Architectural vision, engaging graphics, and the elegant use of green materials tell the stories behind sustainable cities.
The National Building Museum’s 2003 Big & Green exhibit, focused on sustainable skyscrapers, was its coming-out party for green advocacy. The museum followed it with the equally successful The Green House in 2006. And when it decided to continue the trajectory with Green Community in 2008, the museum’s curatorial staff had a strong concept, piles of research, and excellent examples of cities and towns pioneering sustainable strategies for resource and energy use, transit planning, and land conservation.
What they didn’t have were the dramatic physical artifacts that helped make the first two exhibits so successful.
Big & Green featured huge models of skyscrapers, and The Green House included, among other objects, a piece of Michelle Kaufmann’s beautiful prefab Glidehouse. But how do you visually represent what amounts to sustainable policies?
“There are only so many site plans and bar charts we can ask visitors to look at,” laughs Curator Susan Piedmont-Palladino. “We knew the physicality of this exhibit would be a challenge.”
So when the museum issued an RFP and interviewed design teams for the project, it was looking for full “creative and intellectual partners” who would help shape the exhibit content using design. It found those partners in the New York-based team of Matter Architecture Practice and MGMT. design.
Shaping content with space
Through the RFP, Matter Architecture Practice partners Sandra Wheeler and Alfred Zollinger knew the exhibit would be set on a 4,000-sq.-ft. “site” that encompassed four of the museum’s signature shallow-domed bays.
“As architects, our instinct is to respond to the space,” says Wheeler. And in the absence of artifacts, the notion of “spatial gesture” became even more important in shaping the exhibit content. Matter’s initial concept was to use the four elemental categories of earth, wind, fire, and water as a means to organize content in the four rooms. Realizing that a strong graphic identity would be needed to unify the space and content, they called on the expertise of frequent collaborators MGMT. design to help develop the exhibit’s graphic tone. The Matter/MGMT. team had also worked on the museum’s 2003 Picture This: Windows on the American Home exhibit.
A series of meetings with the design team and museum staff focused on giving shape to the massive collection of research material. Inspired by the notion of “community,” Matter decided to situate display elements in clusters so that visitors were looking at each other instead of walls. MGMT. developed a graphic identity that uses overlapping colored circles to represent the four elements. And Piedmont-Palladino and Assistant Curator Reed Haslach responded by refining content to fit the spatial and graphic solutions.
“At the beginning, we didn’t really know how it would look,” admits Piedmont-Palladino. “But we shared the sense that the process had to have integrity—that we had to adhere to the principles we were trying to represent. And we all shared the feeling that this was a great cause, not just another project.”
Elegance and ethics
But Piedmont-Palladino and her design team did have some unbreakable ground rules. Rule number one: no excess materials. The exhibit used a spare and green palette including Ecoglass for display elements, untreated steel for display supports, cork and recycled carpet tiles for flooring, reclaimed wood for benches, and electroluminescent film and LEDs for display lighting. Graphics were printed direct to substrates, and intense research went into every material and process used in the exhibit.
“For example, we looked at materials that could be used in their natural state with no additional finishing, and we did a lot of research into whether we should use aluminum or steel for display supports,” notes Wheeler. “Steel, which initially seems dirty, is 100 percent recycled content. In the end, the embedded energy in aluminum was higher than in steel and there was less waste associated with fabricating the steel.”
Rule number two, according to Piedmont-Palladino, was “don’t fight the building.” Rather than masking it with drywall and treating it as a neutral stage set, the team used it to help connect visitors with the natural environment. The space’s south-facing windows were left uncovered for the first time ever to allow natural light in. “A subtle part of that equation was that by allowing visitors to glimpse the outside, we communicated the idea that this exhibit is in the world, and the world is in this exhibit. That became our mantra.”
The design team also wanted the exhibit experience to be airy and luminous, even elegant, says Sarah Gephart, partner with MGMT. design. “We wanted to avoid the ‘crunchy’ visual stereotypes of some green exhibits.” The team also prohibited negative environmental images (no drowning polar bears or smokestacks). And they wanted the exhibit path to be non-linear so that visitors—ranging from schoolchildren to special-interest groups who often booked group tours—could move through the rich content in any order and access it from a variety of perspectives.
Giving form to the abstract
Exploring ways to give physical shape to the abstract concepts of sustainable strategies, the design team was inspired by larger definitions of community, from the macro scale of digital communication networks to the near-atomic community of cells that make up who we are. They employed circles as both metaphor and physical convention, using them not only for the exhibit identity, but as the shape for tabletop displays, floor graphics, and interpretive elements.
To enliven potentially dry statistical content, they reinterpreted time-honored scientific tropes such as the magnifying glass, bar graphs, and ice-core drillings (which help scientists gauge humans’ impact on the planet). Tabletop lightbox displays used magnified Google Map images as the background for layered information on sustainable community planning. Xx-ft.-high, hollow Pyrex columns (which also recall trees) were employed as three-dimensional bar graphs and filled with materials such as bits of recycled tires, cork, or shredded plastic bottles.
A 45-ft.-long Time Core timeline that spans the length of the exhibit is fashioned after an ice-core drilling. Pyrex tubes with Ecoglass panels are filled with small artifacts that illustrate benchmarks in sustainable community planning. At each end, mirrored surfaces extend the timeline indefinitely in both directions. “It was a witty and unrelenting way for us to make an important point,” says Piedmont-Palladino. “We are not the first to deal with this. And we won’t be the last.”
The project was a case study in how the processes of content planning, design, and fabrication can be intertwined with great result. While helping their client shape content using space and graphics, Matter was also the project fabricator.
“It’s how we work best,” says Wheeler, “with sketching, drawing, and physical models instead of working digitally and having someone else build it.” For example, to ensure that the exhibit treaded lightly, the team wanted the display supports to be as thin as possible. “That took several iterations to achieve,” explains Wheeler. “So we focused on prototyping instead of making digital drawings, sending them out, pricing them, and having them built several times by someone else. By doing our own fabrication, we essentially extended our design time.”
The team’s clear architectural vision and elegant, unexpected use of green materials and graphics was transparent to most visitors. But Green Community made an important topic approachable, inviting, and engaging. Piedmont-Palladino says the museum achieved its primary goal for the exhibit. “For all of our visitors, we wanted the takeaway to be ‘Who knew’? And that’s what we got.”
--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 29, 2010
“The subject matter and the scale and character of the exhibit materials were in perfect alignment. The shapes, color palettes, and materiality respond perfectly to the context. They combine to create a serene and open feeling that allows visitors to establish a self-paced discourse easily.”
GREEN COMMUNITY EXHIBIT
Location: Washington, D.C.
Client: The National Building Museum
Client Team: Cathy Crane Frankel (vice president for exhibitions and collections), Susan Piedmont-Palladino (curator), Reed Haslach (assistant curator), Hank Griffith (head exhibition coordinator), Christopher Maclay (master carpenter)
Exhibition Design: Matter Architecture Practice
Design Team: Sandra Wheeler, Alfred Zollinger (partners in charge); Ken Kinoshita, Parker B Lee, Christopher Malloy, Elizabeth Beecherl, Christine Chang (designers)
Exhibition Graphics: MGMT. design
Design Team: Sarah Gephart (partner); Asad Pervaiz, Eleanor Kung (designers)
Fabrication: Matter Architecture Practice (display cases, furnishings), National Building Museum (gallery buildout, installation)
Consultants: Potion (digital interactive design), Lisa Grossman (film editor)
Photos: Harry Zernike