Volume 27, Issue 1 - January/February 2013

Seattle’s Best
Art Meets Architecture on the New Chihuly
Garden and Glass Exhibition

Think Seattle and certain images spring to mind: the original Starbucks, fish flying across Pike’s Place Fish Market, the old TV show Frazier and, of course, the Space Needle. Located at what’s today called Seattle Center, the Space Needle was built for the 1962 World’s Fair, which took place in the Pacific Northwest City. The tower was designed in 1959 by artist Edward E. Carlson, then president of Western International Hotels, who was inspired by the Stuttgart Tower in Germany. Today, it is synonymous with the city. And according to Seattle-based architect Owen Richards, it was the Space Needle that established the city’s culture and future vision.

After nearly 50 years, the owners of Seattle Center saw the time was right to reinvigorate and revitalize the property. Enter master glass artist Dale Chihuly. Based in neighboring Tacoma, Wash., owners approached Chihuly with a project that would bring a comprehensive collection of his work to Seattle Center. Chihuly, with a lifelong appreciate of conservatories, was on board.

Completed in May 2012, Chihuly Garden & Glass includes an exhibition hall, garden installations and the “Glasshouse,” which is located prominently at the base of the Space Needle. The exhibition brings together all the elements of Chihuly’s work, including drawings, signature glass series, large architectural installations and personal collections. The 40-feet tall Glasshouse, spanning 4,500 square feet, features one of Chihuly’s largest, suspended sculptures created specifically for this application, which takes full advantage of the benefits and aesthetics of glass.

A House for Glass
According to Richards, the architect tasked with the project’s design, there was never a doubt that glass would play a substantial role.

“From the beginning, because of the history of Chihuly’s exhibitions and conservatories, [working with glass] was essential,” says Richards. “We always knew glass would be integral. Plus it provides a display for the glass art.”

Richards explains that the owners’ idea was to create an exhibit which involved interiors and gardens that would be emblematic of Chihuly’s work, in particular conservatories—an application type in which many of his exhibits are housed.

“He’s done a number of those around the world and it’s an amazing setting for artwork so that was the key idea: to create a modern reinterpretation of a traditional conservatory as well as a place that could be multi-use event space,” says Richards. “The intent was to have a [structure] that held its own relative to the Space Needle and also provided the opportunity for Chihuly to develop some of the largest sculptures he’s ever done. We worked closely with him to develop the design for the Glasshouse that referenced the gardens … but was also evocative of Seattle Center. As a result, the design evolved into an asymmetrical shape that inflects toward the Space Needle.”

Significant Structures
And then there’s the glass. Richards says they wanted to use a high-performance product that would allow the Glasshouse to function in terms of the code requirements, but one that would also provide maximum transparency.

“We wanted as strong a connection as possible between the gardens and interior. So early on we explored different alternatives,” says Richards.

Plans called for the Glasshouse to be used as an event space and it would need to be comfortable in both summer and winter months as it would be naturally ventilated and therefore not fully air conditioned.

“We needed the glass system to perform well in the summer to reduce heat gain and also in the winter to reduce heat loss,” says Richards. “It’s feasible [to do this] in Seattle because the climate is relatively temperate in both summer and winter. Having the Glasshouse not need [to be fully] air conditioned was a key aspect to how we configured the design and we worked closely with all parties involved to select the particular glass type.”

Richards says they selected SuperNeutral (SN) 62 from Guardian Glass as they found it would provide both visibility and meet energy code requirements. According to Bill Coady, Guardian’s architectural design manager for the northwest region, SN 62 coated glass is a high performance low-E product that combines visible light transmission, excellent insulating values and aggressive solar heat gain control. He adds that the neutral color tends to read slightly blue compared with other low-E coatings in this same performance class.

Novum Structures was the design-build contract glazier for the Glasshouse and selected Avic Sanxin in China as the glass fabricator. Alejandro Ossa (now with Jangho Curtainwall) was the project manager at Novum heavily involved with the project. He says there were many unique details about the Glasshouse. For example, he describes the shape as something of a reuleaux triangle.

“All the components for the project were parts and pieces designed, developed and fabricated for this particular piece of art,” he says of its custom components. “It’s one of those architecturally challenging projects, with complex geometries, loadings and glazing systems.”

Ossa explains the glass is point supported with glazing clamps and hidden toggles in order to minimize and avoid exterior elements that could distract the viewer from the art. “The cambered steel columns [had an] intricate design … to support the loads of the structure, glass panels and the art, as well as to accommodate for mechanical and electrical features required for a museum-type of building,” says Ossa.

Reaching New Heights
A project such as this one isn’t without challenges. From logistics to labor, Ossa says there were many obstacles. As one such example, he says materials were shipped in from around the world.

“The raw glass [from Guardian] traveled from Luxembourg to China for IGU assembly then it was shipped to the U.S. The tension rods came from the United Kingdom; hardware from India, China and Singapore; and the doors from Germany,” says Ossa. “The only two local components were the AESS steel from Deer Park, Wash., by Northwest Steel Fab and the aluminum cladding from Southern Aluminum Finishing in Villa Rica, Ga. Coordination with designers, suppliers, shipping and customs on a schedule so tight was a unique challenge.”

Another challenge, Ossa says, was having the means and installation methods necessary for a blend of steel and glass erection combined with [unique elements].

“In order to adapt to the geometry of the components, the Novum team developed methods for rigging each one of the intricate steel pieces and the large glass panels,” he says. “The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries helped us develop methods for installing, glazing and caulking at odd shapes of the building with the equipment available.”

Attention to Detail
In addition to the energy performance and transparency of the glass, as well as the intricate glazing systems, there were other unique details. For instance, Richards says they wanted to enhance solar shading and evoke traditional greenhouse elements, such as whitewashing the glass in winter.

“So the upper part of the Glasshouse facing west incorporates a frit pattern that’s 50 percent clear and 50 percent frit,” says Richards. “When the sun hits it, it catches the light and becomes more translucent and that becomes the background to art and enhances shading characteristics of the glass. It’s very subtle, but can also be dramatic.”

The glass used was also thicker than glass traditionally used in this type of application.

“Most commercial installations in North America use 6-mm thick substrates. This project has 8-mm and some 10-mm thick coated glass for the outboard lites … and the inboard lites are laminated,” says Coady. “The glass had to be that thick and in that configuration to meet the requirements for wind load, snow load and sloped glazing.”

The more traditional 6-mm thick glass also had a place in this project. In addition to the Glasshouse, the project’s scope also included converting an existing arcade building, the Fun Forest Arcade. It incorporates the same SN62 product as the Glasshouse, but constructed as a 1-inch overall insulating glass unit. Glazing was fabricated by Seattle-based Hartung Glass Industries and installed by Eastside Glass, also located in nearby Kirkland, Wash.

In total, the entire project, including both the Glasshouse and the arcade building, features about 28,000 square feet of finished insulating glass units. It also features folding doors supplied by Nanawall that incorporate laminated glass supplied by Northwestern Industries.

The project achieved a LEED silver rating, and Richards says actually exceeded the minimum energy performance requirements.

“The Seattle code is quite stringent in terms of energy efficiency requirements, but we’re also blessed with temperate requirements,” says Richards.

Collaborative Design
Working on the Chihuly Garden & Glass project provided an important learning opportunity for many who were involved.

“I think one thing we did, and found to be important, is the early involvement of the contractors and suppliers. We reached out to them while we were still in the schematic design phase. The Glasshouse is such a critical part [of the project] and we were fortunate to have done that,” says Richards.

That collaboration was also important to both Guardian and Novum.

“I listened as they (architects and the Chihuly team) expressed their needs, wants, opinions and desires,” says Coady. “My role is to listen, provide information, suggest options, raise the right questions, help the team with the technical and aesthetic requirements and, ultimately, help them find the right glass for their project.”

He adds, “If it is a Guardian product, great. If it isn’t Guardian glass, it is my role to help them get the right glass that looks, performs, costs and installs as they expect and need.”

Richards adds, “[Collaborating early on] wasn’t something [we always set out to do], but because we did, we were able to address aspects of the design early and we recognized as we moved on that it’s critical to every project to get a strong handle on technical [details], and how to achieve the design vision through the technical aspects of glazing systems.”

From the Glasshouse to the colorful artwork housed both inside and in the gardens outside, Chihuly Garden & Glass showcases just what’s possible when some of Seattle’s best come together with a common goal, vision and plan in mind.

Ellen Rogers is the editor of the Architects’ Guide to Glass & Metal magazine. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @AGGmagazine and “like” AGG magazine on Facebook to receive updates.

Architects' Guide to Glass & Metal
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