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Wednesday, April 4,2012

Meet the design enforcer

Project Manager Craig Kiner keeps an eye on the Broad Art Museum

by Lawrence Cosentino

Every day, thousands of passersby squint at the spot where the silvery-sleek Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum is taking final shape. Craig Kiner is watching the metamorphosis with a keener eye than most.

Kiner, the museum’s project manager, flew to Lansing from architect Zaha Hadid’s London offices for a few days in March to check on the small army of builders that is pulling Hadid’s dynamic design from the drawing board to the physical world.

Every four to six weeks, Kiner or project architect Alberto Barba (or both) visit the site and report back to Hadid and her  associate Patrik Schumacher.

“Our responsibility is to ensure that the execution of the building is in accordance with the design,” Kiner said.

Kiner looked pleased as he wrapped up his most recent visit March 9. He’ll be back later this month.

“This project is very close to what our aspirations are and were, even at the competition stage,” he declared.

After months of watching the museum’s glass and stainless steel exoskeleton form over its larval concrete, Kiner began last month to focus on the quickening life inside the shell.

“Internal work is really picking up,” he said. “The work has really reached another level over the last couple of months, and it needs to, to get the building complete and ready for the exhibitions.”

The most dramatic recent addition to the interior is a jagged “feature staircase” that rockets through the middle of the museum as if a hand grenade had rolled under it half a second ago. For now, scaffolding conceals its angular thrust, but the sight of the staircase hunching in the dark made Kiner’s eyes flicker.

“What’s going to be amazing is when people move up and down that space, you’re going to experience the materiality of those concrete walls and the direct connection to Grand River Avenue, the city,” he said. Kiner often uses the word “materiality” to describe the textural and visual seduction exuded by the building’s naked haunches of steel, glass and concrete.

The stairwell, sheathed in glass, zig-zags up the museum’s north face as if it were meant to contain lightning. The scaffolds had to be braced off the walls because there’s nothing directly above or below them to fasten to.

“Look down below, where that wall hits,” Kiner said, with a smile. “Try to transfer a vertical line, and it doesn’t hit the roof.”

On the second floor, Kiner basked in the sunshine filtering into the building through the stainless steel fins outside.

“We wanted natural light in the galleries,” Kiner said. “We never believed some curators and advisers in the art world who think square white boxes without any natural light is the best way to display artwork.”

The glass that let the light in was the main cause of the delay in the museum’s scheduled opening date from April to September. Some panels were broken on arrival and others didn’t fit.

“Yes, there’s been some hiccups with glass getting broken before it leaves the factory, getting damaged in transit or getting broken in site, but all those things are normal, especially when you’re dealing with components that are challenging,” he said. “They’re very large pieces of glass, triple-glazed units, argon-filled, with lamination on the outside and inside, and they’re very heavy.” 

He said the delayed opening date had its good side, including warm weather for the extensive landscaping to be done.

“I don’t think it’s unfair to say that people were relieved to have that extra time,” he said. 

As a design enforcer, Kiner is used to shuttling back and forth from the abstract to the concrete — a long commute, where Hadid’s bold designs are concerned.

“We had aspirations, but we need to balance that with what is achievable construction-wise,” he said.

Thanks to carefully calculated cantilevering, hidden trusses extending halfway across the museum hold up its miraculous leaning west wall, as the architect envisioned. Other features called for more give and take between designer and builder. At first, Hadid’s team intended to pour the concrete for the entire café wall at the museum’s east side at one time, but this is no ordinary wall. No matter how carefully the forms were braced and built, pouring a 35-foot-high wall at a vertical inclination of about 15 to 18 degrees was asking for trouble.

“There would be incredible pressure at the bottom of those forms,” Kiner said. “There was a significant danger of that wall, basically, blowing out the form work.”

After a huddle, the team decided to pour the wall in two stages, with a control joint between, leaving a narrow horizontal seam above the café. It seems like a small thing, but Kiner and the team don’t take such compromises lightly. If Hadid’s designs are about anything, they’re about clean lines and smooth planes, with no nubs or bumps to dispel the impression the visitor is being swept up in pure vectors of force. 

“It looks fine,” he said. “It articulates the wall.” 

Before he left the site, Kiner took a minute to reflect on the Broad Museum’s place in Hadid’s growing portfolio of architectural marvels.

“It’s a significant building for us, but not in terms of its size, because we’ve done much larger buildings,” he said.

That is an understatement. Around the world, Hadid’s office is erecting projects that dwarf the Broad Museum’s 43,000 square feet, from the Guangzhou Opera House to the tsunami-sized Aquatics Centre for the London 2012 Olympic Games. These days, Kiner is splitting his time between the Broad Museum and the 915,000-square-foot Dongdaemun Design Park & Plaza, a multi-use urban development project in Seoul, South Korea. 

To Kiner, the Broad Museum is significant in Hadid’s portfolio for two reasons. One is that it’s only the office’s second building in the United States. The first was Cincinnati’s Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, a very different animal, owing to its vertical thrust and urban setting.

“In Cincinnati, the site area was very restricted, on the corner of two streets,” Kiner said. “There’s no real space around it, except for the sidewalks.”

To invite people into the Rosenthal Center, Hadid rolled the sidewalk, like a carpet, up into the museum’s floating stack of rectangles. The Broad’s more spacious setting, with a courtyard and sculpture garden, called for a different strategy.

That leads to the second reason Kiner finds the Broad Museum significant in the Hadid corpus: the way the building nestles in its context.

That’s not to say the museum is shy; let’s say it’s socially adept.

“It’s not a contextual response you might find in a traditional building,” Kiner allowed. “Spatially and geometrically, it reacts to the movement around it.” The museum’s lines, orifices and angles not only plug into vehicle traffic on Grand River Avenue, but also the north-south movement of students from East Lansing to campus and back.

“That movement was translated over the building,” Kiner said. “That became the patches and pleats, the folding of the skin across the external envelope.”

Kiner said the grand design will become clearer in coming weeks, when low site walls and planted areas go in. “There’s almost a wave current of the building’s geometry that’s spread across the foot of the building, across the landscape,” he said.

On the walk back to the work trailer, he looked back at the museum, crouching in the pines. The light was constantly changing as clouds rolled in the March wind. Kiner was due back for the U.K. that afternoon, but couldn’t resist a lingering look.

“An amazing aspect of the stainless steel is how it reacts to different kinds and qualities of light,” Kiner said.  “It gets reflective, it gets dull, and then it starts glowing.”

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