I. M. Pei's NCAR building, Boulder, Colorado, part 2

last week or so I posted some introductory thoughts on I. M. Pei’s NCAR building in Boulder. https://mgerwing.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/ncar-by-i-m-pei-part-1/

Today, a few more thoughts on the building:

Pei wanted to make an intentionally scaleless building to abstract the forms in relation to the overwhelming presence of the adjacent flatirons.

He certainly succeeded.  Take the odd situation of the windows – using darkly tinted glass and spandrels of dark metal or black glass, the windows are simply slits in the surrounding concrete forms.   It is almost impossible to tell how many stories the building is or what is the nature of the spaces inside the forms.  These are rendered more as voids rather than windows, similar to Paul Rudolph’s Yale A+A building.

Like most Brutalist buildings, this attempt to erase the marks of human scale and occupation works on a large scale but is painful in the immediate experience of the building.  The building is so relentlessly composed of two materials – concrete and its void – that all of the materials often used to bring another sense of scale and detail – the laps of panels or fasteners, the rhythym of windows and frames, are eliminated.  Even Paul Rudolph’s Yale A+A Building has some smaller scaled detail, the scallops of the roughly corrugated concrete, although occasionally tearing clothes and smashing shoulders, are about the size of your hand and fingers.

The stark orthagonal geometry can be beautiful.  On a couple of occasions where a curve is introduced, like the east approach stair, the interplay of geometry and forms is thrilling.  (the same can not be said for the strange, anolomous arched passageways on the west facade)

In the end I can’t help but see this building as a bit of the dinosaur that it is.  These Brutalist buildings made easy targets for the challenges to Modernism with their cool abstractions and often mean materials.  That the legacy of Modernism, forged in a profoundly humanist utopian project, morphed into cold, scaleless,  inhuman buildings,  is ironically tragic and sad.

NCAR is certainly not a building for the senses and maybe not even for the eye, but rather conceived in the head and held there in its icy Apollonian perfection.  It is beautiful, like an idea or Occum’s razor, made manifest.  And, it was one of the last of its species for a reason.

Standing in either of the publicly-accessible courtyards, the stunning natural setting is held at arm’s length – to be viewed, but not participated in.  Still, the warm concrete walls are a far cry from the worst of the Brutalist genre, if not exactly welcoming, then at least softer, and easier on the eyes and hands.

So next time you are up at NCAR, instead of rushing off to the Mesa Trail and hiking along the flatirons, stop by the building and take a walk around.  To so many people in Boulder “NCAR” means little more than a place to park near a trailhead and some time spent in and around the building, not to mention the work and exhibits inside, is well worth the little dose of culture to mix with the abundant nature of the site.

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I. M. Pei’s NCAR building, Boulder, Colorado, part 2

last week or so I posted some introductory thoughts on I. M. Pei’s NCAR building in Boulder. https://mgerwing.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/ncar-by-i-m-pei-part-1/

Today, a few more thoughts on the building:

Pei wanted to make an intentionally scaleless building to abstract the forms in relation to the overwhelming presence of the adjacent flatirons.

He certainly succeeded.  Take the odd situation of the windows – using darkly tinted glass and spandrels of dark metal or black glass, the windows are simply slits in the surrounding concrete forms.   It is almost impossible to tell how many stories the building is or what is the nature of the spaces inside the forms.  These are rendered more as voids rather than windows, similar to Paul Rudolph’s Yale A+A building.

Like most Brutalist buildings, this attempt to erase the marks of human scale and occupation works on a large scale but is painful in the immediate experience of the building.  The building is so relentlessly composed of two materials – concrete and its void – that all of the materials often used to bring another sense of scale and detail – the laps of panels or fasteners, the rhythym of windows and frames, are eliminated.  Even Paul Rudolph’s Yale A+A Building has some smaller scaled detail, the scallops of the roughly corrugated concrete, although occasionally tearing clothes and smashing shoulders, are about the size of your hand and fingers.

The stark orthagonal geometry can be beautiful.  On a couple of occasions where a curve is introduced, like the east approach stair, the interplay of geometry and forms is thrilling.  (the same can not be said for the strange, anolomous arched passageways on the west facade)

In the end I can’t help but see this building as a bit of the dinosaur that it is.  These Brutalist buildings made easy targets for the challenges to Modernism with their cool abstractions and often mean materials.  That the legacy of Modernism, forged in a profoundly humanist utopian project, morphed into cold, scaleless,  inhuman buildings,  is ironically tragic and sad.

NCAR is certainly not a building for the senses and maybe not even for the eye, but rather conceived in the head and held there in its icy Apollonian perfection.  It is beautiful, like an idea or Occum’s razor, made manifest.  And, it was one of the last of its species for a reason.

Standing in either of the publicly-accessible courtyards, the stunning natural setting is held at arm’s length – to be viewed, but not participated in.  Still, the warm concrete walls are a far cry from the worst of the Brutalist genre, if not exactly welcoming, then at least softer, and easier on the eyes and hands.

So next time you are up at NCAR, instead of rushing off to the Mesa Trail and hiking along the flatirons, stop by the building and take a walk around.  To so many people in Boulder “NCAR” means little more than a place to park near a trailhead and some time spent in and around the building, not to mention the work and exhibits inside, is well worth the little dose of culture to mix with the abundant nature of the site.

NCAR, by I. M. Pei, part 1

This is the first post on NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, designed by I. M. Pei in the mid-1960s, located on a mesa above Boulder, Colorado.

NCAR is probably Boulder, Colorado’s most well-known Modern building.  Perched alone atop a prominent mesa, the complex sits well above the surrounding town and suburbs and has as a backdrop the stunning flatirons and  peaks of the Front Range. (NCAR is part of UCAR, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, with buildings all over Boulder, but the building of interest here is I. M. Pei’s NCAR building at the top western end of Table Mesa Road.)

Along with being the motherload of geeky weather information, NCAR is one of the last purely Modernist buildings, a Brutalist design, that marked the end of the supremacy of Modernism as the only acceptable and official “style” of architecture for American corporate and government buildings.

Unlike the original design,  Pei designed a complex of similarly scaled and proportioned buildings, each providing space for different research groups of the institution and gathered in an intellectual community of shared courtyards.  By breaking the building down into smaller units, NCAR avoided the monumentality and thugishness of many of its Brutalist cousins.  The frankly, and intentionally maze-like design was meant to engender chance encounters between often-isolated researchers.

“You just cannot compete with the scale of the Rockies. So we tried to make a building that was without the conventional scale you get from recognizable floor heights – as in those monolithic structures that still survive fromt he cliff-dwelling Indians.”

I. M. Pei, from Paul Heyer’s American Architecture: Ideas and Ideologies in the Late Twentieth Century, (extracted from the Great Buildings Online website)

“I recalled the places I had seen with my mother when I was a little boy—the mountaintop Buddhist retreats. There in the Colorado mountains, I tried to listen to the silence again—just as my mother had taught me. The investigation of the place became a kind of religious experience for me.”

I. M. Pei, from Gero von Boehm’s Conversations with I. M. Pei: Light is the Key

Unlike most of its Brutalist cousins, this building does make some accommodations to its site and context.  The sources of inspiration that Pei mentions are certainly abstractly apparent, but it is the inclusion of local red sandstone aggregates to the bush-hammered concrete that most closely connects the building to the surrounding environment.

And at a distance, and it is hard to avoid a view of NCAR from almost anywhere in Boulder, the buildings certainly do sit with sensitivity on the mesa.  The scalelessness that Pei speaks about works very well in the view of the larger environment as the buildings, although quite large, are dwarfed by the neighboring flatirons.

I spent a couple of mornings and afternoons at NCAR recently, taking photos and spending time with a building that although I see it everyday, I have come to ignore as a piece of architecture.  I toured the building again, like I did ten years ago when we first moved to Boulder, and tried to understand its intentions and execution, its successes and failures.

Pei was the same age I am now when he designed this building and he often described it as his breakthrough design.  As has so often been said, architecture is an old man’s game, and Pei, like myself at 45 years old, could look back at some 20 – 25 years of buildings, drawings, thoughts and frustrations.  To synthesize this all in a single building is a fool’s errand, but an inevitable attempt for any architect.  After this building, Pei’s work shifted from largely developer-driven, single-structure works, to a more complex and subtle mingling of spatial intentions and object-like buildings.  It may be that only 20 years of fighting the Modernist battle between the desire to craft meaningful spaces and the love of frankly sculptural forms, can generate a building where these opposing forces can join and reinforce each other.

In a future post, I will post my impressions of the building, some more photos, and some thoughts on Pei, Brutalism, Modernism and the sources of inspiration.