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Suspended motion: Metal brings life to Tampa Museum of Art

As architect Stanley Saitowitz surveyed the future site of the Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, Fla., he noticed the play of light from the sun and clouds. The Hillsborough River rippled nearby.

Not wanting to replicate a particular image in his museum design, Saitowitz thought about the naturally changing light and motion, and a reflective metal came to mind.

While metal has a long history in building design, Saitowitz's vision for the material is distinctively 21st century. Guided by his imagination and the wide range of architectural metals and fabrication methods available today, he and his team at Natoma Architects in San Francisco envisioned a wealth of possibilities. One image stood above all.

By wrapping the upper levels in perforated aluminum panels and enclosing the first level in glass, he could achieve the look of suspended motion.

To accomplish the illusion, he designed a building façade consisting of two layers of perforated panels positioned slightly off center from one another, which during the day creates a wavy, moiré pattern. Carrying the concept further, he incorporated computerized LED lighting between the metal layers, which, at night, produces a living mural of light refracting through the perforation.

"We looked for a material that is stable, yet feels alive, like the surface of the water that is constantly rippling," Saitowitz said of the decision to incorporate aluminum. "The idea of a metal skin is that it has a quality similar to the landscape elements-the natural water and sky-that are prominent features of the location."

Having incorporated metal in previous projects, Saitowitz and his colleagues knew about its expressive nature and versatility, especially perforated aluminum. Lightweight, stable and able to diffuse light, it wears well in outside conditions and requires little maintenance.

 

Collaborating with his team-perforated metal supplier McNichols Co., Tampa; the installer M.G. McGrath Architectural Sheet Metal, Maplewood, Minn.; and general contractor Skanska, Tampa-Saitowitz validated the material's ability to replicate his vision through a series of scale models and field tests.

By creatively offsetting the two layers of perforated aluminum, the holes take on a ripple affect in the sunlight. By adding a programmable LED light system between the layers, the museum's façade becomes a virtual nocturnal canvas for electronic artistry.

The Modernization of Metal
Metal has played a significant role in building design for years, dating to sheds and domestic structures of the 1890s, Saitowitz said. The corrugated variety is still visible in some rural locales around the country.

Popularity grew in World War II with the advent of the Quonset hut, a mass-produced shed that was lightweight, easy to ship and quick to assemble into semi-circular forms that housed military offices and supplies.

Today, after a dose of modernization and interest in building green, architectural metals areas much in demand as the innovative systems needed for their fabrication and installation.

The 3,000 perforated metal panels used to wrap the Tampa Museum of Art are from McNichols Designer Metals, a line of products McNichols developed specifically for the architectural community. The 1/8-inch- (3-mm-) thick, clear anodized aluminum has 3-inch (76-mm) diameter holes spaced in straight rows 1 inch (25 mm) apart.

 

Saitowitz and M.G. McGrath selected the material because of its unique characteristics and their experience with McNichols products. "We got really excited that McNichols is based in Tampa and part of the museum community," Saitowitz said.

As a leading supplier of specialty metal with 17 service centers and six field offices nationwide, McNichols brought product knowledge, geographic proximity to the construction site and a special interest in having a quality art museum in its hometown.

"McNichols was pleased with the opportunity to be part of such a stand-out project in ourown back yard," said Steve Wilcher, architectural market manager for McNichols."We have worked with many architects and fabricators in all parts of the country. This one is clearly unique."

M.G. McGrath's long tradition of providing master craftsmanship to builders, architects and owners engaged in metal design and construction, and Skanska's vast experience preparing structural surfaces that accommodate metal applications made a formidable team.

The Ripple Effect
"The design of this building is pretty much one of a kind," said Chuck Jablon, vice president of operations for Skanska. For its part, Skanska was challenged to deliver a building "that's true within 1/8 of an inch horizontally and vertically."

The dimensional precision is especially important on the three façades where the double layers of the metal panels reside. To achieve a true ripple effect, the second layer of perforated panel had to be fabricated and installed so that it offsets the first layer by half the circumference of the hole.

The process required a complex wall system devised by M.G. McGrath using detailed CAD drawings. "We started with nothing more than a sheet of paper to draw the idea," said Mike McGrath, vice president of M.G. McGrath

"We spent a lot of time creating various computer models working through a range of scenarios of what would happen if this or that shifts," he said, describing one field test that involved building a prototype wall system on wheels that could be rolled outside and examined in the natural sunlight.

The entire team was provided with a master plan of grids and control lines so that every team member had the same starting point, Jablon said.

As building design progressed and information came in about the location of sprinklers,lighting, heating and cooling systems, M.G. McGrath made revisions accordingly.

 

"The skin dictated much of what else was happening, so there was a lot of shifting to be done," he said.

To accept the perforated wall panel system, which sits on flattened stainless-steel rod clips, the building had to be mathematically exact-from the foundation to the structural steel to anchor bolts on the column beams to the metal studs.

The challenge was to fit in each of the individual metal panels that are comprised of nearly 300 varying sizes. Laid out on a grid, the panels wrap approximately 96,000 square feet (8,918 m2) of the building surface, including the exterior walls and deep cantilevered soffitts where the metal wraps under the entryway and extends in a continuous line into the interior atrium.

Hidden beneath the perforated metal wall system is a base layer of extruded aluminum with a black Kynar finish that provides a light absorbing backdrop for showcasing the holes and LED lighting.

Saitowitz said his firm's design has two different characteristics. "Its light at night is internal. Its light during the day is external."

While there may be more economical ways to fashion a building's skin, the value of the metal cladding is as much in its versatility and durability as in its compatibility with the building's purpose.

"Metal is a perfect symbol for the coming together of the museum's program-marrying old with new, durability and stability with progress and new direction," said Todd Smith, director of the Tampa Museum of Art.

With the museum's collection ranging from antiquities to contemporary art, "we wanted a physical presence that is, on the one hand, simple in its design, but contemporary in its aesthetics," Smith said.

The LED lighting feature is a welcome bonus."We are embracing the electronics of the exterior as the museum builds its own exhibition and collections of works in this new media."

Mary Estes is principal of Estes and Co., Tampa.