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Crystal Bridges and The Art of Shading
Posted on Wednesday, September 13, 2023
Crystal Bridges and The Art of Shading

Sept. 13, 2023 - The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has been a special place since it was first completed in 2012 by Safdie Architects. The Bentonville, Arkansas, facility was designed to blend perfectly into the surrounding natural landscape, so visitors experience art and the beauty of nature in one setting.

"Our mission is to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that combines both the power of art with the beauty of nature," said James Masner, Guest Services Manager at Crystal Bridges. "One of the results of that is creating very nature centric architecture in order to combine those elements."

10 years later, when it was time to expand the museum, Safdie was the natural choice to seamlessly integrate the new and existing structures while retaining the same connection with nature. Phase 1 of this project included an extension of the museum's existing lobby to add a rotunda with a dome-shaped glass ceiling. And that is where Safdie need some additional help bringing art, architecture, and nature together while providing protection from glare and heat.

"They had a very strong vision for what they wanted to accomplish within the dome space of this project," said Wright. "They knew that they wanted sail shades, they wanted them to meet in the middle of the dome, and they knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish. They just didn't know how to engineer the solution and they knew that Draper had the capabilities to make that happen."

Overall, the dome required 12 large trapezoidal sail shades, measuring 12-13 feet wide at the base and narrowing to around 2 feet at the top. Safdie also wanted the lower part of the shades to billow slightly for a pillowed effect without interfering with a small ledge around the bottom of the dome.

If it sounds like the tailored Draper solution is a focal point in the space, you're right. Shades in such spaces are normally meant to quietly do their job of cutting glare or reducing solar heat gain, then disappear.

"This situation was actually very unique, in that the architect really wanted to bring forward a solution that did accomplish those functional elements but was also incredibly beautiful and added as a showcase to the space," said Wright. "When I walk into the dome, these shades are awe-inspiring. Typically, shades are meant to be shrinking violets, and these certainly are not."

"One of the things we realized very early on was during sunset with the Draper blinds closed, it creates almost a sunburst effect onto the floor," said Masner. "Then as the sun's setting, that actually goes up the wall of the museum into the window, creating like a reverse sunset effect. It's one of the key components when a lot of guests come in. They will sit in the main lobby for the entire time that it's going up the wall."

But phase 1 of the project wasn't finished, and neither was Draper's role in it. Part of the venue is Walker's Landing, a beautiful outdoor event space. Although the area had overhead shading, glare from sunlight hitting the surface of an adjacent pond made it a very uncomfortable space. Draper's solution was a unique outdoor shade that is cantilevered out over the edge of the water.

"One of the main things is being able to span this width in an outdoor shade, particularly in being able to keep this width in such a small profile headbox at the top," said Wright. "Another thing that makes this unique is its use of a telescoping hem bar. It's a trapezoidal shape. So to be able to run the shade on tracks at the side and to be able to engage the outdoor shade in the side tracks and keep the shape of the trapezoid, we were able to use a telescoping hem bar specifically designed to allow the shade to stay taut when necessary and still retract fully."

Crystal Bridges is now moving into the next phase of expansion. Draper will be there, engineering more unique solutions to help combine comfort with art, architecture, and nature.