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Solution of the Month

All of the Above: The Diana Center’s curtain wall embodies multiple choices of shading, insulating, connecting.

September 2011
Weiss/Manfredi Architects

By David Sokol

Photo © Albert Vecerka/Esto
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In addition to providing a home for art and architecture practice, black-box performance, biological experimentation, and other discourse, the Weiss/Manfredi Architects–designed Diana Center at Barnard College is a worthy subject of classroom study. The 98,000-square-foot facility challenges multiple norms of academic buildings, from hallowed symmetry to masonry construction. By employing a wedge-shaped plan and double-height glass atria along a cascading staircase, for example, it encompasses a hydra-like academic program while also forging visual connections across campus, between Barnard and its upper Manhattan neighborhood, and internally.

The Diana Center’s envelope was developed in an equally considered manner. It comprises 1,154 low-E glass panels of varying widths, and which can be transparent, translucent, or opaque. According to Marion Weiss, who headed the project design with partner Michael Manfredi, “There are seven different glass types on the building that get choreographed, easily, in 100 different ways. Soft, non-reflective glass reveals slices of the building and color-shifting bands hide others.”

The selection of each panel represents larger decision. The non-reflective glass reveals the creative work taking place inside. Weiss adds, “although quite frankly there are hundreds of independently organized spaces that needed to be visually independent, we wanted to mix the things that could be connected,” so social spaces like the double-height atria register clearly, too. The envelope also is transparent where interior functions benefit most from daylight penetration.

Weiss/Manfredi accomplished several sustainability goals with the Diana Center’s curtain wall. To control glare and solar thermal gain in spaces bathed in daylight, ceramic frit in a terracotta color is applied to some glass panels in vertical bands. Weiss likens the pattern to charcoal dust that has drifted away from the skin’s blocks of solid color.

Those opaque panels are actually modules in which terracotta-color, uniformly acid-etched glass sits in front of a painted aluminum surface finished in brilliant red auto body paint. The setup functions as an insulated glass unit, completely integrated with the curtain wall system. Because there is a 5-inch air space between glass and metal, they also are what Weiss calls the “chubbiest” units. The vision glass’ R value is 2.5, while at the etched shadow boxes, which encompass approximately 60 percent of the building skin, the R value of the curtain wall is 5. These values include mullions, notes project manager Mike Harshman, and if you were to include the interior insulation behind these panels, the R value is approximately 15.

For all its complexity, the Diana Center envelope’s traditional and shadow-box units together make a typical unitized system. “The capacity to control the assembly of this building by prefabricated units is a very appealing thing,” Weiss says, explaining that the project team had always intended to devise an off-the-shelf skin than one that would have required the bespoke efforts of multiple trades. “We wanted a generic-enough system so a number of manufacturers could bid on it.”

The curtain wall’s other performance features are similarly easy to grasp. A counterpoint to insulation, manually operable windows sprinkled around the Diana Center allow occupants to naturally ventilate the spaces during temperate weather. Shades activated by light sensors and manual controls minimize glare and keep the interior from getting, er, red hot.

In this respect the Diana Center’s envelope embraces confusion. Weiss/Manfredi employed color specifically so its complexion can change in ways that campus brick cannot. In particular, the fiery panels backing the chubby IGUs shift identity, assuming appearances from newly minted pennies to smoked salmon, according to time and weather conditions. Moreover, the acid etching of the glass makes the building seem more substantive than transparent: Newcomers sometimes discern the envelope as metal, sometimes stone. If Barnard officials wanted to expand their architecture curriculum, they could easily turn the Diana Center into an upper-level seminar. It problematizes materiality.


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