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Smithsonian installation combines design and fabrication

Features | December 1, 2017 | By:

Ceiling-mounted reproductions of historic American ceilings float above visitors to the exhibition “Parallax Gap” at the Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C. Foreground: Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1914–15. © FreelandBuck, photo: Libby Weiler.

Nine ceilings represent notable American buildings.

Since the 17th century (with the debut of the French École des Beaux-Arts), drawing has been the first basic skill taught to architects. This still holds true, despite the advent of computer aided drafting (CAD) and sophisticated rendering software. And today there is a segment of the architecture community rediscovering and embracing the messy hand-drawn over the slick machine-made image.

Perspective drawing is a traditional part of the architect’s tool kit. Cross-continental architects FreelandBuck, with offices in New York and Los Angeles, have elected this form of graphical representation as the basis for a commission by the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Called “Parallax Gap” by the architects, the work incorporates the Renaissance custom of trompe l’oeil (literally French for ‘fool the eye’) ceilings to create the illusion of great depth of perspective, a decorative tradition most often painted in that era with winged cupids or angels on nearby flat surfaces, a necessity when limited budgets prevented the full construction of domes or cupolas.

“Most ceilings imply shelter, defining the limits of the room,” says the architect’s statement from the Renwick. “Others suggest the opposite: extension beyond its concrete limits.” This is the trick: to impose a variable point of view on a space that historically has harbored an ever-changing representative sampling of American art since the construction of the Renwick Gallery building in 1874—a structure done in the style of the Louvre in Paris, and built to be Washington, D.C.’s first art museum. FreelandBuck sought to assemble a collection of ceilings representing a number of notable American buildings built roughly at the same time as the Renwick: a montage of nine monumental ceilings ranging from Philadelphia City Hall (1873-1901), the Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco (1914-1915), to the Minneapolis City Hall (1888-1909) and Federal Hall, New York City (1833-1842).

FreelandBuck’s design was selected from among proposals by eight design firms. Each was invited to submit designs for a site-specific installation in the building’s Grand Salon as part of a competition titled “ABOVE the Renwick.” The architect’s complex project involved printing graphics on fabric to simulate woven threads that outline a drawn version of the nine chosen American ceilings. “FreelandBuck’s ‘Parallax Gap’ speaks directly to the Renwick’s ongoing effort to feature new interpretations of contemporary craft,” says Helen Bechtel, guest curator of the show. “There are lots of traditional ways that you think about crafting a piece of furniture or crafting a vase, but to craft a drawing? We didn’t really quite know how that would play out and we were excited by that provocative definition.”

Parallax view

“They started with many drawings, which we ultimately whittled down to nine different iconic ceilings of works of American architecture,” says Bechtel. “And these are well-loved, celebrated ceilings that we hope many visitors will actually recognize. FreelandBuck built a composite drawing, starting with a drawing technique called constructive perspective; they took three-dimensional perspective drawings and skewed them, distorted them, overlapped them, ran them together, and started to create a really rich, composite drawing of these nine different ceilings. The ‘ceilings’ run into each other and borrow line work from each other, and you start to get really rich moments of distortion and abstraction.

The nine ceilings in the installation are each drawn in perspective from several eccentric viewpoints, creating a series of distinct vantage points to be encountered as one moves through the gallery and zones between where the drawings collide and dissolve. The architects describe their process: “The individual drawings are pulled apart onto multiple layers; fractured and allowed to merge into other possible architectures.”

Key to the success of the installation is the partnering between the designers and the fabricators of the artwork, Fabric Images Inc., Elgin, Ill. “Our involvement began before the actual project start, when we teamed with the architects and a number of their design students to submit ideas to the competition for the Renwick Gallery exhibition program,” says Valerie Cuchna, material resources liaison with Fabric Images (FI). “There were a lot of unknowns going into it, but we had not done anything like this before and were excited to see what came of it.”

“There were many innate challenges in this design,” says Justin Dashiell, FI’s Renwick project manager. “Challenges in producing something that defied gravity, challenges to reducing the weight of the installation, challenges in determining how the structure of a material could support itself. By proposing that the project be made of fabric, it allowed us to cut almost 50 percent of the weight, but it also meant a lot of engineering feats had to be performed.”

Design plus fabrication

“When I first saw the renderings coming from FreelandBuck,” says Dashiell, “I thought, ‘How are we going to engineer this?’ But from my experiences in designing and creating theater sets, fabric is structure in a theatrical sense, so this challenge was a natural fit for Fabric Images.”

Through a back-and-forth process with the architects to determine the ultimate choice of fabric, FI considered vinyl, nonwovens—even Tyvek®. “Quickly we found that vinyl would have been too heavy for the gallery’s ceiling support system to sustain,” says Dashiell, who has theater production and museum display experience. A nonwoven was selected, a 120-inch-wide FR-rated polyester nonwoven, a type of fabric typically found in shopping bags or used in furniture applications. “It had strength, it could take dye-sub color graphics, and had the tension needed to support the graphic portions that would remain even after being digitally cut to remove up to 50 percent of the fabric in some areas of the ceiling modules.”

How to build the structure vertically and horizontally? “It is a series of ‘windows’ that frame views to create the illusion of depth,” says Dashiell. “It involves more or less five to six levels of window frames. We built a 3-D model of each of the nine ceilings to help us engineer the structures that would hold the work up in the 83-by-38-feet Grand Salon gallery.” Structural integrity plays a big part in making the installation work as intended; each layer is a separate image of the total ceiling diagram, acting somewhat like the “cells” of animation when animated films were still handmade. Stacking up the layers creates the illusion of depth, so some parts of each layer are cut away to allow the viewer to see through to additional layers. This necessarily means that portions of the fabric are thinly supported. To compensate, Dashiell and his crew stitched strands of aircraft cable into pockets around the edges of openings to hide the additional reinforcement. The stiffness of the nonwoven fabric also contributed to the effect.

While developing the design and strategies for suspending the artwork, Fabric Images used almost 500 yards of fabric in the prototyping. The many layers of printed fabric—stretched across lightweight tubular aluminum frames to keep it all in tension—are hung by steel aircraft cabling at strategic points in the overall assembly. To complete the ensemble of the framing, the team settled upon adapting an existing FI system, “Groove 8,” that uses a 2-inch round aluminum extrusion tubing assembly with four sets of two parallel grooves on the top, bottom and sides running the entire length of each tube. Also key to making the project work was limiting the lengths of framing to no more than 16 feet so that crated sections could easily be transported to the gallery.

Another complication awaited when everything was ready to install: “The Renwick is very close to the White House in downtown D.C.,” says Dashiell. “In fact, since there was literally no space in front of the museum that our trucks could use without stopping traffic (not permitted), we had to use the White House parking area (normally reserved for dignitaries and visitors), in order to unload the crates, which in turn required security clearance and approval from the White House staff before we could unload. We had to hand carry the crates from the parking across the front of the Renwick Gallery and up the steps into the museum.”

Visitors to the exhibition are enjoying the work of architecture and fabric, brought together in the service of art. “Parallax Gap” is on view until February 11, 2018.

Bruce N. Wright, AIA, is an architect and consultant to designers on fabric in architecture. He frequently writes about the intersection of design, architecture and textiles for Specialty Fabrics Review, Advanced Textiles Source and Fabric Architecture magazines.

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