Unwrapping the Glass Museum

July 20, 2006
Using current technology wisely makes glass a patron of the arts

Like a stack of crystal boxes, the sharp-edged new Figge Art Museum in Davenport, IA, contrasts bluntly with the brick warehouses of a reawakening industrial quadrant on the banks of the Mississippi. By night, the structure glows. By day, it’s constantly changing with the sun’s angles. The cool, minimalist architecture brings the viewer maximum variety. From certain angles, the corners of the building seem to melt away. Its façades appear at times opaque, and at others translucent; one surface may reflect light while others seem totally transparent.

It’s an unlikely sight, but it’s real: a museum made entirely of glass - in the Midwest, of all places. Yet the solution works better than many comparable facilities and was a relative bargain to produce.

Trompe L’oeil
Few American structures look like the Figge, designed by London’s David Chipperfield Architects with the Des Moines, IA, architect-of-record Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck Architecture (HLKB). Fewer still are built in the same way. Yet the design builds upon well-established glazing technologies that are simply combined in clever ways.

Why, for example, do its corners appear to be layered? It’s because they actually comprise two façade systems. Set atop a cast-in-place concrete base, the outer enclosure is glass rainscreen. (Technically speaking, it’s a pressure-equalized, open-joint cladding. But rainscreens are rare enough in the United States to allow an imprecise description.) About 3.5 feet within the glass, separated by a naturally ventilated cavity with metal grille catwalks, is an inner wall that Douglas A. Frey, senior architect with HLKB, describes as an “inside-out pool”: Beneath its mineral wool insulation lies a continuous, asphalt-coated air-barrier membrane, secured behind to a plywood-sheathed, light-gauge steel frame. Separating the two layers are aluminum struts, precisely fabricated and installed.

Ironically, only about 20 percent of the building’s total wall area is actually windowed. And the vision panels feature double glazing, as triple glazing was found to be prohibitively expensive, says Frey, adding as much as a half million dollars to the budget.

Passersby are none the wiser. They are just dazzled by the continuous wrapper of minty-green glass, pinstriped with ceramic fritting on about three-quarters of the large insulating and laminated 1/4-inch glass panels. “The fritting establishes a surface quality, yet you can also see through,” says Franz Borho, project architect with David Chipperfield, noting that the ceramic frit lines mix three widths for varied patterning. “Depending on the light and weather, sometimes it is more transparent and sometimes it is more reflective.”

Not surprisingly, the frit brings no-nonsense advantages to the museum, too. “It covers so much area that it has an environmental aspect, reducing light levels and heat gain,” Borho notes.

The unsealed aluminum curtain wall seems to enhance the crisp, clean aspect of the frit. The project designers contend that rainscreen cladding also lasts longer and requires less maintenance than standard glass envelopes. “The open-joint construction deals with the practical issue of what degrades first on a building: the caulking, mortar, gaskets, and sealant,” says Frey. “It’s great for the stability of the building.”

Shaking Things Up
The double wall concept helps stabilize interior conditions, too - essential for museum operations. On sunny days, heat buildup within the cavity simply rises to escape at the rooftop. The two-layered, tight construction also limits condensation within interior spaces and protects the museum’s art collection from ultraviolet degradation. (See The Ups and Downs of Fritted Rainscreen, on the adjacent sidebar.)

To a large degree, this glass box makes sense for a Midwestern museum. Yet its image, like its construction, seems out of place in the quiet, brick-built Davenport. In fact, Chipperfield originally envisioned its walls covered with aluminum planks, when the facility was planned for a site farther from the flood plain. Down along the waterfront, however, the architect saw the shimmering and reflecting surface of the Mississippi River, which inspired a cladding concept more like water. Glass would also herald its role as community center and cultural anchor, says Borho: “It’s transparent, open, and inviting.”

The suitability of glass was less obvious to city residents. But the museum’s mission was to shake things up and inject vitality, in part by bridging the downtown and the storied river. “It is about art, but for the larger interest in the community it’s a cultural anchor for tourism, job retention, and economic development,” says Linda Downs, executive director of the Figge. That connection seems most apparent on the downtown side of the building, where a large plaza and sculpture garden highlight the main entry.

On the river side, a dramatic secondary entry draws pedestrians to the less-traveled part of town. There, the façade cuts away for an angled entry stair that leads to the lobby and a restaurant terrace, where visitors can enjoy ample views of the Mississippi. Inside, a “wintergarden” atrium eventually will house large hanging sculptures and glass artworks.

Lighting: Tuned to Perfection
The interior of the museum is carefully sliced into plain-vanilla galleries, library, lecture hall, educational gallery, and studios. Only the café walls offer a pop of color: deep red. High ceilings throughout let the curator “pack more art into the building,” says Downs. “Our ceilings are so high there’s a cathedral effect, with lingering sound,” says Downs. For areas such as offices where acoustical ceilings were eliminated to cut costs, plans are to rectify the echoes.

Ambient light, on the other hand, is tuned to perfection, thanks in part to a unique skylight system. “You can bring daylight in for different reasons,” says Borho. “At the Figge it was for atmospheric reasons, and to illuminate the artwork.”

The intricate skylight detail, built within a box-shaped space about 6 feet tall, contains fluorescent tubes to supplement natural illumination. Occupants see only a bright, light-diffusing fabric stretched tautly across the opening. Hidden within the skylight chimney, control mechanisms adjust both natural and artificial light levels. The skylight panels consist of horizontal double-glazed units with integral internal louvers on small plastic axles. “They provide gross daylight control based on sky conditions,” says Frey, noting that photosensors automatically dictate louver position. “It brings to the skylight the ability to control ultraviolet light to protect the art,” notes Mike Cunningham, CEO of the West Des Moines-based exterior contractor Architectural Wall Systems. “They can close at nighttime to contain heat, and during the day to reflect light and control heat gain.”

The skylights are microcosms of the integrated overall building concept, in which a highly automated HVAC system ties into the solar shades, operable louvers, dimmable lighting, and other key functions. The all-glass museum may look like a greenhouse, but its energy profile is very different. “We are using daylight and that cuts down on the use of electricity, and we’re using outside air as much as we can,” note Downs. “And our utility costs are a great savings.”

“The building’s energy consumption is very low as compared with museums of similar size,” Borho concurs.

Glass becomes the building’s ally in both function and in form - a mysterious interloper by day, and by night a literal cultural beacon. “In the evening the glass becomes completely transparent, and you can see people walking inside and up and down the stairs,” says Borho. “It’s really open. It was built for the people of Davenport, and so it reflects their community and character.”

That notion didn’t quite resonate with Davenport’s citizenry when the all-glass boxes were first unveiled. “A lot of people were shocked, because they had been trying to preserve the 19th-century character of the city,” says Downs. “But it wasn’t created to fit in - it was to stand out and be a centerpiece for the city.”

Downs is convinced that the choice of exterior material brought the museum power and a connection to its place that might otherwise have lacked. “The glass reflects the Mississippi itself,” says Downs. “It was an attempt to make this institution more transparent, both metaphorically and literally.”

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