Hidden Spaces

Some recent expansions of historic structures have led planners underground for creative architectural solutions

December 03, 2006|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,[Sun Reporter]

MOUNT VERNON, VA. — MOUNT VERNON, VA.

In a pasture beside George Washington's estate here, Hogg Island sheep grazed on a recent fall day, forming a tableau that would have looked familiar to the first president.

Beneath that field, however, the scene was much more 21st-century: A new orientation center and museum, designed to avoid disturbing the 18th-century landscape, was full of visitors checking out the latest in computerized historical displays.

Architects had virtually no choice but to tuck most of the new 67,000-square-foot building out of sight -- namely, below ground -- so as not to mar the experience of visitors to the mansion, which looks as it did in 1799 when Washington died.

"The real challenge was that we were tasked to [make] these buildings uplifting and deferential to the spirit of Washington," said Alan Reed, principal architect for Baltimore-based GWWO Inc., which designed the Mount Vernon addition. "We've taken our cues from the estate itself and really integrated nature into this design. And it's very important that it be an uplifting experience where you don't feel like you're going into a basement."

The result is an optical illusion: Enter the orientation center at street level, and within a few paces you're 35 feet below ground. Exit from the opposite end, and eventually the building disappears from view, shrouded behind emerald grass and leafy trees.

Although underground architecture long has been used in unique settings, from Paris' Louvre to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, there's been a noticeable spate of high-profile projects going underground recently.

"It's a technique that has been in the mainstream for longer than most people are aware of because of its lack of visibility," said Lance Brown of the American Institute of Architects, a trade group in Washington.

At Mount Vernon, the new orientation building and adjoining museum and education center are components of a $110 million addition. The complex houses artifacts and state-of-the-art exhibits that illuminate chapters of Washington's life, including his early adulthood, military leadership and the presidency.

"Historic places are understanding that we need to enliven the educational experience, and because of our commitment to historic places, we chose to build underground," said Reed of GWWO. "It was really about not seeing these buildings from the mansion or the historic grounds of the estate. These buildings are important in educating about Washington, but they're not the prime focus of people's journey here."

In nearby Washington, the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center is under construction. The 580,000-square foot project will be entirely below grade. Scheduled for completion next fall, it will comprise an exhibition gallery, orientation theaters and a 600-seat cafeteria.

To blend with Capitol Hill, the $522-million project includes planting 85 new trees, restoring historic fountains, lanterns and seat walls, and adding skylights, water features and granite pavers on the east side of the legislative building.

"The issues with the Capitol is that it is the greatest symbol of democracy in the world, and no one was interested in altering the image or bothering the significance," said Rod Henderer, vice president of the architectural firm RTKL Associates, whose Washington office designed the visitor's center. "We studied five locations, but this is the one that solved all the problems of getting in and out of the Capitol, maintaining the prominence of the Capitol and addressing issues of accessibility and managing crowds."

Gehry underground

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a $500-million expansion is being built largely below grade of the Greek Revival-style structure famed for its international art collection, not to mention its role in the 1976 movie "Rocky."

Renowned architect Frank O. Gehry, whose work includes the steel-skinned Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, is designing a portion of the project. The new space he designed to house contemporary art will be built within the hill on which the museum is perched, above the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Currently, patrons visiting from that area of the museum must walk uphill to enter, but they'll enter at street level after the expansion is completed.

The project will add 80,000 square feet of new public space, a 60-percent increase, to a facility that draws nearly 1 million visitors a year. It also will include below-grade parking and a rooftop sculpture garden to be designed by the Olin Partnership, in collaboration with Atkin Olshin Lawson-Bell Architects, in a section of East Fairmount Park.

Officials say the move to go below ground makes use of the ambience of the park while providing enough room for more than 400 parking spaces without disrupting the look of the park or the 78-year-old museum.

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