scale, and emotion were the guiding principles of the design,” said Davis.
Compared to the expansive spaces outside, the galleries are heavily programmed, filled with thousands of images, videos, and objects. They are overwhelming in both general and highly personal terms. The experience is immersive. The exhibitions largely stick to the facts of that day. Didactic or interpretive narratives are largely absent. There is little to debate or to divide viewers. One possible objection may come in the relatively small amount of space devoted to the Pentagon Attack and the crash of United 93 in Shankesville, Pennsylvania.
As a New Yorker who was in the city on 9/11 and watched the towers fall from the East Village, I can attest that the exhibitions (designed by a team including Thinc, Local Projects, and Layman Design) effectively capture the confusion of that day. The museum is a powerful project of documentation for future generations.
While the museum smartly allows for a variety of responses, many visitors will walk away saddened, disgusted by the senselessness of the attacks, and moved by stories of lives lost. The museum shows humanity at its most depraved and its most noble. Some may be unsure of the purpose of evoking such horror, but few will forget what they have seen.
Snøhetta, Adamson Associates, Buro Happold
Among the towering giants and behemoth cavern currently under construction at the World Trade Center site, it can be easy to overlook the Entry Pavilion of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. After all, it is only three stories high and contains a mere 47,000 square feet, much of which is mechanical equipment. However, the little pavilion serves vital roles in the master plan, both functional as well as aesthetic. For one, it houses the entrance to the museum—a grand stair that descends beneath the recently-opened plaza beside two of the soaring steel “tridents” salvaged from the wreckage of the original twin towers. The building also contains an advanced security apparatus for screening visitors, an auditorium, the aforementioned mechanical equipment, and a special room reserved for World Trade Center attack survivors and the family members of those who lost their lives.
As with every other piece of the massive construction project, the pavilion is also far more complex than a cursory examination of its architectural renderings makes it seem. The design team—which includes Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta, local architect of record Adamson Associates, and multi-disciplinary engineering firm Buro Happold—faced the very unusual challenge of designing a building that could perch off the edge of two different lower structures: the Path Station and the Memorial Museum. This required developing a series of unique structural solutions that not only meet New York City building code but also stand up to the heightened security concerns of the World Trade Center site.
The majority of the pavilion rests atop the Path Station, specifically atop three massive north-south oriented steel girders, each between 13 and 16 feet deep, which were designed by Port Authority engineers. Only the western tip of the building, which contains the grand stair, sits on the concrete mat of the memorial museum, designed by Aedas and Cantor Seinuk. The challenge for the design team was to create a “foundation” for the pavilion that would both distribute the building’s gravity loads across these two underpinning structures as well as handle the rather intense lateral loads that could occur under the conditions of a blast event. Before anybody starts thinking that was an easy chore, there were additional complicating factors. Two of the Port Authority’s girders—the eastern most and the western most—did not span the entire depth of the pavilion’s footprint, meaning that much of the building would have somehow to be hung off their ends. The northeastern edge of the pavilion also extended beyond the easternmost girder, meaning that as much as 15 feet of the building would have to be cantilevered over the path station. Finally, while the Port Authority engineers allowed the team to transfer north-south lateral forces to the girders, east-west forces were off limits.
The team established “footings” for the building that they termed “drag beams”—3-foot-wide by 7-foot-deep concrete beams, heavily reinforced by structural steel wide-flange sections and two layers of No. 10 rebar. The drag beams follow the perimeter of the pavilion, and one bisects its east-west axis, spanning as much as 100 feet across the underpinning structures. Between the center and southern drag beams, which run east-west, and atop the three Port Authority girders, which run north-south, they established a concrete core that rises the full height of the structure, functioning as both hardened ingress and egress as well as a cavernous ventilation shaft for the underground spaces. The core transfers the building’s north-south lateral loads to the girders. All of the east-west lateral forces are transferred from the drag beams at the western end of the pavilion to the memorial’s concrete mat via structural shear dowels.
Hanging the north edge of the pavilion off of the two short girders called for two different solutions. At the eastern-most girder, which was 16 feet short, the team was able to employ an inclined beam that runs up from the end of the girder at a 45-degree angle to the second floor, where it becomes a column and runs vertically to the top of the structure. The westernmost girder, however, was 20 feet short. There, the team ran a column vertically to the roof and then suspended the remainder of the structure from a 22-foot-deep truss.
The rest of the pavilion’s framing is more conventional in nature—steel post and beam and concrete floors poured on metal decking—though many of the members are encased in concrete and are larger than one would expect for a building of this size. In fact, some of the girders that support the infill beams go up to W40x503—the largest rolled sections available—making Memorial Pavilion a very sturdy enclosure indeed.
Two-Thirds Funding Secured
Dallas Holocaust Museum inches toward construction
In late October, the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum announced a series of steps to push a proposed new museum building into reality. With over two-thirds of funding secured, the museum launched a “Building a Foundation of Hope” capital campaign to raise the final portion of the $61 million budget needed to start construction.
The 50,000-square-foot structure will be built in Dallas’s West End neighborhood near Houston Street and the DART Rail corridor along Pacific Avenue. The property, which currently serves as a parking lot, will be transformed into a public building that will accommodate more than 200,000 visitors per year and nearly quadruple the amount of exhibition space that the museum currently boasts within its existing facility. “We are limited in the number of visitors we can see at one time, and many schools and thousands of students are not able to visit as their class sizes are too large for our current museum,” said Frank Risch who serves as the campaign co-chair for the new museum. “We have been forced to move many of our events to other venues.” The museum, awarded an Unbuilt Design Award by AIA Dallas in 2015, will take two years to complete from the start of construction.
The building, designed by Omniplan Architects, will serve as a vessel for remembering the Holocaust and its victims and will also extend the dialogue to human rights in modern America. “We need a place that allows us to have a discussion about what human rights, diversity, and respect for others mean for our city today,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings during the announcement of the capital campaign. Permanent exhibitions, under the direction of Michael Berenbaum, who served as the project director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., will feature engaging galleries and content as well as expanded resources and archives. The designers seek to engage the public in a manner that creates individual experiences, allowing one to connect with the museum in a very personal way.
Beyond the physical and metric constraints that drove the concept, the Holocaust Museum will fulfill a message that has been understated in the community, especially in the context of recent attacks. “At a time when Texas leads the nation in the number of active hate groups, and the Dallas community is still healing from the July 7 attack on local law enforcement officers, the most violent and hateful act against law enforcement officers since 9/11, we believe the mission of the new Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum is more important than ever,” said museum president and CEO Mary Pat Higgins.
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If, as Louis Kahn said, a brick wants to be part of an arch, what does a biopolymer molecule, a block of aerogel, or a slab of metallic foam want to be? The empirical basis for inferring bricks’ intentions is well established, comprising building traditions that have evolved over millennia. For newer materials, the chance of moving from laboratories to construction sites can be a crapshoot. The successful ones not only capture markets but transform behavior.
The most promising approaches, materials specialists agree, emphasize integration rather than isolation. “We don’t just create materials or products; we create information systems,” says architect/author Blaine Brownell, who co-directs the MS in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota and whose most recent book, Material Strategies: Innovative Applications in Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), links innovations in minerals, concrete, wood, metal, glass, and plastics to prominent case studies. Using the term hypermaterial to denote the convergence of materials and information processing, Brownell looks to the management of light, energy, and data as the leading edge of materials research.
Courtesy Jenny Sabin
Jason O. Vollen, associate director of the Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE), a joint project of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and SOM, heralds “a fundamental paradigm shift from moving energy mechanically, which is how we do it now, to moving energy materially.” Instead of multiple layers of a structure performing different functions, Vollen says, as in Mike Davies’ concept of the polyvalent wall, “We think one layer should do multiple things; we think a potential solution is the multivalent material. That’s not so far off; it’s speculative fiction rather than science fiction.” Citing the “holy grail” of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Stephen Selkowitz—a material optimizing both daylight and insulation—Vollen says “what exists now won’t do that, but what exists around the corner might.” Nanotechnology, where categories blend and “metals can become more like glasses, glasses become more like ceramics,” he continues, is yielding unprecedented control over properties such as heat flow and daylight transmittance. With high-performance ceramics in particular offering properties that answer climate-change-driven imperatives, he is convinced, “the industry is poised for a revolution.”
Materials research is often a matter of systematic biomimicry, invoking a parallel understanding of natural processes occurring over time on multiple scales, from the nanoscale to the visible to the ecosystemic. “It’s not about translating shape, or a static image of a biological behavior,” says Jenny E. Sabin, assistant professor of architecture at Cornell and a founding member of Cecil Balmond’s Nonlinear Systems Organization. As the architectural member of the National Science Foundation-sponsored ESkin interdisciplinary team, which also includes a materials scientist, a cell biologist, and a systems engineer, Sabin investigates homologies in materials, geometries, and forms. She describes her challenge as “thinking about how those properties could work across scales” and replicating them in “highly engineered, sustainable materials that have very sophisticated responses to environmental cues.”
Generative models based on cellular activity inform her “Branching Morphogenesis” installation at Linz, Austria’s 2009 Ars Electronica (comprising 75,000 cable zip ties in tension, organized according to microscale cellular forces) and her all-knitted myThread Pavilion for Nike’s Flyknit Collective, produced with New Jersey-based fabricator Shima Seiki USA. “It’s not just that we can produce complex organic form,” she continues, but that designers can “directly interact with manufacturing technologies...Working with soft textile-based materials at a large scale is only possible through really cutting-edge fabrication technologies.” Strategies that arise from these investigations include “embedding a more nonlinear lifespan” into a material, so that products pass usefully through multiple life cycles; porosity, allowing lightness and transmissibility as well as strength; geometries that repel or absorb water, a high priority in materials that must endure sea-level rise; and self-organizing properties on nano-to-macro scales.
The technological transition suggested by business consultant David Morris, vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance—replacing the hydrocarbon-based economy, with all its externalities, costly extractive processes, and resource-availability constraints, with an older, cleaner system, “the once and future carbohydrate economy”—calls for more use of lifelike materials, Brownell suggests: those derived from agriculture and those deriving knowledge from living systems. A brick may want to be thick, but contemporary materials want to be smart.
Resource maximizers, beginning with light
Andrew H. Dent, PhD, vice president of library and materials research at Material ConneXion, sees two broad questions driving research in the field: what does Earth have in abundance, and what are we running out of? To the extent that materials and processes based on ample, readily available resources (from sunlight to silicon) replace those with sources in short supply (petroleum, gold, copper, clean air, and water), materials research represents a critical adaptation to emergent conditions.
Much of this work is economic optimization rather than new discovery, Dent adds. Methods of developing biopolymers from a wide range of plants harvested in different regions and conditions (corn, castor, switch grass, sugar cane, potatoes, and others) are already known. “The issue is how to beat out oil,” he says, which “even at a high price is still significantly cheaper.” Tradeoffs of this sort are inevitable. A material may be lightweight enough that its production and transport save energy and yield an admirable overall ecological footprint, but its components pose toxicity concerns, as with ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE, the transparent insulating “pillow” material seen in the 2008 Olympic Water Cube and other buildings worldwide). Biopolymers for construction, consumer products, or fuel, likewise involve edible crops and thus compete with food production. “Back in 2006 and early ’07,” Brownell recalls, “when there was so much excitement about biofuels and ethanol...states like Iowa were promising all kinds of fuel-making capacity without taking a hard look at how a lot of this corn that we make goes to developing countries in order to feed the world.” Vollen frames this starkly as “a political and regulatory issue: ‘if we replace oil with corn, what do we eat?’”
In this regard, viewing solar energy as the ultimate free resource, Brownell is particularly enthusiastic about products that harvest and manipulate light, such as Sensitile’s light-piping panels, embedding optical channels in concrete and resin substrates, or a recent breakthrough at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, scattering silver nanocubes on a gold film to “help the substrate absorb virtually all the light...so incredibly efficiently that nothing leaves the surface” and improving the efficiency of sensors. Another promising use of multiwall carbon nanotubes, he says, is field-induced polymer electroluminescent (FIPEL) technology, which generates a warm, nonflickering wavelength resembling sunlight—“that spectrum that clearly influences human behavior and productivity in workplaces and learning places.” These flat lighting panels offer a distinct improvement over harsh compact fluorescents and heat-inefficient incandescents, with efficiency approaching that of LEDs. Developed at Wake Forest University and licensed for commercial development to CeeLite Technologies, the panels can be integrated with flexible substrates and incorporated into windows or even textiles.
Brownell also cites the engineer/designer Akira Wakita’s work with “conductive threads to make thermochromic and photochromic textiles that can act as computer monitors.” The importance of lighting in the developing world, he emphasizes, makes it a promising field for leapfrogging technologies that address “the good but tough 99 percent question” about new materials’ relevance to global populations, as well as a generally fertile field for disruptive technologies. “I’m still marveling at how LEDs have transformed the whole lighting field,” Brownell says. “It wasn’t that long ago [that] it was kind of hard to find an LED.”
Concrete, the most widely used construction material on Earth, is ripe for innovation. Its Portland cement component accounts for an estimated 5 percent of the global carbon footprint; by weight, concrete is environmentally friendlier than metals or polymers, Brownell says, but its sheer prevalence means that improving its performance has considerable ecological effects. Strategies include reducing cement volume with additives like blast furnace slag or rice husk ash (practiced by the Canadian firm EcoSmart). Then there is Calera’s carbonate mineralization by aqueous precipitation, which diverts preheated flue gas into seawater, combines energy production, cement manufacture, and carbon sequestration, and enhances CO absorption by using magnesium silicate, iron carbonate, or other alternative components. This process is done by TecEco in Tasmania, Novacem in London, and CarbonCure in Nova Scotia. (“Concrete strikes me as something like molé,” Brownell comments: “Every family has their own recipe.”)
Tensile strength is a concern with any concrete; among various high-performance crack-resistant concretes that use silica fume, superplasticizers, ground quartz, or mineral fibers, Victor Li’s work at the University of Michigan with fiber-reinforced, bendable concrete stretches the category’s definition altogether. Lafarge’s Ductal is another high-performance concrete that bridges the border between concretes and composites. A novel self-repair strategy developed at Newcastle University, BacillaFilla, programs a Bacillus subtilis strain to create calcium carbonate and a “microbial glue” when it is injected into cracks; it then cures to the same strength as the surrounding material (finally stopping, thanks to a genetic “kill switch” that keeps the bugs from surviving once they detect a surface; this feature relieves hypothetical sci-fi concerns about an uncontrollable Bill Joy-style gray goo).
The prospect that concrete could move from carbon-positive to carbon-negative strikes many commentators as an achievable goal—provided the newer variants gain market share, despite contractors’ comfort level with current recipes. “What we need,” suggests Dent, “are some high-profile architects to use some of [the new] material and show its advantages by being part of a high-profile, near-carbon-zero building.”
Untested novelties face market resistance, particularly in areas where suboptimal technologies are entrenched, easily available, and (as Vollen points out) insurable. The factors that add up to successful technology transfer are far from systematic; for some materials, decades passed between their invention and commercialization. Dent hails Gorilla Glass, the ultra-strong, scratch-resistant surface that allows durability and interactivity in smartphones, as a transformative material that could also be useful in architecture. Yet when Corning developed the similar Chemcor glass in the early 1960s, it mothballed the product after about a decade, only to revive the idea on request from Apple in the mid-2000s. Serendipity and a suitable niche among related technologies appear essential for promising ideas to migrate from laboratory R&D to the Sweets catalog or the shelves of Home Depot.
One of nature’s recurrent strategies for economizing on material bulk—porous forms—characterizes several materials whose properties have drawn attention. Metallic foams, often aluminum or zinc, combine strength with lightness and thermal resistance; one such product, an aluminum foam marketed by the Canadian firm Cymat as SmartShield, was originally developed as a blast barrier on the undersides of military vehicles that encounter roadside bombs. “An individual at Cymat who had an architectural background recognized that, in addition to having the extreme technical properties, the material was aesthetically interesting,” reports Kelly Thomas, spokesperson for its distributor, Stone Source. Slightly altered in cell structure and slab thickness, rebranded as Alusion, the foam (80 percent air by volume) is now available to serve as walls, partitions, decorative fixtures, acoustic drop ceilings, or exterior cladding. Currently a specialty material, Alusion could conceivably gain increased prominence after the opening of the 9/11 Museum, where it will appear on the undersides of the twin fountains.
Courtesy Lefarge; Courtesy Cymat
A class of even more ethereal materials, aerogels, has existed since the 1930s: they are exceptionally light (often called “frozen smoke”) and highly rated as thermal insulators. Brittleness limits their practical uses, though one aerogel, Kalwall+ Lumira, has found use as a translucent wall and skylight material. Recent work at NASA’s Glenn Research Center (GRC) in Cleveland, however, has generated polymer-based aerogels robust enough to resist crumbling and flexible enough for use in building insulation, clothing, autos, and elsewhere. About 500 times as strong as silica aerogels, with R values up to ten times those of polymer-foam insulation, NASA’s polyimide aerogel has attracted about 70 commercial inquiries since last August, reports GRC technology transfer specialist Amy B. Hiltabidel, with five possible U.S. manufacturers currently negotiating to license it.
It is too early to tell whether initial costs will drop enough for this material to catch on commercially, but Hiltabidel reports that on the GRC’s Technology Readiness Level scale, where a basic-research project rates a 1 and a 10 is already on the space shuttle, polyimide aerogel, “one of the first materials that has attracted such a varied interest” outside the aerospace/defense sector, is currently about a 6. “Because it’s more developed” than the average, she says, “it will have a faster time to market, and I would say well within five years, probably closer to two to three.”
Conceivably, either of these materials could become what every product wants to be: a market-maker that changes people’s expectations. Or both could end up in narrow niches. With any new technology, Vollen suggests, “what you probably want is not to bet on one horse; what you probably want to do, which is what nature has done, is bet on many horses. Within the larger ecosystem of material ecology and construction ecology, there will always be a place for new things to survive, and the longer each one of these things survives, the more fit it is, and the more it’s going to solve the problem, long-term.”
He analogizes commercial ecosystems to earthly ones: “In the ecological model, you think about what fills the void when something leaves: there’s always a gap... We think they’ll all find a place in the ecosystem, and we should encourage them. What’s really critical, I think now, is to encourage the process by which we use each building as an experiment, as a demonstration site, and see which one is going to be the model of fitness in the future.”