By Frank Edgerton Martin
On Houston Street in lower Manhattan, the Guggenheim Museum recently opened an experimental “Laboratory” for public discussions about sustainability and urban design in the 21st century. As one of the first buildings designed with a structural framework of carbon fiber (the same material used in tennis racquets), the Guggenheim Lab is a bold experiment in portability. The columns, the double layer mesh cladding, and even the rain gutters can be foldedtaken apart for shipment. After its New York City debut, the Lab will be disassembled and travel to Berlin, Germany, and then Mumbai, India, where the discussions, lectures and community events will continue.
“Rather than architects educating the public on how to behave within spaces, it is the public who should have the autonomy of spatial practice in their cities,” explain Yoshiharu Tsukamoto and Momoyo Kaijima, the design architects from Atelier Bow-Wow (ABW). Fiedler Marciano Architecture, the Lab’s architect of record, helped the design team and the Guggenheim navigate the challenges of codes, weather and portability. “The inherent advantage to using fabrics and meshes in movable or portable structures is their light weight and ability to be compacted,” partner Martin Marciano observes. “That said, some fabrics do not lend themselves well to transport in that they easily wrinkle or damage during shipping, or can lose their original structure once demounted.”
Knowing that the new Lab would be packed and shipped at least twice in the coming years, Atelier Bow Wow chose durable interior Steel Tex curtains by the Swiss manufacturer Création Baumann. Designed to slide as needed, the curtains help to muffle ambient city noise. Regarding the Lab’s distinctive polyester mesh cladding, Marciano explains, “Because the Lab is installed during warm weather months and there is no cooling system (except for fans), ABW wanted a breathable material to allow warm air to escape. The double layer of white on the inside and black on the outside creates the moiré effect” that they desired.
What is remarkable is how open yet sheltering this new Lab feels. In the “front yard,” a broad Sunbrella® acrylic canopy reaches out from the wooden framed coffee shopcafé toward Houston Street. Set among existing trees, it provides dappled shade and creates a sense of intimacy and retreat from the city.
The Guggenheim is carefully documenting all of the public conversations from the ongoing workshops reflected in the Lab’s open design. Thanks to its use of lightweight carbonmesh cladding and fabric curtains, the 183m2 Lab’s flexibility is both horizontal and vertical. On most days, if you look up from the workshop tables, a group of suspended mesh cubes hold colorful furniture. This upper “toolbox” accommodates chairs and other equipment when not needed. Like stage scenery stored in upper level fly space, these “tools” can be raised or lowered as needed.
Designed to accommodate up to 300 people, the Lab can house films, lectures, dance performances or even a private dinner party. The weekend that I visited, all of the furniture was moved off the main floor for a Saturday morning neighborhood meditation and yoga session—not something you encounter often in an American museum. Ultimately, the BMW Guggenheim project will produce three different Labs, each designed by a different architect. Between now and 2017, they will travel to nine cities worldwide.