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Port Authority Threatens to Sue 9/11 Museum for $300 Million
In the days immediately following the show of solidarity on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the Port Authority and Governor Cuomo retreated to one corner and Mayor Bloomberg and the Sept 11 Memorial and Museum Foundation to another over accusations of $300 million in cost overruns that neither party has agreed to pay. Construction of the museum has ground to a halt decreasing the likelihood that the Museum will open next year as promised. On December 15, the Governor told Albany radio host Fred Dicker that the Port Authority was “on the verge” of suing the Foundation. The PA charged that the Foundation has not provided $156 million for infrastructure costs and has subsequently not reimbursed the Authority for awarded contracts since immediately after the anniversary. On the radio show, Cuomo said $300 million was owed to the PA, an amount said to include newly revised project costs as well as money already spent on infrastructure. In a statement, Michael Frazier, the foundation’s spokesperson, said, “The 9/ll Memorial has met every funding commitment. There is no validity to the Port Authority’s claim; in fact, as recently as yesterday this claim was half of this amount. The Memorial has a counterclaim against the Port totaling more than $140 million. The Mayor clarified all of this today.” In a rebuttal made at a news conference on Friday at a Bronx elementary school, Mayor Bloomberg said, “We don’t owe anything.” While noting that the city is working with PA to resolve the issue, he added, “It’s hard to see us getting to a courtroom, but if it has to go there, it has to go there.” A source familiar with the situation said that there is a $300-500 million bill lurking and unaccounted for, but that it has to do with site-wide security costs. At issue as well is the dedicated task force assembled by former PA head Chris Ward to cut through previous disagreements, which may have been disbanded when the new director Patrick Foye took over. Whether the city or the Port Authority is responsible for escalating security costs seems unclear. With a virtual halt in construction, Frazier said in a phone call that the timely completion of the Museum is endangered. “The Museum was next in line to be completed before Towers Four and even One. What’s really at stake now are all the items and donations by family members and others that were entrusted to us to preserve but are now in storage and in jeopardy.”
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9/11 Memorial Museum
James Ewing

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.

Jin Lee

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.

James Ewing

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.

Jin Lee

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.

Courtesy Davis Brody Bond

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.

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9/11 Memorial Museum Entry Pavilion
The memorial pavilion sits on two different structures: the memorial museum and PATH station.
Courtesy Buro Happold

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.

Left to right: Detail of the erection truss to stabilize the structure while under construction; the pavilion cantilevers atop the transit hub; and a view of the southwest corner under construction.

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.

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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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Creative Time’s Anne Pasternak appointed director of the Brooklyn Museum
Former president and artistic director of Creative Time, Anne Pasternak, has been appointed the director of the Brooklyn Museum, replacing outgoing director Arnold L. Lehman, who has served the museum since 1997. Pasternak, who built Creative Time into one of the world’s leading art organizations, will continue Lehman’s publicly-engaged mission going forward, bringing her own take on public art and programming and the “other ways that artists want to contribute to public ideas,” as she put it in a 2013 interview with Paper Magazine. Pasternak joined Creative Time as their only employee in 1994, when the fledgling organization had a budget of $375,000. She saw the budget increase to over $3 million, and, over the course of 21 years, she shed light on many rising artists, including Iranian video artist Shirin Neshat and Brazilian artist and photographer Vik Muniz. Much of her latest work has been engaged with ideas about cities such as urban development, gentrification, and placemaking. She has taken positions and organized events that tackle big ideas, taking public art beyond the realm of the spectacular and into a more engaged, civic-minded discourse about the issues in the world today. This has included everything from the Tribute in Light at Ground Zero by John Bennett, Gustavo Bonevardi, Julian LaVerdiere, Paul Marantz, Paul Myoda, and Richard Nash Gould, in memory of 9/11, to the annual Creative Time Summit, which has become the standard for art conferences, and the largest art and social justice gathering in the world.
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Shortlist announced for Armenian American Museum to rise on this site in Glendale, California
Four teams have been shortlisted to compete for the design of the Armenian American Museum in Glendale, California. Commemorating the contributions of Armenian-Americans and "sharing the Armenian experience," the 30,000-square-foot building will include exhibition space, an auditorium, library, classrooms, and support spaces. The announcement came on the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The teams, chosen by the Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee (AGCC) of the Western US, include Yazdani Studio of Cannon Design, Belzberg Architects, Frederick Fisher and Partners, and Alajajian-Marcoosi Architects. The museum is in negotiations with the city of Glendale to secure a 1.7 acre property for the institution just south of the Glendale Civic Auditorium, at 1305 North Verdugo Rd. Lord Cultural Resources (who consulted on the 9/11 Memorial Museum) are helping develop the master plan for the museum site. Conceptual plans are due in mid-May, and the winning team will be chosen this June, said Berdj Karapetian, chairman of the AGCC's Landmark Sub-Committee. Karapetian said that after a feasibility study is completed the museum will begin raising money for the building, which he estimates could cost roughly $30 million to construct.
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Archtober Building of the Day #8> National September 11 Memorial Museum
Archtober Building of the Day #8 National September 11 Memorial Museum Liberty Street, Manhattan Davis Brody Bond The space is cavernous. Visitors to the National September 11 Memorial Museum are confronted, upon arrival, with their own memories, and the collective recall of a day unlike any other. Crisp fall air, a blue sky, 9/11 in 2001, like today, started with that harvest season sense of expectation and plenitude. For those on the Archtober Building of the Day on Wednesday, the trip was, in part, time travel. Suddenly back in what had been the parking garage of the original World Trade Center, the only vehicles now in sight were those of first responders. Damaged but recognizable, the fire trucks and ambulances of that day paralleled the heat-tortured steel, filling the space with relics that, together, have come to define New York's sense of resilience and fortitude. The underground museum space has been shaped by Davis Brody Bond. What the design and curatorial team have achieved starts with a meandering ribbon descending to bedrock, plunging into an architectural heart of darkness, and building out the museum’s mission to "bear solemn witness to the terrorist attacks." Davis Brody Bond Partner Carl F. Krebs said, “We started this project with a 16-acre hole in the ground, and thousands of people looking in,” referencing the crowds that gathered to view Ground Zero. To Associate Partner Mark Wager, the emotional impact of the site has made the architecture a secondary component, helping to direct the way visitors and future generations experience the void. Those on the Archtober tour included some who were intimately connected to the place and its history, and others who were far away that day. The power of the museum and its iconic content had equal impact on all. Rick Bell was on the volunteer committee organized by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation that wrote the program statement for the 9/11 Memorial.
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Slideshow> Revamped Seaport Museum Opens: Old Salts Meet Occupy Wall St.
A revamped South Street Seaport Museum shook off the dust last night to reopen after a three-month renovation overseen by the Museum of the City of New York. The exhibits were both a departure from and an embrace of the old collection.  The design team, particularly Wendy Evans Joseph and Chris Cooper of Cooper Joseph Studio, turned what could have been a cramped exhibition arrangement into a free-flowing multi-leveled space. Some of the contemporary elements might strike a design-conscious audience as familiar. A very large segment of the exhibition space is devoted to contemporary furnishings designed and "Made in New York," feeling a bit like an ICFF satellite. A fashion component adds a dash of Fifth Avenue flair. MCNY's curator of architecture and design Donald Albrecht noted that the port was always about moving goods and "making." Much of the work assembled in the show is manufactured in Brooklyn warehouses that once serviced the maritime trade but have since been repurposed for an ever-expanding design industry. A few standouts were Daniel Michalik's recycled cork chaise lounge from 2006 and designer David Nosanchuk's multi-faceted Plexiglas lamp, the NR1.  Nosanchuk's piece represents a rarity these days in that it was both designed and manufactured in Manhattan.  With all the ship-making tools painstakingly arranged on angled white plane in the gallery next door, the "making" tradition becomes abundantly clear.  Less clear is whether the inclusion of contemporary fashion makes the same seamless leap. Still, fashion designer Jordon Betten's installation of a lost waif in a part of the museum building that originally housed the Sweet's Hotel (1870-1920) provides a stirring contrast to the decayed rafters. Some older exhibits from MCNY made the trip downtown, including Eric Sanderson's Manahatta, which includes a three dimensional map of Mahattan with an overhead projector that digitally morphs the terrain from natural wetlands and forests of 1650 to today's dense street grid. There's also a tight ensemble of Edward Burtynsky photographs. Burtynsky's images of Bangladeshi shipbreakers dismantling once powerful ships for scrap metal provide an unexpected smack of mortality. Another gallery calls attention to "The New Port" with a time-lapse video by digital artist Ben Rubin called Terminal 8 that focuses on of arrivals and departures of American Airlines jets at JFK. But as the gallery prominently features American Airlines corporate brand it's difficult to see the artistic forest through the commercial trees, a fact made all the more jarring by the Occupy Wall Street photo exhibition just two galleries away. The Occupy segment of the exhibit is perhaps the biggest stroke of marketing smarts on the part of MCNY that might just distract tourists from the ghoulish "Bodies" exhibit across the street and bring them back into a New York state of mind. The Occupy gallery was packed on opening night. It added a cool factor that can't be quantified.  The exhibit itself recalls the Here is New York show that opened in Soho about a month after the 9/11 attacks and later toured around the world. The photos celebrate, engage, and provoke, much like the demonstrations. Not a bad metaphor for the city at large or the new management.
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9/11 Memorial Plaza: How It Works
A decade after the 9/11 attacks, the public will soon be able to visit the site, much of which has been fully transformed into the 9/11 Memorial Plaza. While many were dispirited by the years of revisions to and deviations from the Libeskind master plan (which itself had many detractors), AN's recent visit to the plaza, crowded with workers laboring toward the anniversary opening, revealed a vast, contemplative space that we predict will function well as both a memorial and a public space. Next week AN will take a look at the design and offer a preview of the what the public can expect from the space, but, first, a look at how the highly engineered plaza works. With transit tunnels, mechanical systems, and much of the memorial museum located below the surface, the plaza itself could only be approximately six feet thick. Unlike the original World Trade Center Plaza, which many found to be barren and scorching or windswept, the Memorial Plaza is conceived of as an abstracted forest of Swamp White Oaks surrounding two monumental pools outlining the footprints of the original towers. Designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker Partners, with Aedas, the plaza will include approximately 400 trees, 215 of which will be in place for the opening. About one third of the plaza has yet to be constructed, while the Santiago Calatrava designed PATH station is being completed. Plaza plantings are arranged in bands, alternating between bands of pavers and bands of trees, grass, and ground cover. This creates both a unifying visual language for the large plaza and a highly rational system for organizing the mechanical and irrigation systems on the site. Between the planting bands, accessible utility corridors house electrical and security equipment. Drainage troughs divide the planting bands from the utility corridors. The whole plaza acts as a vast stormwater collection tray. The plaza is very carefully graded to channel stormwater into the drainage troughs. Rainwater is collected in cisterns below and recirculated in the plaza's drip irrigation system as well as funnelled into the memorial fountain. The trees grow in a lightweight mixture of sand, shale, and worm casings. Growing and installing the plaza's oaks has been a long process. Given the pace of slow construction, the trees, which have been cultivated at a nursery in New Jersey, are much larger now, most standing around 25 feet tall. Trees were hauled onto the site with cranes and then placed in the planting beds with a specially designed lift. Tree roots will spread laterally, filling in the planting bands, and designers believe they will eventually reach 60 to 80 feet in height. The roots are anchored with bracing under the stone pavers. While the PATH station is being completed, the remaining unfinished plaza is still an uncovered construction site, inaccessible to the public. According to Matthew Donham, a partner at Peter Walker, the construction of that portion of the plaza will be even thinner in depth. Aside from an expansion joint, there will be no visible difference between the two sides.
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On View> 194X–9/11: American Architects and the City
194X–9/11: American Architects and the City The Museum of Modern Art 11 West 53rd St. Through January 2 Prompted by the United States’ entrance into World War II in 1942, Architectural Forum magazine commissioned pioneering architects to imagine and plan a postwar American city. At the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 194X-9/11: American Architects and the City features the plans, renderings, and sculpture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, and Rem Koolhaas and their ideas for cities of the future. Rarely displayed works, such as Mies van der Rohe’s collage Museum for a Small City Project (1942), above, reveal plans for cultural centers and urban life in uncertain times.
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9/11 Memorial Pools Almost Framed
Today, the Port Authority and National September 11 Memorial & Museum announced the near completion of steel framing for the design's memorial pools. 99.8 percent of the project's 8,151 tons of steel has been installed to date. For what it's worth, when completed the Memorial will boast more steel than was used in the construction of the Eiffel Tower. In the coming months, workers will begin the installation of the granite panels that line the walls of the pools, which will be the largest manmade waterfalls in the country when finished, pumping 52,000 gallons of recycled water per minute. A mockup of the waterfalls was built in Brooklyn in January. Follow this link to see an AP video of memorial designer Michael Arad discussing the motivations behind the project.
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Matters of Substance
Jenny Sabinns myThread Pavilion for Nikees FlyKnit Collective explores biodynamic models and data sets to illiuminate new ways of thinking about material structures.
Courtesy Jenny Sabin

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.”

Courtesy Jenny Sabin

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?’”

Sensitile’s light-piping panels harvest and manipulate light through optical channels embedded in concrete and resin substrates.
Courtesy Sensitile

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 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.

Courtesy Sensitile

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.”

Victor Li at the University of Michigan has been experimenting with fiber-reinforced bendable concrete.
Courtesy University of Michigan

Material moneyball

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.

Lafarge’s Ductal is a high performance concrete reinforced by organic, reinforced metallic fibers that increases the material’s compression resistance, ductility, and longevity (left) Alusion, an aluminum foam that’s 80 percent air, was derived from Cymat, a material used as glass shielding on military vehicles (center, right).
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.”