If these walls could talk is a whimsical refrain alluding to a fantasy of secret histories stored in the file drawers of architecture. As architects, however, we believe walls really do talk. They tell the stories of their place, moment in time, and the communities they serve.
This idea permeates our work. It is especially true for cultural projects that intentionally give voice to particular groups defined by a shared cultural DNA. But, what happens when that DNA needs to be general? Can it capture diversity rather than specificity? What if the community espouses a culture of tabula rasa – a blank slate to be shaped and reshaped by diverse voices? Some cultural venues are not the embodiment of a single culture, but rather a platform for multiple communities to express their past, present and future. What follows are examples of what we mean when we talk about telling stories through architecture.
Voices | Histories | Traditions
Our cultural projects often focus on legacy—the evolving needs of specific communities or the particular historic events that bind them together. The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco, for example, celebrates the migration, adaptation, and transformation of cultural traditions originating on the African continent. Visitors are greeted by an urban jewel box displaying to the city an image of hope as seen through the innocent eyes of an African-American child. Like the museum’s mission, it is a future comprised of a collage of disparate voices, histories, and traditions—in this case, a literal mosaic of images drawn from the Museum’s photographic archives.
Similarly, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina presents to the city the reincarnation of Jacob’s Ladder—a potent reference to the symbol of a lost community which the Center commemorates—stitched into a quilted façade that that also pays homage to the museum’s rich collection of African textiles. Built on the 50-foot by 400-foot residual air rights over a vehicular parking ramp, the Gantt Center is a cultural billboard which broadcasts its identity to the city’s 55mph patrons that speed by on the adjacent interstate highway. The MoAD and Gantt museums exemplify how we tell particular stories through architecture – elevating the institutional mission and turning destinations into landmarks rooted in their physical and cultural place.
What happens when architecture shelters a collection of unique communities, each with its own discrete legacy? How can a loose alliance of narratives become a compendium of shared identity? The New Castle County Route 9 Library + Innovation Center is at the intersection of three distinct Delaware communities: Dunleith, Garfield Park, and Overview Gardens. Through a series of public meetings, community stakeholders were asked to remember together. Many stories referenced select institutions and local luminaries important to one neighborhood, but not to all. That is, until someone mentioned “the big tree.” It resonated with everyone as a primal civic hub—the literal and figurative embodiment of a place to meet and connect.
Inspired by a great tree under which the community gathers to learn, share, and build new knowledge, the Route 9 Library + Innovation Center hosts an array of cutting-edge program spaces under a single, protective canopy. Like the canopy of a tree, the perforated metal roof expresses the organic structure of leaves while filtering out harsh solar rays by transforming them into soft, dappled light.
A cluster of structural “trunks” along the entry path support the visually porous skin that reveals the Innovation Center’s activities while flooding the interior with diffuse light. If “the tree” thematically binds together diverse stories, internal programs speak to the sub-communities—a maker space for entrepreneurial tinkerers; a teaching kitchen for nutrition advocates; a black box theater for artistic performers; and the Scriptorium for future story-tellers. Dedicated to nurturing the art of writing, the Scriptorium features portraits of literary heroes formed by their own words.
Quilting a Narrative
Twentieth-century art galleries aspired to be flexible and neutral. Today, art museums must carefully balance maximum flexibility with a unique sense of place. North Carolina State University’s Gregg Museum of Art and Design repurposes the university’s historic chancellor’s residence as the anchor to a new museum.
The gallery addition hosts a series of high-bay, open-volume exhibit halls equipped with robust infrastructure that can quickly flex from gallery to lecture hall or impromptu performance venue. Similarly, outdoor spaces flex for performance, recreation, or social events. But how can the museum resonate with its physical and cultural place, while maintaining infinite adaptability?
Inspired by its rich collection of quilted textiles, the Gregg is imagined as a quilted patchwork of indoor and outdoor galleries. There is a palpable transition as visitors step across the “stitching” – thickened thresholds between spaces: indoor and outdoor spaces, historic and new, social and contemplative, domestic and institutional. Fifteen inch thick steel portholes transition visitors from the sleek white walls of the new galleries and into the former chancellor’s residence – a place for events and secure exhibits that reinforces the intrinsic connection between the museum’s collections of domestic objects and authentic spaces of daily life. When approached from the park, these same moments of transparency amid otherwise solid walls of eastern white cedar cladding present the Gregg Museum as a lens through which an expansive outdoor sculpture garden is connected to the more cocooned interior galleries.
Though once the provenance of monuments, memorials, museums, and libraries, walls that speak are finding their voice in commercial buildings and mixed-use developments. As consumers increasingly demand authentic experiences and tangible expressions of value systems, the stories we tell and how they are shared are now part of a return-on-investment calculation. Whether narrating a specific story or engaging in vibrant conversations with many perspectives, the story-telling power of buildings must not fall on deaf architecture.