Page B1.2 . 08 November 2006                     
ArchitectureWeek - Building Department
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Rejuvenating Boomers

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Though the work undertaken focused on rectifying technical failures, the client also saw this as an opportunity to alter the image of the building, to make it more contextually sensitive.

The Family Court Building had gained the reputation as a dark, foreboding structure. The architecture put an emphasis on formalism. Slices in the building created recessed areas in the mass, sometimes used for entrances and indications of significant program, other times purely for visual interest. The result was a building with many exterior areas in heavy shadow, with looming overhangs, often with columns that caused visual interference. Many inhabitants found the building menacing.

Stone Cladding

The motivating factor in altering the exterior lay in the failure of the stone cladding. This failure was traced back to installation problems and the structural capability of the stone itself. One attempt had already been made at correcting the anchorage of the stone, so a redesign of the exterior cladding was seen as the best alternative.

The Family Court Building had existing conditions that the design team had little chance of altering. The structural system, like the brutalist design, is inflexible and relentless. A cast-in-place concrete structure, the exterior wall is a 14-inch (36-centimeter) concrete shear wall. This condition highlighted the need to treat the facade as a thin veneer over an otherwise massive object.

The building design relies heavily on a 3-foot-9-inch (114-centimeter) square grid that defines the size, proportion, and detailing of many of the spaces, window modules, and details. The design team found no economical alternative to wander from this grid.

Finally, the massing of the Family Court Building contains a variety of overpowering and capricious formal qualities. Mitchell/ Giurgola focused on developing a hierarchy for these formal elements, with the intent of emphasizing some of the more rational aspects. One particularly troublesome design feature was the staggered pattern of punched windows on all facades.

Mitchell/ Giurgola wanted to develop a light and tectonic facade. They designed a detail at the corner of the building to accentuate the granite face as a plane hovering in front of the mass of the building. At the corner, this granite mask rakes back from the edge to reveal the solid metal of the mass beneath.

A similar detail occurs at the top of the building, accentuating the granite outer plane and articulating the building as it meets the sky. The west facade of the building required a different strategy entirely. This rear face has a plethora of cuts. Since there is little flat surface at the face of the building, the metal panels cover the entirety of this facade a moment where the building is unmasked.

The large waiting areas on the upper floors provide natural light and views Uninterrupted; double-height glass walls became the indicators of these spaces on the facade.

New Face for Old Structure

Embracing the notion of the cladding of the building as a skin, and recognizing the importance of delivering a technically sophisticated solution, the architects made the new cladding as a curtain wall.

A unitized curtain wall system is composed of repetitive, shop-manufactured units that can support stone, glass, and metal panels equally. The units are one floor high by one bay (3 feet-9 inches, or 114 centimeters) wide and are constructed of aluminum framing. Cladding materials hang on this rigid frame. The work in the field became a simple and repetitive connection between steel tabs on the curtain wall and steel clip angles on the concrete wall.

Granite was the preferred primary cladding material. The small stones were hung in a stacked joint pattern to accentuate a contemporary image. The window strip recessed from the plane of the wall established relief on the facade. Material choices within the window strip included metal sill panels, glass and metal spandrel panels, and vertical fins.

Design studies focused on moving away from a reading of the building as a solid cube and toward a building with a light, thin, articulated skin. Materials that introduce a more human scale to the building were given priority. Detailing these materials in a tectonic way brought scale and a second level of information to the building elements.

Reconstructing the Face

The granite (a gray-based stone from Georgia) makes a connection to the neighboring buildings. The textured stone achieves a richer degree of character when contrasted with the flat, clean look of the gray metal panels. Glass in various forms brings a soft translucent element to the palette. Vertical fins of low-iron glass with a translucent interlayer play rhythmically along the facade, while shadow-box spandrel panels lend depth to the areas of glazing.

Stainless steel accents the entrance canopy and main vestibule. The 25-foot- (7.6-meter-) tall glass curtain wall is detailed with vertically butt-glazed joints, projected mullion caps, and cast stainless steel fittings and rods.

The unitized curtain wall is a rigid frame of 6-inch- (15-centimeter-) deep extruded aluminum mullions that support individual pieces of stone, metal, and glass. The stone, Oconee granite, was removed in blocks from a central Georgia quarry and shipped to a stone fabricator for slabbing, cutting, and finishing.

The individual stone units, at 1-1/2 inches (3.8 centimeters) thick, were sent to the curtain wall fabricator for assembly onto rigid frames. Metal panels, vision and spandrel insulated glass units, and glass fins were also installed onto these 13-foot-high by 3-foot-9-inch (4-meter-high by 114-centimeter) units in a controlled shop environment. The units were then individually crated and shipped to the project site. Final installation proceeded on a unit-by-unit basis, off of swing-scaffold, in a top-to-bottom, left-to-right direction.

A Sustainable Approach

The near-death of boomer buildings comes precisely at the point when sustainable design and construction have captured the architectural spotlight. It's as if a miracle cure has been found just as we are about to pull the plug on brutalism and its offspring.

In an age of diminishing natural resources (including buildable lots) architects and their clients need to know about an environmentally sustainable alternative to new construction: new life for old buildings, especially boomer buildings. It's a more sustainable approach to design and construction that builds on the past and makes the old better than new.

Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

Michael J. Crosbie is editor-in-chief of Faith & Form, a senior associate with Steven Winter Associates, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.

This article is excerpted from Boomer Buildings: Mid-Century Architecture Reborn, copyright 2005, available from Images Publishing Group and at Amazon.com.

 

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New York County Family Court Building before renovation.
Image: Mitchell/ Giurgola Architects

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New York County Family Court Building after renovation by Mitchell/ Giurgola Architects.
Image: Mitchell/ Giurgola Architects

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Failure of the stone cladding was one motivator for the renovation.
Photo: Mitchell/ Giurgola Architects

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East elevation during reconstruction.
Photo: Jeff Goldberg/ ESTO/ composited by Mitchell/ Giurgola Architects

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New York County Family Court Building with original cladding removed.
Photo: Mitchell/ Giurgola Architects

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Curtain wall panel unit mockup.
Photo: Mitchell/ Giurgola Architects

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Hoisting the panels into place.
Photo: Mitchell/ Giurgola Architects

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Boomer Buildings.
Image: Images Publishing

 

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