Can architecture build values, too?

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Can architecture build values, too?
An image provided by Iwan Baan shows, Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture, Bugesera, Rwanda, was planned by MASS Design Group and built with local artisans. With designs that strive to enhance ecology, strengthen community and affirm cultural identity, today’s innovative buildings and projects transcend style. Iwan Baan via The New York Times.

by James S. Russell

NEW YORK, NY.- It has been a harrowing ride for projects coming to fruition this fall, planned in what now seems a faraway time before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the ricocheting effects of COVID-19 and disasters fueled by climate change. Yet, the best architecture can transform our ways of thinking, our work, our connections to local community. The designs presented here seek to transcend the moment’s crises.

Projects such as the international effort to protect Ukraine’s great architectural heritage and, half a continent away, an Egyptian museum that assembles a trove of ancient artifacts affirm national identity against forces determined to erode it. Other designs address a hunger for the natural landscape as respite. As if on cue, an enormous airport in India and a diminutive public garden behind a skyscraper in the New York City borough of Manhattan envelop us with nature where we least expect it. A prairie landscape in Houston tries to restore damaged ecosystems — and visitors’ stressed psyches. An aquarium in Mazatlán, Mexico, and an addition to the American Museum of Natural History in New York both help visitors think differently about the natural world.

Also, two important cultural institutions confront their great homes anew: David Geffen Hall in New York is set to reinvigorate the familiar orchestral music art form, while the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, reconsiders its legendary architect. And finally, renovating a derelict Chicago church supports a neighborhood riven by abandonment, while on the other side of the globe, an agricultural institute could transform Rwanda’s future.

The Grand Egyptian Museum (Giza, Egypt)

The design of the Grand Egyptian Museum, by Dublin-based firm Heneghan Peng, is unapologetically gargantuan. It will also be spectacular if it finally opens as reported by the end of the year, decades in the making, and having survived political upheaval and terrorist threats.

Its 1 million square feet straddle a 150-foot-high escarpment where the lush Nile River plain transitions to the high, dry desert on which the mighty pyramids of Egypt were erected. Extensive gardens and a broad plaza immerse entering visitors in the powerful serenity of the desert.

Within a vast entry court, the 40-foot-high statue of Ramses II stands in mute greeting, welcoming visitors to about 3,500 years of history. He is dappled in sunlight filtered from skylights through mesh panels that cover the court’s undulating 130-foot-high ceiling. A grand stair beckons to one side, lined with a stately procession of about 60 pieces of architectural and royal statuary. These objects are silhouetted against a view that is unveiled as visitors ascend. More than a mile away, the pyramids of Giza stand in monumental splendor.

Temporary and permanent exhibitions on three levels include the famous golden mask, among the 5,300 objects excavated from the tomb of Tutankhamen, the “boy king” who died at age 19 in 1325 B.C.

The Grand Egyptian Museum is certain to be an economy-enhancing tourist magnet. With a capacity of 100,000 items, it may also tell new stories that will enrich the world’s understanding of crucial histories and permit its extraordinary legacy to resonate more deeply within this crossroads of African, Arab, Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultures.

Protecting Treasured Churches (Ukraine)

Among the most diabolical aspects of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is the targeting of cultural infrastructure in the cause of demoralizing Ukrainians and erasing their distinct identity. Recognizing the purpose of such gratuitous destruction, Ukrainians have fought back through music, theater and dance performed in ruined theaters as air-raid sirens wail. While the West sends weapons of war, the nonprofit World Monuments Fund, or WMF, set up a Ukraine Heritage Response Fund — with a $500,000 seed commitment from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation — to help local and international experts protect the country’s extraordinary architectural history.

Irreplaceable structures aided by the initial projects include some of the nation’s 2,500 historic wooden churches, known as tserkvas. They have survived intact for hundreds of years in spite of their apparent delicacy; for example, the Holy Trinity Church in Zhovkva, built in 1720, uses intricate carpentry and joinery to stack multiple onion domes atop the hip-roofed sanctuary.

It was under renovation when the war started, and WMF is supplying waterproof membranes sturdy enough to offer long-term protection to areas of the roof that were removed for restorations, preserving the overall structure’s integrity. As Jason Farago wrote in The New York Times, Ukraine is proving, amid the slaughter, that “civil society can make a difference against a superior military force.”

David Geffen Hall (New York)

Longtime New York City fans of orchestral music may be shocked at the extraordinary intimacy that has been created by moving the stage of David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center 25 feet closer to the audience. With 500 fewer seats (for a total of 2,200), the wood-paneled hall, designed by Toronto-based firm Diamond Schmitt Architects, “establishes a much better relationship between cubic volume and sound absorption,” declares Paul Scarbrough, the project’s lead acoustician. The New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center are betting $550 million that he got the sound right. Audiences may thrill to the closeness of seats wrapping the stage.

The architecture firm of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien warmed up the chilly grandeur of the lobby and other public areas within the hall’s bone-white travertine frame. A welcome center assists classical music newbies and gets the obtrusive ticket booths out of the way. The lobby is much enlarged, allowing for informal performances and talks and displaying live performances on a massive video wall. Williams and Tsien abstracted falling flower petals in a rich mix of fuchsia, orange and midnight blue as seat upholstery and wall coverings.

Look for the upper lobby tier that has been curvaceously extended to create new vantage points for patrons to check out the action on the plaza outside, view events (parties!) and check one another out. On a prominent but long-ignored corner of the building, a new Sidewalk Studio will offer a strip-light artwork by Williams and Tsien, artist workshops, and community-oriented programs visible to throngs of passersby through the full-height glass.

The Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation at the American Museum of Natural History (New York)

Chicago’s Studio Gang has biomorphically shaped the Kenneth C. Griffin Exploration Atrium that will greet visitors to the Gilder Center with softly contoured walls intended to pique the visitor’s curiosity. Bridges that suggest stretched musculature as they connect older dead-end exhibition suites to each other ease navigation. Oval openings frame alternating glimpses of sky and research collections densely mounted in full-height vitrines. With the threats of an overheated planet, the Gilder Center’s 230,000 square feet brings new urgency to the role that painstaking, fact-based research plays in understanding the natural world. The center also promises to delight guests by surrounding them with fluttering butterflies and immersing them in the creepy beauty and industriousness of insects.

“The Kimbell at 50” (Fort Worth)

The Kimbell Museum of Art, designed by the once-obscure Louis I. Kahn, now justly revered, is one of the great architectural feats of the 20th century. With its hefty travertine marble walls and suites of galleries roofed in barrel vaults of concrete, the Kimbell pulls off the neat trick of being both monumental — recalling ancient forms — and intimate, even domestic, in scale, with masterful control of daylight.

Beginning Oct. 4, the Kimbell celebrates the humanism of the building and its architect in a year’s worth of programs, including an online exhibition, a consideration of the design’s influence and rarely displayed pastel drawings of ancient sites.

Kempegowda International Airport (Bengaluru, India)

Air travel over the summer has brought little joy, but if travelers must be delayed, they might well hope to be stuck at Terminal 2 of Kempegowda International Airport, one of India’s fastest-growing airports, which the architecture firm SOM has succinctly dubbed a “terminal in a garden.” Inspired by the lakes and lush flora of Bengaluru (also known as Bangalore, and the capital of India’s southern Karnataka state), it features pickup and drop-off ramps that circle a lagoon within a tropical garden.

It is a massive 2.7 million square feet and will expand passenger capacity by 25 million people annually. Vines dangle from woven baskets suspended over the check-in counters. A three-story-high “forest belt” of trees hugs the glass-walled terminal and surrounds passengers as they walk to their gates.

The design, set to have its debut in October, recognizes the power of plants and nature to reduce the stress and anxiety of flying — a restorative effect even more valued after the mental-health devastation of COVID-19.

Aquarium and Research Center of the Sea of Cortes (Mazatlán)

Ruins can be more evocative than actual working buildings, and some architects have tried to bring the sublime quality of vine-covered abandonment into their designs. These include Tatiana Bilbao, the Mexico City-based architect whose Research Center of the Sea of Cortes, in Mazatlán, confronts visitors with a mysterious labyrinth of crisscrossing distressed concrete walls that will, over years, disappear beneath a riot of tropical plantings. This is not the norm for a public aquarium that includes a research component, but Bilbao wanted viewers to immerse themselves in the rich natural setting of Mazatlán, a city in northwestern Mexico known for its beautiful beaches.

Ascending a long, graceful stair to the roof offers views to the adjacent tropical lagoon and the vastness of the Sea of Cortes. Guests can explore a series of constructed ecologies — habitat and species displays within a network of plant-festooned open rooms and sunken courtyards (they suggest the building was inhabited in some completely different way in some other era). The roofscape represents the native dryland forest. Visitors descend to displays that depict the essential protective role played by mangroves, the beauty of coral and the rippling elegance of swimming rays. A glass-enclosed tunnel leads through a large tank exhibiting creatures of the deep sea.

Public Garden at 550 Madison (New York)

The rather prim glass-topped arcade behind the “Chippendale” skyscraper Philip Johnson and John Burgee designed for AT&T in 1984 used to host a few cafe tables and little else. Along with a makeover of this headquarters tower for the investment firm Olayan Group to accommodate multiple tenants, architecture firm Snohetta has transformed the public space at 550 Madison with serpentine paths overhung by trees and shrubs bursting out of curvy, multilevel planters. (The horticulturalist Phyto Studio and SiteWorks, a landscape architecture practice, collaborated.)

Johnson’s heavy-handed barrel vault has been replaced by a delicate glass V-shaped butterfly roof. This kind of well-timed greening of midtown Manhattan may be what it takes to help lure back remote workers.

Memorial Park Land Bridge and Prairie (Houston)

Urban park projects such as the Land Bridge and Prairie in Houston’s Memorial Park are often especially welcomed when they restore connections severed by infrastructure. Landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz knitted together a 1,500-acre crown jewel park with two pairs of arched tunnels that bury a high-speed parkway that had long divided the park. Soil mounded atop the tunnels now hosts a 100-acre prairie landscape.

Gentle paths wind and switchback through the waving grasses, reaching an overlook that offers vistas across the city. Using native species, the landscape re-creates a coastal prairie ecology that includes a restored stream that passes through wetlands so visitors can appreciate migrating birds and butterflies whose usual stopping places have been largely obliterated by development along the Texas coast.

So-called land-bridge projects are becoming more common to link habitats and aid the migration of species forced by the warming climate. The project is one phase in the 10-year plan to restore Memorial Park, where trees and plantings have been severely degraded as a consequence of droughts and hurricanes.

Civic Arts Church (Chicago)

The renovation of a vacant, early 1900s Black church into a cultural arts center will be an ongoing cause for celebration this fall. The building, at the border of the South Chicago neighborhoods of Englewood and Washington Park, is called the Civic Arts Church and is part of the Commonwealth, a development with agriculture by architect and urban planner Emmanuel Pratt.

The project has reoccupied several South Chicago blocks emptied by decades of disinvestment. Across these blocks, Pratt’s Sweet Water Foundation has minimally renovated two formerly abandoned houses and added new structures built from salvaged wood and inexpensive greenhouse components: a woodworking shop, an exhibition barn (swaddled in summer by tall, gangly sunflowers), and a small structure to display works created at the Commonwealth. Every structure is multipurpose to accommodate numerous programs for art, urban farming, skills building, and the reclamation of local identity through oral histories and found artifacts. Sweet Water convenes long-term residents, who — along with volunteers, mentors, interns and fellowship recipients — have held the neighborhood together.

Pratt considers Sweet Water’s projects “regenerative,” in both human and neighborhood terms, he said in an interview. “We reclaim vacant properties by transforming them into productive public spaces that grow healthy food and engage intergenerational audiences in programming,” he said. The Civic Arts Church, the largest of Pratt’s projects to date, is becoming an 1,800-square-foot gathering and performance space. Already, timber trusses have been replaced and a 10-foot-high sliding door has been cut in the side to let daylight in and festivities flow out.

“No space is ever finished,” Pratt said. The larger agenda is to uncover the erased history and accomplishments of local people. The work imagines new possibilities for a neighborhood that has had no sustained investment for decades.

Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture (Bugesera, Rwanda)

Not many projects can hope to advance the economic, environmental and educational life of an entire country. The 69-building campus of the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture, designed with farm plots used for teaching, will train Rwanda’s next generation of leaders in ecologically informed agricultural practices that encourage soil health, minimize water use and lead to sustained improvements in crop production. The institute was conceived and funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and supported by the government of Rwanda.

MASS Design Group, a nonprofit based in Boston, planned the campus. Its buildings, tucked into a sloping site overlooking a lake, include broad overhanging roofs to shade walls, intimate courtyards and covered outdoor corridors that encourage fellowship and exchange while aiding ventilation.

The 3,400-acre campus was largely built with local artisans and cooperatives that designed more than 180 unique products, including the wood trusses that support roofs, woven wall panels and woven-basket light fixtures. A solar farm produces electricity, and the institute filters its water.

The institute promises to be transformative for a densely populated but largely agrarian country that is struggling to feed its people.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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