Retrofit for Purpose: Dramatic Architectural Rethinkings

Axis Mundi and OMA's US branch recently took on projects that make retrofitting look as ambitious as original design. Bill Millard investigates.


In the booming atmosphere that peaked around 2007 - economic indicators pointing infinitely skyward, with overscaled ambition de rigueur among developers, and skyline after skyline punctuated with cranes - the way for an architectural intellect to make a splash was to design a single arresting-looking new building. After the crash, iconic buildings still appear here and there, but no one defines the present as an age of icons. It's an age of limits, retrenchments, contexts - an age of caution, an age of tweaks.

Retrofitting has expanded from a secondary, rather mundane category of work to a field broad enough for dramatic thinking. Whether a project is undertaken to conserve resources, respect sustainability criteria, or solve specific problems, the impulse to revise rather than replace buildings sometimes blurs the borders (or at least highlights the connections) between adaptive reuse and broader placemaking.

In Barcelona in Spain and Ithaca, New York, US, two firms with sharply differing profiles have recently taken on projects that make retrofitting look as ambitious as original design. Manhattan-based Axis Mundi, approached to convert a Barça office building into a striking visual mission statement, has raised its international visibility, along with its client's, by designing a new façade that is both legible and technically advanced. For Cornell University's College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP), which needed much more than a facelift, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) has offered an ambitious intervention, Paul Milstein Hall, revising not just a single campus but the campus as an idea.

In Gaudí's shadow, a liquid shed parlante

Barcelona's new bottled-water company H2O wants its six-storey office building to send an unmistakable message. Located in a prominent district not far from Gaudí's Casa Milà, the H2O headquarters carries serious responsibilities on several levels: to the neighbourhood, the culture, and the Earth as well as the client. Bottled water is a big business in Spain - according to the trade group La Asociación Nacional de Empresas de Aguas de Bebida Envasadas (ANEABE), the nation is the world's fourth-largest consumer of mineral water - and when the client approached Axis Mundi after seeing its work online, the brief emphasised a building that would establish the brand in the eyes of investors.

"Retrofitting has expanded from a secondary, rather mundane category of work to a field broad enough for dramatic thinking."

The assignment required Axis Mundi to do more, as it were, than just make a splash. Aesthetic standards in Barcelona are famously high, and introducing garish "advertecture" into the city of modernisme could produce a backlash. Principal John Beckmann saw the complex yet soothing image of interference patterns on the surface of water as a logical, appealing choice: who doesn't like water, even when it's defying gravity by 90°? Beckmann describes the revised building in Venturi / Scott Brown terms as a classic decorated shed, though harsher observers have seized on the direct relation to the company's product and called it a duck as well. Whether categorised as shed, duck or architecture parlante, the project is more than decoration. The façade acts as a brise-soleil to reduce the building's heat load.

Replicating nature's geometries artificially is no simple matter, as anyone who has closely studied the details in a leopard-skin print or wood-grain veneer can attest. Precise repeating patterns don't appear in water or other natural materials, but printers, milling machines and other fabrication technologies have a hard time avoiding them. After studying a range of water patterns, Axis Mundi decided on rippled pond water for its placid, soothing movements. To simulate the surface, Beckmann says, "we imported photographs into Rhino and created 3D models from those pictures; we then created sections, so we would have more control of placement and the final result. Then these sections were lofted around the façade to create the final effect. We're still playing with this."

Manipulation of the layered surface images yields overlaps and interpenetrations; at some points, the designers removed segments to create fluid-curved openings. Material tests are under way and the likely choice is a phenolic polymer composite, mounted on the existing building with steel web work. Viewed in plan, the building will have two elliptical interior voids to admit light and air. By fusing the product (water) and its packaging material (a plastic container) in the building's own wrapper, Axis Mundi's design melds elegance and playfulness: the implicit message is "What we do is repackage something basic - we acknowledge this openly - but we do it with purity and grace."

While H2O is Axis Mundi's first retrofit request, the firm has gained notoriety in New York architectural circles for unsolicited rethinkings of well-known projects. Last July, Beckmann intervened in a local controversy over Jean Nouvel's Tower Verre, the 82-storey, 381m spire proposed for next to the Museum of Modern Art, by attending a community meeting and unveiling his own parodic tower, a diverse "vertical neighbourhood" composed of irregular "smart blocks", reshuffling programme components over a relatively humble 50 storeys (not far from the height limit the review board handed Nouvel). Flamboyantly unbuildable, it's a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of Brazilian favelas, the low-budget improvisations of Teddy Cruz, the violent anti-structures of Lebbeus Woods, the pop imagery of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and the rude juxtapositions of Sex Pistols designer Jamie Reid.

More soberly, but just as aggressively, Beckmann has offered an alternative with the Whitney Downtown Museum, just in case the unlikely combination of the Meatpacking District and Renzo Piano somehow ends up replicating the fate of new Whitneys past. Beckmann's counter-concept suspends galleries in a column-free lattice and thrusts Breuerish windows through cladding resembling strips of duct tape. Unlike his MoMA tower, it could conceivably work.

Beckmann welcomes a comparison between some of his ironic gestures and punk rock, hailing the rough energy of the Clash, Pistols, and Ramones as a corrective to the conservatism he finds all too prevalent in architecture. "Francis Picabia believed that 'an artist should change their style as often as they change their shirt'," he says, admiring the French surrealist's protean pugnacity. "I have a great deal of respect for Nouvel and Piano," he adds, but "the point of our alternatives ... was [to] encourage people to take action if they don't like something, rather than complain about it. With today's technology, a design team can put together alternative proposals quickly and disseminate them instantly via blogs ... We're really living in the midst of an architectural revolution, where international ideas bounce around at the speed of a keystroke."

Beckmann moves fast, handles technology with aplomb, and appears unfazed by the risk of giving offense. Whether his firm's DIY. revisionism gets him ostracised or gets him more gigs bears watching.

OMA's placemaking platter

AAP unveiled OMA's plan for Paul Milstein Hall in 2006. Two years later, the project - the third attempt, after rejected designs by Steven Holl and Barkow Leibinger - nearly foundered in the crash. Fundraising limits weren't the only obstacle: some Cornell voices, particularly of the non-architectural faculties, dissented vigorously over cost, sustainability and design. But AAP had long been operating in cramped, fragmented spaces, perhaps even jeopardising its reaccreditation. Former dean Mohsen Mostafavi and his successor Kent Kleinman saw Milstein as a now-or-never proposition and marshalled the support to overcome a rebellion in the faculty senate, moving construction forward, even as other projects all went on hold.

"Axis Mundi has gained notoriety in New York architectural circles for unsolicited rethinkings of well-known projects."

Shohei Shigematsu, principal in charge of OMA-New York, emphasises how "the project was conceived as important placemaking rather than important gesture-making." Cornell needed purposeful space, not an object-building. Born in a master plan that Mostafavi commissioned for the north campus area between the Arts Quad and Fall Creek Gorge, Milstein connects, rather than replaces, AAP's Rand and Sibley Halls, which date from 1912 and 1871 respectively, and command widespread loyalty. The squarish addition, sited on a former parking lot and cantilevered 15m above University Avenue to the north, consists of two concrete plates supported externally by steel trusses, creating an open, flexible studio space that integrates a school long divided into separate quarters along double-loaded corridors.

A second large cantilevered volume, the AAP Forum gallery, hovers in counterpoise above a southern entry to the quad. The sole deviation from orthogonality is an internal concrete mound, echoing geologic forms and Sibley's stately dome, which creates a distinctive gallery with a curving T-shaped viewing bridge; the inner dome also supports raked seating in a lower-floor auditorium. "One thing we like about this building is that it's quite brutally simple," adds Shigematsu. "Of course, it's very complex in its detail."

Herbert Muschamp coined the term "parabuilding" for this kind of modern-on-traditional graft, and the word seems appropriate here. Milstein uses boxy Miesian geometry to counteract the autonomy of freestanding Modernist buildings and emphasise relationality instead. It is symbiotically linked not only to Rand and Sibley, which directly connect to it via second-floor windows opened into passageways, but to the entire quad, picking up the alignment of the Foundry to the north and the row to the south formed by Lincoln, Goldwin Smith, and Stimson Halls. Its horizontal profile leaves views intact from the quad to the gorge and trees, and its inner dome - an engineering tour de force executed in a single carefully planned pour by Robert Silman Associates - erupts through its flat planes as if hinting that the Earth will inevitably intrude on humanity's abstractions. Viewed from above, the green roof simultaneously hugs Sibley and Rand and tugs their neoclassical ornamentation gently earthward: a humble comic touch leavening an otherwise serious campus.

Milstein's steel structure combines Vierendeel, conventional triangulated, and opened trusses. Like the Beijing CCTV building's external diagrid, this hybrid system directly reflects the moment diagram. This feature has been pedagogically useful well before the scheduled opening in the autumn of 2011, Shigematsu notes, as students have followed the construction and gained direct knowledge of force distribution, materials' properties, and the real conditions of on-site work. Cornell's anti-Milstein contingent, he observes, has largely come around to appreciate it, in part through curricular uses of the project and through the design team's succession of unique details. Vertically striated cut-marble fascias offer contrast to the "hypermodern" horizontal lines and industrial materials. A hinged internal wall allows customisation of the crit space, one of many adjustable features accommodating students' tendency to customise work areas. Back-hinged, swivelling "business-class" seats in the auditorium (which will double as the university's boardroom) retract into a false floor or combine into table modules, multiplying the configuration options. Auditorium curtains by Inside Outside, printed with column drawings by Hans Vredeman de Vries, create an illusory "old Dutch perspective" beyond the windows when fully drawn.

"Herbert Muschamp coined the term 'parabuilding' for this kind of modern-on-traditional graft."

Despite opponents' initial concerns that too few LEED boxes would be ticked, the building's commitments to sustainability (now reaching Gold level) extend well beyond the roof's symbolism. Features include radiant heating integrated into the concrete floors; lakewater cooling through chilled ceiling beams, minimising forced-air requirements; a graduated skylight pattern on the upper plate, allowing sunlight to penetrate the open studio spaces evenly from above as well as from the perimeter windows; and the distinctive vegetated roof using contrasting species of grass in an Escher-like pattern: darker green toward the gorge side, lighter toward the quad, again emphasising interpenetration.

Milstein and its companions occupy a campus gateway near a bridge from the residential North Campus, but its deferential profile resists the monumental tropes of so many academic icons. Instead of trumpet-blasting the students that approach it each morning, Milstein beckons them calmly, peering out from behind the older buildings, confident that its blend of the razor-edged and the green, a hint of the microchip and an expanse of lawn, will be a stimulus to thought.

"The campus building," said Rem Koolhaas in 2006 at the outset of the project, "is perhaps quintessentially American ... a series of freestanding, relatively independent entities, whose architecture proclaims independence rather than engagement with other domains." He views Milstein as part of "a general university strategy" of physical and intellectual decompartmentalisation: "Basically the whole thing is a kind of belvedere or veranda; all the nature has a very direct influence. We're creating a kind of micro-environment where we want to find a way of maintaining an open-air presence in a hostile climate."

Koolhaas was referring to Ithaca's formidable winters, but it's not a stretch to think metaphorically of academia in the US countryside, historically walling itself off from a national culture with a stubborn anti-intellectual streak, and consequently missing critical opportunities for dialogue with at least the more receptive parts of the communities outside the scholarly hothouse. Opening up the classic cloister-model campus, redefining its isolated fortresses by giving them connective tissue, Milstein dares to advance a non-adversarial relationship between transparency and dignity. OMA has again reimagined a building typology in ways that provoke far-reaching reconsideration of what an institution intends to achieve.