I’ve been thinking about the relationship between simplicity and complexity in design. Why do some design problems initially appear simple but then upon investigation, turn out to be very complex? Why does the solution to a complex problem often, after lengthy analysis, turn out to be the most simple answer? Or why does it sometimes take a very complex technical solution to produce an elegantly simple visible end result?
During the design and construction of a recently completed project, I asked myself some of these questions. Although I don’t have all the answers, this project provides some examples to demonstrate what I’m talking about. The project is the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., designed by Safdie Architects.
Here is one of the design challenges presented to us: make it look like the architectural model – make that translucent roof glow at night. And, oh by the way, you have to light the space underneath at the same time. It seems simple, right? But it’s really complicated.
We did lots and lots of computer modeling to test out different ideas. Now, you’re probably wondering, why is there a picture of the Lincoln Memorial? Well it turns out, the roof couldn’t be any brighter than any of the surrounding monuments and memorials, so we had to do a complete luminance study and a presentation at the National Capital Planning Commission to show that our roof wouldn’t be any brighter than the memorials.
Then we had to estimate the transmittance and reflectance of the roof, and it turned out the roof system was going to be in two layers: an outer layer of translucent glass and an inner layer of fabric membrane. So, estimating this was actually quite complicated because of the inter-reflections. We started with back-of-the-napkin sketches and then moved on to tabletop mockups with some of the possible materials for the roof.
Then we moved on to full-scale mockups, and these had to be done in Germany because that’s where the roof was being built (at Seele, outside of Munich). First we looked at the mockup in daytime to see how the different combinations of possible inner and outer materials would perform.
Then we tested the different material options outdoors at night with the proposed lighting solutions. And we did visual evaluations of how it looked outside and inside, took all kinds of meter readings, and of course when we were done, since we were in Munich, we had to have a beer!
So after that very complicated design process here is the solution – really simple: for the interior portions of the roof, linear fluorescent forward-throw cove fixtures. And for the exterior overhangs, in-ground metal halide adjustable accent lights.
And here’s the visible end result: very simple and elegant. Architectural forms are revealed and the space is well illuminated. I knew we were successful when a visitor said to me, “So, you’re making the roof glow, but I don’t see any light fixtures.”
Moshe Safdie’s vision was realized, and we’re a good neighbor to the surrounding memorials and monuments. So was all this complicated design process really necessary to reach this beautiful end result? That’s what I’m thinking about. I think it was. All the modeling and mockups and testing and head-scratching gave us much, much more confidence that our very simple solution would work. Without it, I think we would have been inclined to make the solution much more complicated, and in the end, that could have given us a final result that was cluttered and incoherent.
Photo Credits: Safdie Architects (1), Glenn Heinmiller/Lam Partners (2-10)