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Canopy forms a crucial link at New York college

Exteriors, Features | May 1, 2010 | By:

Bard College gets it right with a helical connector canopy

Size isn’t everything, we are told. But as with so many things, when something is just right—not too big and not to small, as Goldilocks reminded us—all of the planets snap into alignment. Such is the case with the dramatic steel and fabric tensile fabric canopy at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Just the right size, the white PVC structure functions effectively as a covered circulation spine, linking the entrances of two buildings that comprise the college’s Milton and Sally Avery Center for the Arts. The canopy was designed by FTL Design Engineering Studio of New York City and fabricated and installed by FabriTec Structures, Costa Mesa, Calif.

Architect Brad Will, AIA of Ashokan Architecture & Planning PLLC, located in Kingston, N.Y., designed the renovations and addition to the existing Blum Music and Film Complex building, and the renovations to the existing Avery Building. The adjacent courtyard was also refurbished for use as an amphitheater for film and music presentations, and an existing onsite parking lot was expanded.

Completed in 2004, along with the rest of the Avery & Blum Complex, the canopy boasts an innovative design. Its steel frame consists of a series of parallel “V” columns running the canopy’s length, horizontal struts and two helix beams, which are referred to as spaghetti beams. The two opposing curving pipes—helix beams—supported by the V-shaped columns, “are an efficient means for resisting upward and downward pressures on the fabric structure,” states Nic Goldsmith, FAIA of FTL.

The V-shaped design also allows the canopy to appear as a framed structure rather than a catenary one with a scalloped edge. “With the V-shaped columns, we could minimize the column diameter, spread the weight load and, thus, reduce the pipe diameters,” explains Goldsmith. “We also could minimize the number of columns we needed.” Additionally, the twisting form also creates extreme tension for the fabric skin.

Fabricating and installing the elegant structure was not as simple as it may seem. According to FabriTec Structures’ Sam Armijos, AIA, “This was not an easy project. In theory, it looks easy. Not true. It was difficult to fabricate and install. Rolling steel pipe that size was not easy to do or to fit up on-site. Its twisting, undulating framework provides a dynamic curvature to the fabric, visually animating the pedestrian walkway between the two buildings. “If you look closely, the membrane is very flat and has little to no double curvature, which required a bit more tension than normal,” says Armijos.

According to Goldsmith, the canopy could have been as easily fabricated from metal or even wood. However, the use of fabric gives the structure a unique visual flair, one that is visually airier and more graceful than a harder material. “We were able to get a very 3-dimensional surface,” says Goldsmith. “For Bard, it was also a cost-effective alternative to other materials.”

In this day of sustainability, Armijos laments that the canopy is not a solar or rain collector. Although it was not designed with those functions in mind, the 8m high structure does keep water and snow off students and faculty alike, and provides midday shade.

“It would be a great solar energy collector if it had PV cells on the membrane,” states Armijos. “In reality, it’s just a flying carpet. But it looks good.”

Mason Riddle is a contributing editor for Fabric Architecture magazine. Her piece on analyzing project budgets by size appeared in the Jan/Feb issue.

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