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Art museum clad in metal mesh

Exteriors, Features | March 1, 2008 | By:

The New Museum of Contemporary Art soars above the Bowery with expanded metal.

One of today’s “hippest” art museums is clad in the expanded metal mesh that many of us remember from our parents’ cheap summer lawn furniture. Just opened in December 2007, New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art is an eight-story tower of cubic hatboxes that soars above the 19th century cityscape of the Bowery. It shimmers in the sunlight and becomes more spectral on foggy or snowy days. Although the design is gaining worldwide attention, the story of its humble exterior materials remains unsung. For decades, factories around the world have stretched metal for such ordinary uses as vents, concrete reinforcement, stair treads, garbage cans, and the family lawn chairs. But who would believe that these somewhat grating screens, with their signature diamond-shaped openings, would one day grace the pages of the New Yorker or I.D. magazine?

But, in the art world, as in historic preservation, anything can get rediscovered. Kitsch can become cool. And why shouldn’t it? When you stop to think about it, much of the last century’s design innovation has gained inspiration (or stolen ideas depending on how you look at it) from the “repurposing” of everyday industrial objects and materials. Think of Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades.” Or consider the Rolex watch-like metal weavings first developed by Cambridge Inc. for conveyor belts that Phillip Johnson later used to clad elevators. Think of Cor-Ten steel.

The creation story of New Museum’s mesh façade is a bit more pragmatic. Budget rather than a love of industrial vents spurned the discovery of expanded metal. The project was designed by the Japanese architecture firm of SANAA with Gensler as executive architect. As Maddy Burke, AIA, Gensler’s project director tells the story, SANAA and the design team originally presented smooth metal panels as the façade material to the Museum’s Director and Board. But, as research progressed, it became clear that smooth panels and the complex process required to install them with the desired seamless aesthetic, would be too costly for the relatively modest budget. Thus, SANAA looked for exterior skin alternatives in Japan while Gensler searched in the United States.

Because of its texture and lower cost, expanded aluminum mesh seemed a promising option. But it had to be sold to a client that already assumed a smooth façade. Maddy Burke recalls the dramatic moment when the New Museum’s leaders and Board met with the architects at the offices of the respected New York construction managers, F. J. Sciame. On the roof of Sciame’s building overlooking South Street Seaport, the design team had installed several mesh panels along the cornice line. The whole group walked out to South Street and, in what Burke calls, “a magic sky moment,” the sun came out and the mesh panels glowed and shimmered against the sky. The design team soon issued a bid package to address the façade’s sheathing, waterproofing, and installation of the mesh exterior. Minnesota-based M.G. McGrath won the bid and ultimately played a central role in finding technical solutions for fasters, seams and the installation of the 3,159m2 metal cladding system.

In the custom use of any industrial fabric or metal, attention to fabrication details such as color and texture is essential. The Expanded Metal Company Ltd. of Hartlepool, England, created the expanded aluminum mesh product while James and Taylor Ltd. of Surrey, England, consulted on its design. The British companies worked with the architects to create the ideal anodized finish tone. Spectrum Painting provided the panels’ light gray Kynar 500-based PVDF paint finish. But, it was finding the right scale and pattern of openings that really challenged both architects and fabricators.

Expanded metal is made by cutting small slits in a repeating pattern over a flat sheet. The sheet is then stretched so that the slits open up and the metal between them twists outward. Burke explains that the original sheet can start out as just 30% of the size of the eventual product. Unlike perforated metal, the stretching process is less wasteful because no metal is cut out. The Expanded Metal Company created many test panels until the right texture and tone were found. This painstaking experimentation coupled with McGrath’s seam-concealing installation deserves much of the credit for the ethereal quality of the New Museum’s façade today.

The team settled on 9cm by 20cm” diamond-pattern openings expressed in panels 27cm wide by up to 8.6m long. The panel weight is 4.46kg/m. The custom design includes a gutter system and an extruded clip attachment that allows the building and panel system to move independently of one another in response to expansion and contraction. McGrath’s recent experience in expanded aluminum panels at the Walker Art Center proved to be a real asset for the New Museum effort. For the Walker, design architects Herzog & de Meuron (working with HGA), worked with the metal manufacturer Spantek to develop a stamped expanded metal panel that McGrath ultimately installed. This was likely the first application of expanded metal on an American museum project. At the same time, Herzog & de Meuron was also designing the de Young Museum in San Francisco that they clad with metal. Yet, the difference between the De Young and the Walker is quite striking. The De Young’s wall system is a more costly perforated copper with openings of varied sizes and patterns. It is a warm and shifting patina rises out of the verdant canopy of Golden Gate Park.

By contrast, the Walker’s ice-cube like form appears somewhat wrinkled, cold and textured on a wide city boulevard. Smoother than the Walker, but similar in its anodized aluminum finish tone, the New Museum’s façade appears to be, quite literally, seamless in its gritty Bowery setting. Mark LaSalle, McGrath’s project manager, visited the New Museum’s building site for extended periods over the nine-month installation period. He emphasizes that any new and custom application of a metal material “requires a great deal of design assistance” from his company. At their Minnesota headquarters, McGrath created a full-scale mockup to trouble-shoot details for soffits, windows, and corners. From an architect’s perspective, Maddy Burke confirms that the New Museum’s innovation with mesh only worked because the design architect, executive architect and installer worked together, often as on-site questions arose.

Now that the building is open and filled with its first exhibits, Maddy Burke says “the mesh really represents the New Museum with its openness.” She acknowledges that any material will be challenged by New York climate and pollution conditions. But, “the great thing about mesh is that you can water wash it,” she adds. Expanded metal is a familiar material in city life that is now gaining new respect. The message is that finish and installation details along with genuine team collaboration can make the difference between a sublime home for emerging art and industrial banality. Future design projects with expanded metal should continue to experiment with finishes, substrait color, overall surface lighting, and new methods to make seams visible or to hide them. Expanded metal can be used in many ways if one learns its challenges and opportunities. As Mark LaSalle says of the mesh used at the New Museum, “It does have a personality of its own.”

Frank Edgerton Martin regularly writes on design and sustainable landscapes for Landscape Architecture, Architecture Minnesota and Fabric Architecture.

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