When a scrunched budget doesn'êt let an architect even think about committing a great building, there'ês still this tantalizing opening: one inspired idea, one stunning detail, to serve as a centerpiece for an otherwise humdrum project.
That'ês what Jim Olson of Seattle'ês highly regarded architectural firm, Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, has wrought in the new Lightcatcher building for the Whatcom Museum, opening in downtown Bellingham Nov. 14. Its one great idea is so promising that it could be a point of departure for a whole new generation of Northwest contemporary architecture.
'êLightcatcher'ê self-describes the idea, and what it does. It'ês a curved, west-facing, double-glazed glass wall, sandblasted into soft translucency and tinted into the warm amber spectrum at one end. A 16-inch air space between the inside and outside panels works as a dynamic insulator, trapping solar-heated air in winter and ventilating itself with cooler outside air in summer.
Outside, the wall forms the backdrop for an open courtyard and broadcasts interior light into the streets at night. It'ês not just a curtain wall; it establishes a sculptural presence by curling in more tightly toward its north end. The form is organic, on loan from nature. If you could peer down on it from a perch in the sky, it would be a fragment of a perfect ellipse.
More important is what happens inside. The wall floods a long hallway and mezzanine with daylight whose quality modulates with the weather, time, and season. The filtering effect of the translucent glass disguises what'ês happening. The mood of the spaces lit by the 'êcatcher subtly changes, with the potential of subliminal emotional effects on us, the people wandering through the room.
Why should this matter? Well, since the dawn of electric lighting and later thermostatic climate control, we'êve been progressively isolating ourselves inside our buildings from the cycles of nature. Architecture is now far beyond shelter; it'ês the creation of human-engineered worlds. We control every aspect of our interior environments — light, heat, humidity, sound, even smell. Of course this artificial isolation is comfortable, but it has also led us into environmental hubris. It has disconnected us from the natural environment and encouraged us to make decisions about culture and technology and growth as if nature didn'êt matter.
Frank Lloyd Wright figured this was wrong 75 years ago. In building Taliesin West, his winter compound near Phoenix, he specified a translucent canvas roof for the great drafting room. Although frosted acrylic replaced the fabric after Wright departed — the canvas had cheerfully leaked bugs, dirt, and rain — the effect remains today. A cloud lazes across the sun, and the mood of the room suddenly changes, like one of those startling major-to-parallel-minor key shifts in a Schubert sonata.
Most architects, then or now, would say that light in a work room should be controlled and consistent. But spend an afternoon under Wright'ês roof, and you begin to understand differently: Work, thought, and art all should be affected by emotion and connections to the cadences of nature. Human culture disconnects from nature to its detriment and, it now appears likely, eventual disaster.
But back to Bellingham and the more mundane corners of its new art museum.
Museum curators worry chronically about the deleterious effects of ultraviolet light on art, so not much of the lightcatcher'ês daylight leaks into the actual galleries. They'êre windowless boxes, painted a nondescript old-sneaker beige, with the mechanical entrails all left exposed and slathered with the same paint. The pinched budget is obvious. Lighting is unusually crepuscular, providing highlights for the art but an overall ambient gloom. The children'ês room, which they'êre calling the Family Interactive Gallery, is vastly more cheerful and features a constellation of delightful gizmos.
Apart from the iconic Lightcatcher, the museum'ês street presence could almost be mistaken for one of the countless 'ê60s storefront blocks that make up downtown Bellingham. It'ês low and boxy, and the doors and windows are framed in cheesy raw aluminum. The courtyard will open to the public during museum hours, but it'ês still largely walled off from the street with towering cast-concrete palisades. It'ês easy to imagine a building that unfolds in a more welcoming posture, although not many museums, concerned about security, try to.
A thorny conundrum, this matter of context. Since Gehry'ês Bilbao Guggenheim — no, even back to 1959 and Wright'ês New York Guggenheim — architects have pondered whether an iconic civic building should reflect the neighborhood around it, only a little grander and better, or blow it to smithereens. Olson, whose ego flies substantially lower than Gehry'ês or Wright'ês, designed a building that settles into Bellingham without a ripple. The city might have been better served by a building that demonstrated the more dramatic possibilities of 21st-century architecture.
Then again, if the idea of the Lightcatcher catches on, that'êll be accomplishment enough. There are more important things than drama.