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A guest post from Lee H. Skolnick

Creative Exchange on the Expanding Plane: Culture and Collaboration

All anyone can talk about these days is how the world is shrinking and the universe of communication is expanding.  One can’t help wonder if these two countervailing forces will eventually collide and we will all dissolve into a digital cloud – a second cultural Big Bang.  International starchitects are covering the earth with anonymously modern buildings that seem to have little sympathy or regard for the cultures and environments into which they are dropped.  Branded designers are held up like trophies for oligarchs, culturati, billionaires and multi-national corporations.  Landscapes are disappearing under the bulldozer and building-scapes are springing up like glossy weeds.  And that same technological revolution that has made working internationally much easier and more efficient:  through facilitating communication, sharing drawings, conducting long distance video design and site meetings, allowing 24-hour productivity... That same technology has resulted in a global architectural beauty pageant.  Shiny bodies empty of true meaning, a kind of sexy image Internet of building porn...and international design trends often based on blind imitation, replete with cultural ignorance and misunderstanding.  So we might well ask: have we unwittingly fashioned our own architectural apocalypse?  It might seem so.

But one might also note that there are some positive aspects amidst this whirlwind of rapidly accelerating international building and development.  We see that hands reach across oceans and continents in order to share expertise and foster cultural understanding.  We observe that working in underserved, previously closed or largely unrecognized societies, filled with their own fascinating histories, customs and resources is trending around the globe.  We must concede that this movement offers tremendous possibilities, economically, socially and artistically.  Although with it comes great challenges as well.  What are they?

One is Cultural Imperialism - will international collaborations result in the imposition of foreign values, aesthetics, and inappropriate creative and financial responses?  What does bringing the Louvre or the Guggenheim to far-flung lands say about what those cultures value, and what does it say about how they view their own cultural riches?

Another is creeping Homogeneity:  for years, I have touched down at airports around the US and almost been confused about where I landed.  Increasingly, each American city, town and suburb has lost its unique character and become a bland copy of all the others…..strip malls, chain restaurants, anonymous corporate architecture and iconography.  Is this what we want to export to the rest of the world?  The latest culturally neutered international style of blobs, boxes, swoopy sculptural forms, fractured edifices, conceived in a studio far away and with the goal of promulgating a signature architect’s brand around the globe?

And then there's the specter of Professional and aesthetic Arrogance -  Can it really be that international architects know better than local ones what is appropriate architecture wherever they go, no matter how much they might lack a deep understanding of the traditions, values, and visual language of the places they build?  By what standards do they earn the right to dictate or hold their skills above those who live and work in these contexts?

OK, these are some of the pitfalls, and in the best instances they can be avoided if they are recognized and addressed head-on, although we might all agree that the cases in which that happens are too few and far-between.  But what ARE the advantages of international creative exchange and collaboration?  Well, in truth, there are many.

For one, many countries have lagged behind in areas of development and building types that have already spread through the United States and parts of Western Europe.  This is especially true with regard to some types of high tech industries and research facilities, health care institutions, sustainable infrastructure, and cultural projects like universities, museums, schools and libraries.  Because many of these projects require or at least benefit from specific design or technical expertise that may not be as developed in some countries, there is a tremendous potential for foreign experts to share their experience as a means of jump-starting the successful creation of these projects, thereby helping developing countries to realize beneficial societal and economic gains.

At the same time, by international designers partnering with local designers, consultants, engineers, constructors and suppliers, this process can greatly accelerate the education of these local professionals so that they can gain the expertise and experience to successfully take on these projects on their own in the future.  This building of local and regional capability has broad-based advantages in terms of fostering psychological and sociological confidence as well as creating and expanding economic opportunities locally instead of funneling financial resources out of their respective countries to other places. The hoped for results are that industries and professions are strengthened and faith in domestic skills and expertise is enhanced.

Perhaps most importantly, although certainly the most difficult to measure empirically, is the spirit of openness, mutual respect and generosity, cultural curiosity and immersion, collegiality, and ultimately, friendship and understanding that are all the beneficial fruits of true collaboration and creative exchange. 

It is with the foregoing in mind that we share some thoughts about our experience in creating Muzeiko, The America for Bulgaria Children’s Museum.  Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership (LHSA+DP) was engaged by the America for Bulgaria Foundation, an organization originated by the United States to strengthen the market economy and institutions of democratic society in Bulgaria, enhancing it as a successful, modern European nation. The Foundation sought to bring the American model of the children’s museum and science center to the Bulgarian people in an effort to provide informal educational opportunities for Bulgarian children and families and a new resource for Bulgarian educators. Specifically, the client requested that the project support STEM-based (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) educational objectives aligned with local school curriculum. The resulting project is the embodiment of the Foundation’s goals. Located in Bulgaria’s capital city of Sofia, it is the first children’s museum in Bulgaria and Southern Europe.

The architecture, interior design and exhibition organization for Muzieko are driven by an overall Conceptual Framework that has three interrelated themes:

  • The concept of Space and Time, which examines the physical earth (underground/the past), life on the earth’s surface (the contemporary environment/the present) and the celestial universe (the sky, the future)
  • The idea that Exploration is a process of discovery where ideas and concepts are revealed and unfold before us, children and adults alike
  • The message that Bulgaria itself is a place with an awareness of its past history, but is also striving toward a new future and a contemporary connection with the larger global community, while continuing to celebrate its heritage - tradition as a window on the world.

The architecture and exhibit themes inform each other in this new facility. To this end, the three levels of Muzeiko act as conceptual and literal platforms for exploration and discovery across both Space and Time.

The building appears initially as an expansive glass enclosed rectilinear structure in which colorful angled and articulated volumes have engaged themselves. The design intent is that the parts of the museum unfold and reveal themselves as visitors move into and through the facility, sending a very conscious message of openness and welcome and transparency.  The main entrance is through the largest of these volumes, articulated in digitally carved HPL panels resembling wood. This is one of Muzeiko’s three “little mountains”. Angled and folded, this way and that, as if in motion, their geometries echo the stunning mountain ranges of Bulgaria – the Balkans, Pirins, Rhodopes and nearby Vitosha. These forms also allude to scientific subject matter such as cells and atomic structures, as well as naturally occurring geometries and phenomena - crystals, spirals and fractals.  They suggest caves as well as the traditional domes of Sofia’s landmarks. From the subterranean to the skyline, the forms’ folded planes open to reveal programmatic components of the Museum and emphasize the project’s Conceptual Framework across Space and Time. Mysterious and generating a sense of intrigue and excitement, shadows and daylight playing across their surfaces throughout the day, the “little mountains” allow for curiosity, revelation and exploration of all kinds.

These forms anchor the museum in the neighborhood and give it a distinctive presence among the other more prosaic educational and residential buildings of the surrounding university campuses. The volumes bulge outward, pushing through their glass enclosure, barely contained by the building envelope.  This energy of the folding planes influences the layout of other spaces in the building. In this manner, we sought to maximize the area of the building by opening the interior space of the building outward, and where possible, extending it beyond the structure.

The central entry “mountain” rises up, unfolding toward a skylight at the top that washes the volume’s interior with natural light, the light filters down through a multi-level interactive Iconic Tree that starts on the lower level of the museum and twists upward into this open atrium at the heart of Muzeiko. An intensely dramatic element in the lobby, it also becomes a central icon and family photo opportunity for the children’s museum.

The open architecture and forms within create a landscape that allows for discovery of the ancient and modern, much like a journey through Bulgaria itself. Elements that characterize traditional Bulgarian folk architecture and crafts, particularly those of the National Revival, express the country’s heritage and inform the new building and the exhibitions. Materials such as metal, wood and glass are used in a modern way to reflect both past civilizations and contemporary life. Imagery that recalls traditional carved wooden ceilings, embroidered textiles, and glazed earthenware pottery of previous empires adorn the ‘little mountains’ of self-discovery. In addition to the entry volume clad in golden-hued “wood” panels, one volume – containing the Admissions Center, Museum Shop and Café service area, is clad in green panels with motifs abstracted Bulgarian ceramics. The third is clad in red panels digitally printed with images drawn from woven textiles and embroidered fabrics. This volume contains lockers, storage, rest rooms, a changing exhibit gallery and workshop spaces. Dramatically lit with colored lighting at night – the folded, splayed and fragmented surfaces of these intriguing forms glow within this taut, transparent toy box.

The free span structure and expanses of transparent glass allow for maximum openness of views inside and out, with ease of circulation through this entry wing of the building. A ceiling plane of seamless, acoustically absorbing plaster dampens sound, while recessed channels allow for lighting fixtures and HVAC registers. A luminous terrazzo floor with stainless steel divider strips that spin outward in a radial manner from the faceted volumes of the “little mountains” provides durability, ease of maintenance and beauty in this highly trafficked zone.

The roof terrace of Muzeiko is accessible from the Upper Level. This outdoor area includes an amphitheater for presentations and classes, weather permitting. An area with raised planting beds allows children to plant and maintain flowers and vegetables. Further along the roof terrace there is a climbing wall along one side of a “little mountain” with safety deck surfacing. A large expanse of the terrace is reserved for a “green roof” which supports sedum, mosses and other drought-tolerant native plants. Pathways and a bench seating area provide interpretive exhibits that explain the sustainability benefits of the green roof, the nearby wind turbine, the solar voltaic array that occupies the roof of the south wing, and other ecologically sustainable features of the building.

Organized conceptually as a journey moving through time and space, visitors can explore three levels of exhibits in the 35,000 SF (3,250 SM) facility. On the lowest level, children explore “the past” with exhibits based on archaeology, geology and paleontology. The ground floor is “the present,” represented by hands-on displays about the natural environment and contemporary cities. The upper floor is dedicated to “the future” with interactive exhibitions featuring cutting-edge technologies and space travel.

While LHSA+DP served as the Design Architect for the museum, it was key to have the active involvement of a local architect-of-record from the earliest stages of the project. The firm, A&A Architects, was selected after an extensive interview process by our firm and the client in order to find a partner who fully supported contemporary design and understood its importance to this unique project. We also worked with the client to put in place a full complement of engineering and related project consultants from the start of the project to work closely with our US-based team. All design documentation was translated into both Bulgarian and English.

The America for Bulgaria Foundation was very interested in engaging with US-based expertise, in this case our firm with its extensive experience with children’s museums and science centers. Of particular significance and critical importance to the success of the project was the involvement and engagement of other experts and specialists in the creation of interactive museums.  These were largely American firms, and they were engaged to offer their expertise in the areas of exhibit fabrication, interactive science exhibits, architectural and exhibition lighting, and systems integration.  We turned to collaborators with whom we had long-standing relationships and a history of successful projects.  Maltbie, Available Light, Electrosonic and POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop) each contributed greatly to the implementation of the design and interpretation of content in their respective areas of professional experience. 

This involvement also served a primary goal of the client: to ‘train’ people in Bulgaria; developing their skills in creating this kind of hands-on interactive museum. To that extent, in addition to the construction team, the exhibit development process made use of local Sofia-based interactive media designers and videographers, graphic designers, theatrical set designers and fabricators, and the expertise of 70 Bulgarian scientists and other content specialists and experts. All members of the local team worked closely with LHSA+DP to learn how both specific scientific educational content and abstract concepts can be delivered in fun and engaging means through interactive exhibits.

While communication and navigating a few cultural differences was not always easy, LHSA+DP found both ‘foreign’ and local consultants on the project team to be extremely dedicated and they maintained a high level of involvement in this project as it was to be the first of its kind in Bulgaria. The professional engagement, enthusiasm, and ability to problem solve at the international and local levels made all the difference in successfully executing the project and achieving the high level of quality that was maintained throughout the design and implementation process.

In the end, through careful planning and strong adherence to process, I think we mostly avoided the potential pitfalls I outlined at the beginning of this piece.  The qualities of creative exchange, cultural sharing and true collaboration ensured not only a project of true excellence, but, just as critically, an appropriateness and authenticity that will sensitively serve the institution, and the children and families of Sofia and Bulgaria for years to come.


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