The architect of a new $55 million art museum in Fort
Worth is winning praise for his groundbreaking use of concrete, but
much of the credit goes to engineers who have developed new ways to
use the age- old material.
When you walk through the new Modern Art Museum of Fort
Worth, you can't help but look up, given the soaring ceilings
in the lobby and the many exhibit galleries. Japanese architect Tadao
Ando's design uses vertical space in a very impressive style;
some of the ceilings are 40 feet high, bathed in natural light, and
framed by silky and shimmering concrete. The effect is simple, yet
stunning. Never have large rooms of poured concrete exhibited such
warmth and charm.
But as you look up, it is what you don't see that
is perhaps the most striking. The ceiling of the main lobby, which
is 80 feet long and 64 feet wide, has little or no visible support.
The ceiling seems to be held up by the exuberance of the space and
nothing more. There are no steel cross beams holding up the concrete
ceiling, no truss support systems. Two concrete pillars, very much
off center, are the only visible means of support. Glass skylights
run the length of the main ceiling, adding to the effect that something
other than science is holding that concrete ceiling in place. Outside
the building, Y-shaped concrete columns hold up huge concrete overhangs
(24 feet by 56 feet) that appear to hover over the museum's
It is almost as if the concrete is flying. But we all
know that concrete doesn't fly on its own, at least not without
a little help from structural engineers. The $55 million museum is
winning praise from architecture critics for its groundbreaking use
of concrete and glass and space. But the building, due to open in
December, is also winning praise from engineers for making Ando's
visionary architectural drawings a reality. The 153,000 square foot
museum will be the largest museum of modern art outside of` MoMA in
"Most buildings are built like Stonehenge,"
says David Spires, a structural engineer with Thornton-Tomasetti Engineers
in Dallas. , the project's structural consultant. "You
put one piece on top of the other and the bottom pieces supports the
pieces above. But this building is so different. Almost everything
we did had to be unique. The challenge is that everything we did here
is exposed. There was no margin for error."
It is appropriate that Ando's groundbreaking
design is being used for an art museum. But the building itself, with
its unique use of concrete, is also a testament to the role that science
has in creating art. Ando, a self-taught practitioner, relies heavily
on engineers to make his designs a reality. This has created a unique
relationship between the Japanese architect and his Texas engineers:
Ando must think more like a scientist when creating his art, and the
engineers must think like artists when coming up with complex solutions
to uphold the artistic integrity of the building.
Take soaring ceilings in the lobby and in the exhibit
spaces. The engineers came up with 20 different approaches to creating
the vast rooms without a visible support system. Ando wanted the ceiling
to be poured in concrete slabs as little as six-inches thick. The
team considered cast-in-place concrete, pre-cast concrete and steel
frames. Steel frames offered the easiest solution, but departed from
Ando's vision of a more organic all-concrete roof system. Likewise,
strengthened pre-cast concrete did not conform to Ando's view
that the ceilings should have the same shimmering veneer of his specially
designed 16-inch thick poured concrete walls.
The solution was a flat roof scheme, poured on site
using the same Ando approved molds. The flat roof concrete molds are
held in place by attaching them to concrete overhangs that extend
from the walls. The overhangs have been nicknamed "longhorns"
(many of the engineers on the site are University of Texas graduates),
and the ceiling is held in place from the end of the horn. Many of
the concrete ceilings are also embedded with metal tendons sheathed
in plastic. The plastic sheaths allow the tendons to be stretched,
providing extra support for the ceilings. In some cases, the hydraulic
jacks doing the stretching are exerting 32,000 pounds of force and
stretching the cables several inches.
Originally, the engineers thought that concrete beams
would be needed to support the massive roof systems. But they found
that the inherent torsional strength of the flat roof system allowed
the beams to be removed, thus providing a cleaner roof system that
complied with Ando's vision. "It is a fallacy that architects
hand over the designs to a structural engineer and the engineer merely
tells the architect what will work and what won't," says
Spires, a 1984 graduate of the University of Texas—Austin in
architectural engineering who also holds a master's in civil
engineering from the University of Iowa. "We worked closely
with Ando and the museum owners, making suggestions that would support
the artistic vision, but also making sure the building would work
in a practical way. There was a lot of give and take over the issues
of function versus appearance. In every case, we could have taken
the easy way out and put functionality first. But we knew this building
was a work of art in itself, and we had to think like artists."
The use of concrete was an interesting subtext for Ando's vision.
The award-winning architect (Ando, 60, has won the 1995 Pritzker Architecture
Prize, the 2002 Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects,
and the 2002 Kyoto Prize for Art & Philosophy) likes buildings
that do not "speak very much." Instead, he uses organic
materials and natural light to frame the spaces in very subtle ways.
For the engineers, it means taking one of nature's oldest building
materials and literally casting it in a new way.
Concrete has been around since ancient times, beginning with the
Egyptians and perfected by the Romans. From the arches in the Coliseum
to the dome of the Pantheon, concrete became the building material
of choice from the ancient to the modern world. In the 19th century,
concrete became even more important when it was reinforced with steel.
Reinforced concrete was the design force behind skyscrapers and housing
But concrete architecture became a dirty concept in the past 20
years. Prefab concrete structure, factory produced and assembled on
site, took on a pedestrian air of a functional yet bland building
material. Builders used it as the cheapest alternative, and it was
considered by the leading architects to be little more than a utilitarian
material that needed to be the bones of the building, but should be
covered up once it was poured or hoisted into place.
"The mistakes of the 1960s and 1970s were not to do with the
material itself, but often with how it was used," says Australian
architect Andrew Nolan. "If concrete is used in the right architectural
form and for the right reasons, the result is not only strong but
beautiful, light, warm, and enduring. It's plastic, durable,
permanent, and ideal for creating expansive spaces, retaining the
site, and combining sympathetically with other masonry materials."
Civil engineering departments around the world are experimenting
with new ways to use this age-old material. Engineers at the University
of California-San Diego are combing concrete with composites to allow
bridge decks to be lighter, and making longer bridge spans possible.
The University of Iowa is finding ways to make concrete highways stronger.
The result is that engineering departments are developing concrete
that is lighter, stronger, more pliable, and aesthetically more appealing.
For the museum, Ando (who also used concrete as the major design
material in the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts building in St. Louis)
needed a mix of concrete that was strong, resisted cracking, and would
have a shimmer once it cured. The engineers worked closely with Ramon
Carasquillo, University of Texas professor of civil engineering and
concrete expert, to come up with a mix that would meet Ando's
requirements. The final mix balanced the amount of fly ash and fine
aggregate to achieve a fine surface density with limited water content.
The team tested Carasquillo's mix by pouring small walls on
the museum site three years ago to see how the mix would hold up to
the elements. The construction crews used specially designed resin
coated plywood as forms for the concrete structure, a process Ando
has pioneered to create a surface that would change appearances at
different angles and in different light, looking mottled from the
front and shiny when viewed at an angle. One can see the attention
to detail immediately; the corners on the square concrete pillars
are as sharp as razor blades. (Ando's attention to detail is
legendary. A former boxer, he is reputed to have once punched out
a construction worker who flicked a cigarette into the concrete mix.)
Spires says that the finished product has given him a greater appreciation
for the artistic process. "Sometimes, we as engineers look for
the cheapest and most functional solution to solve problems,"
he says. "In this case, we had to consider the artistic vision
as well. Ando is smart enough to know that he can't get involved
in every little engineering detail. But we were smart enough to know
that our work was going to complete his vision and create a building
that will look new and original 100 years from now."
Author Raymond Chandler once wrote: "Without art, science
would be as useless as a pair of high forceps in the hands of a plumber.
Without science, art would become a crude mess of folklore and emotional
quackery." In the case of this museum, the artist Ando has teamed
with the scientist, Spires, to create a masterpiece. Without the input
of both, the building might have ended up as an empty and boring jewel
box, or a 153,000-square-foot nonfunctional flight of fancy.
It is the blend of both science and art that allows the Modern Art
Museum of Fort Worth to be more than just a place to hang paintings
and display sculptures. By using an old material in a new way—and
by coming up with creative solutions to old problems—the Texas
engineers and the Japanese architect have created their own masterpiece.
As a testament to their work, this concrete structure is now considered
the first major work of art being displayed at the new museum.
Dan McGraw is a freelance writer based in Fort
Worth. He can be reached at email@example.com.