June 8, 2008
By ARTHUR LUBOW
In late April, I traveled to Minneapolis to see a building: the Walker Art Center expansion, designed by the eminent Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron. Unlike the typical archi-tourist, though, I wasn’t there to admire (or disparage) the way the museum occupied its site, or the functionality of the galleries, or the flow of the space. My interest was skin-deep. I was armed with a checklist of superficialities, like the pattern created by the crinkled aluminum-mesh panels that clad the exterior; the seals that surround the flush-mounted, irregularly shaped windows; and the visibility of the structural steel in the tall glass wall that connects to the older building. The next day, in Ohio, I would be on a similar mission at the Glass Pavilion of the Toledo Museum of Art, a low-slung transparent structure by the Japanese architecture firm Sanaa. Marc Simmons, a founder of the New York-based facade-engineering-and-design consultancy Front Inc., which worked on both the Walker and the Glass Pavilion, instructed me to pay special attention in Toledo to the seams between the large glass panels. Crucially, if imperceptibly, every joint was occupied by a clear gasket that shielded the adhesive inside a panel from reacting chemically with the silicone seal joining the panels. “Otherwise, at every translucent joint, you would have edge blushing” — a milky white, uneven squiggling — “and that would be an unmitigated disaster,” Simmons said.
If, as Mies van der Rohe reportedly pronounced, “God is in the details,” then Simmons and his colleagues at Front are architecture’s high priests. (The detail-oriented should note that the sole citation for Mies having said that “God is in the details” — as well as his other famous aphorism, “Less is more” — comes from a 1959 interview with The New York Herald Tribune.) When you build according to the streamlined and unforgiving aesthetics of modern design, exactitude becomes paramount, and deviation a disaster. Anyone who has marveled at the swooping, jagged, iridescent and crystalline buildings that are being strewn across the contemporary cityscape like diamonds and rhinestones might well have wondered about the jeweler. Who ensures that every facet is precisely cut? Enter the facade consultancy, a new category of expert in which Front is the leader. “They are wizards at putting it all together,” the architect Neil Denari says. “They’ve cornered the market.”
Since it was established in 2002, Front has worked with most of the world’s pre-eminent architects — Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Jean Nouvel, Renzo Piano, Richard Rogersand Tadao Ando among them. In addition to realizing the details, the Front consultants can help an architect arrive at the facade design, determining the pattern and material of the cladding. They also find the fabricators to produce it. Because unusual facades catch the public’s eye and generate much of the popular interest in contemporary architecture, clients often urge an architect to build something that looks unbuildable. One-of-a-kind facades have spread virally from public institutions — mainly museums and universities — to commercial projects like residential condominiums because real-estate developers grasp that gee-whiz buildings can entice buyers. And wherever a client wants an unprecedented facade, Front finds an opportunity.
Until a century or so ago, the facade provided a building’s structural support as well as weather shielding and curb appeal. The development of the skyscraper changed that. Now, for most urban buildings of note, a steel or reinforced-concrete skeleton makes the building stand up tall, resisting both the downward pull of gravity and the lateral instability that is aggravated by wind or earthquake. Having shed its load-bearing role, the facade is more like a skin, which is one of the names used for it. It is also known as a “curtain wall,” since it is hung from the load-bearing structure. “In the shorthand, there is a tendency to refer to us as the ‘curtain-wall guys,’ ” says Bruce Nichol, one of Front’s five original partners. (Two have since left the firm, which today employs 32 people in a low-frills office on the western edge of SoHo.) Today, the most advanced architects are pushing their facades in one of two opposing directions: to merge more fully with the structure or to embrace ornament resplendently. Front is flexible. Depending on the architect’s approach, the facade consultants can go either way.
Front’s founders have experience at some of the best architecture and engineering firms. Three were working at Dewhurst Macfarlane & Partners, a structural-engineering-and-facade consultancy, when Simmons took the initiative in organizing an independent company. Dewhurst Macfarlane subcontracted six major facade projects to the new agency. The Walker in Minneapolis and the Glass Pavilion in Toledo were on the roster. So were Gehry’s extension to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington (canceled just before construction was to start) and Piano’s expansion of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Two of the jobs — the Seattle Central Library and a Beverly Hills flagship store for Prada, both in 2004 — were with Koolhaas’s firm, Office for Metropolitan Architecture.
The two OMA projects marked the opposite approaches to facade design: one was constructed primarily for display and the other for functionality. In Beverly Hills, the OMA architects were working with a relatively free-spending private client and (this being a fashion store) an emphasis on appearances. OMA decided to construct a closed metal box over a ground-floor level that was completely open to the street. While the design was severely rectilinear in a Modernist way, the thinking was over-the-top. So that the box would look as solid as possible (in contrast to the airiness of the level below), the architects wanted it assembled from unsegmented metal panels. Only three of the four sides of the box were exposed, but one of those sides was very long. “It’s a 42-foot-long and 14-foot-high and half-inch-thick sheet of aluminum,” Simmons told me. “It must be the world’s biggest sheet of architectural aluminum. When it was proposed that the whole front and the two sides would be solid sheets of aluminum, there was not a person that knew whether you could do it. There’s a lot of geometry involved in making the sheets of aluminum lock perfectly. It didn’t seem likely.” Front learned that Alcoa was able to provide the aluminum, and then the contractor located an aircraft fabricator in St. Louis to mill it with ultraprecision. Since the architects didn’t want the aluminum to be painted and it was too big to be anodized, Italian artisans hand-finished it. “The aluminum, when fabricated and fully installed, cost $380 a square foot, and today it would cost $1,000,” Simmons said. Not many clients would sign off on that expenditure. Even more satisfying was Prada’s embrace of the uncertainty inherent in building something unprecedented. “Prada paid us to figure out a way to make this on the hypothesis that it could be done — when no one, including us, knew that it could be,” Simmons said.
Front was even more deeply immersed in the architectural process for OMA’s other project, the Seattle Central Library, an instant civic landmark that, like the Eiffel Tower, delighted some and offended others. In the case of the library, OMA, the collaborating architecture firm of LMN and Front addressed an aspect of the curtain wall that has long troubled the modernist sensibility. Like the gray flannel suit, which also achieved cultural ascendancy in America in the mid-20th century, the curtain wall bears little relation to the reality of what lies underneath. It’s a disguise. Modernist architects, however, believed that the outside of a building should reveal what lies behind it. In midcentury, some Modernists — especially Mies — finessed the contradiction as best they could. Mies’s beautiful facades of glass and metal shared a visual aesthetic with the steel holding up the building, even though those facades still hung on the structure like a mask.
In Seattle, working on a tight budget, the architects devised a scheme in which the curtain wall is configured precisely to the underlying structure. It is truly transparent, almost indistinguishable from the framework. (Koolhaas wanted it to be one and the same, but that wasn’t technically possible.) First of all, to reduce the quantity of costly steel, Koolhaas and his colleagues decided to support the building against earthquakes with a diamond-patterned steel lattice structure known as a diagrid. To save more money — essential for a project that was teetering on its budget line — the architects wanted to insert the exterior glass panels of the facade in an aluminum lattice that would match up with the heavier steel diagrid underneath. The engineers ran the numbers for the optimal size of the diamond-shaped openings in the structural-steel diagrid. The facade consultants did the same for the dimensions of the glass panels on the outside. “You buy a huge piece of glass,” explains Joshua Prince-Ramus, the OMA partner in charge of the project, who now has his own New York-based firm, REX. “You have to find a way to cookie-cutter it out to have the least wastage. Then, labor — over a certain dimension, you go from two employees to four employees, then from four to eight. It’s all in the union contracts, how many workers to move a piece of glass over a certain size, and suddenly, your labor cost doubles.” Serendipitously, Simmons found that the most efficient use of the glass would be to cut it into diamond shapes with sides of 1.1 meters; when the engineers analyzed the structural steel frame, they discovered that the ideal length of each side of the lattice opening was a little more than 0.9 meters. The structural engineers and facade consultants made the sizes conform.
There was a remaining obstacle, however, once you went from the concept to the manufacture. The strictly measured diamond lattice of the waterproof facade had to be superimposed on the less precisely fabricated diagrid and bolted to it. “We don’t get the economy if the glass doesn’t fit with the dimensions of the structural steel,” Prince-Ramus said. To allow for discrepancy, Front devised adjustable bolts that would attach the facade to the corresponding steel structure. “It’s a three-dimensional fudge,” Prince-Ramus said. “Whenever the steel is not matching perfectly, if you use this attachment, you can make it work.” Koolhaas, who first joined forces with Front on the Seattle Central Library, told me, “The collaboration in Seattle was successful and crucial in working through the ultimate logic.” Together, on a far grander scale, OMA and Front have gone on to develop another facade that flaunts the structural-steel diagrid pattern, this one for the muscularly cantilevered CCTV building that is nearing completion in Beijing.
On an unorthodox project, the client’s daring is as important as the architect’s. Front worked on both of the American buildings of the refined and creative modernist architecture firm Sanaa. For the first, the Glass Pavilion of the Toledo Museum of Art, the firm’s principals, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, devised a glass structure that contains contiguous rooms, most of them with curved glass walls. The building would house the art-glass collection established by Edward Drummond Libbey, a glass magnate who, with his wife, founded the Toledo Museum in 1901. Sadly, no local firm could fabricate the architectural glass for the pavilion. Almost a quarter of the building’s budget was for glass. “If the glass was twice the price, we couldn’t build the building,” the project architect, Florian Idenburg, told me; he has since left Sanaa to start his own Brooklyn-based firm, SO-IL. The glass was fabricated in China. When I inquired about its provenance, Carol Bintz, an official at the Toledo Museum, said: “People in the community questioned it, because Toledo is known for glass. But no U.S. plant could handle the required scale and curvature.” The client’s openness to global sourcing helped make the building a reality.
The Toledo decision makers also indulged Sanaa’s determination to keep the roof as unobtrusive as possible, which required Front to investigate novel ways of installing the glass walls. If you had a thick roof, you could maneuver the curved glass wall panels by inserting them into a deep groove in the ceiling. But Sanaa wanted a shallow roof, and that posed a challenge. Front embedded a special bracket in the ceiling to allow the glass to be raised into position in two stages. And to keep the joints between the glass panels slender, it devised a rocker mechanism that sits invisibly within the track on which the glass rests; should the floor happen to sag momentarily, the mechanism bows up to keep the glass vertical. Consequently, the joints can be slender and the ceiling shallow. As the Front partner Michael Ra explained to me, “You’re trying to erase the evidence of construction.” And Front wielded the eraser. “We really pushed it to the extreme of what you could do,” Idenburg said.
But when Front collaborated with Sanaa again, on the New Museum in New York, the partnership foundered. In their winning competition entry, Sejima and Nishizawa wrapped the building — which resembles a misaligned stack of boxes — in galvanized steel, a material that was soon abandoned on grounds of durability. Then the search began. Working with Front, the architects considered many possible skins that would have an industrial feel, in keeping with the museum’s site on the gritty Bowery and its mission to show edgy, contemporary art. Their explorations were far-ranging. Sejima and Nishizawa traveled to Reutlingen, Germany, with Martin Riese, a Front founder who has since left to run Gehry Technologies Asia in Hong Kong: the object of their interest was a building facade of laser-cut stainless steel — an intriguing option until they learned that it would cost about four times what they could afford. Another potential model was the Selfridges department store designed in Birmingham, England, by Future Systems, which features an eye-catching facade of an Yves Klein blue, rubberized waterproof sublayer dotted with aluminum discs. The chemist who oversaw the rubber fabrication came to New York, and the team commissioned a sizable mock-up. “The applicator was having so much trouble that at one point he fell over backward and injured himself,” Bruce Nichol, the Front partner in charge, recalled. That option was also rejected.
After Sejima, fearing the facade might look too flat and dull, proposed a mesh over a solid layer, she and Front began researching meshes. Sejima liked one with a very wide opening that was available in Japan, in a brilliantly finished anodized aluminum. Unfortunately, the polishing process was so chemically toxic that the aluminum could be manufactured nowhere else, not even in China. And the Japanese material was very expensive. Nichol located a fabricator near his native city of Newcastle, England, that could supply a comparable mesh. “They have very sophisticated Czechoslovak machinery, an old tool from the 1930s that had been used for reinforcement mesh for concrete slabs,” he said. But the client was growing impatient. “They were moving too slowly, and it was really holding us up,” Lisa Phillips, the New Museum director, recalled. “It was all in the hypothetical realm.”
Although Front’s contacts with global suppliers and its technical prowess allow it to move quickly once the design is chosen, the road to that point can be tortuous. “Bruce got really frustrated,” Idenburg, the project architect, said. “He needed time to explore. And every time, a man in a suit would call and say: ‘How much will it cost? When will we get this?’ ” Or what would be the impact on energy conservation? On installation expense? Finally, the client’s frustration reached the crisis point. “Every time something got delayed, the budget was doubling,” Phillips said. “We started realizing that, and we said, ‘This has to stop.’ ” Front was fired. The built facade went on to feature the wide mesh that Nichol located in Newcastle, with a sublayer of corrugated extruded aluminum that resembles one of the options he was investigating. “The New Museum had a very tight budget and less of an environment of exploration and experiment,” Idenburg told me. “They couldn’t gamble. Maybe Front was overqualified, because there was less desire to think outside the box and more desire for dry engineers who could make this building go up in New York on a tight budget. New York is a hostile environment for innovation.”
We are living in a golden age for (glass, aluminum, titanium, stainless-steel and — who knows? maybe someday gold) facades. Even in New York they have arrived. To enable an unconventional condominium in the West Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan to go up without compromise, Front moved from consulting into a more active role. Highline 23 will be the first significant building by Neil Denari, a Los Angeles architect who is known as a teacher and theorist. As an understatement, you could say that the exterior of HL23 is atypical. Two facades of the building are curtain walls with floor-to-ceiling glass panels of different sizes, shapes and decorative patterns; the third is a stainless-steel wall that looks over the future Highline elevated park.
Even before HL23 crossed his desk, Michael Ra, the Front partner, had been wanting to get his hands dirty in the construction process. So with Marc Simmons, he formed a company, Via, that could bid on a job and fabricate the materials. The Highline project is his first big test. On HL23, the glass panels are so large — in some cases, 30 feet wide and 12 feet high — that they have to be composed of smaller panes. Ra concluded that it would be less exorbitant to assemble them as “megapanels” to be hung on the steel frame than it would be to glaze the wall on site. “In New York City, labor costs are high and unpredictable,” he explains. He arranged to have the whole glass curtain wall manufactured in China: the glass, the steel frames, the operable windows, the laminated sections — and, finally (putting all the parts together), the fabricated megapanels, which will be shipped to New York. Denari says that Front’s involvement has reduced the construction budget substantially. “The rise of Front has not only to do with their intelligence on detailing, but also, they are guys on the street who know where and how things are made,” he says. “That’s why architects are flocking to them.”
Satisfying as such experiences are, they aren’t enough — at least not for Marc Simmons. Front’s intellectual investment in design, he says, “was going to lead us ultimately to designing buildings. I guess I always knew that.” He knows it even better now. In April, he learned that Front had won an invited competition to design a Louis Vuitton storefront on a prominent pedestrian corner in Singapore. Front’s entry was exuberantly baroque: a curtain wall that drapes extravagantly, like a curtain of glass. “All the glass is curved — C-curved or S-curved or double-S-curved,” Simmons told me. The curved glass panels, which are two layers thick, will be molded in different textures, and the laminate in between the layers will be printed in varying motifs. The contrasting panels will be arranged in such a way that from a distance, the wall will legibly display a checkerboard pattern that is a Vuitton signature.
Because the construction of novel facades is central to contemporary architecture, Simmons and company are well situated to move from the outside up. At times, it may seem that Front is neglecting the forest for the trees. And then you recall that in the current climate, the dazzling specimen, not the urban context or master plan, is what people are clamoring for. Even if you feel we are living in a superficial time, you have to respect the way Front ponders surfaces so profoundly.