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Great Detail: John Puttick on Piano's Menil Collection roof

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The third in a new series looking at the details which have amazed and inspired our readers. Today: John Puttick of New York-based John Puttick Associates

Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Building: Menil collection, Houston, Texas (1987)


John puttick sketch of menil coolection

John puttick sketch of menil coolection

Natural light enters the spaces through the glass above and is deflected on the surface of the ‘leaves’ creating a beautiful indirect quality. I imagine the architect was inspired by another famous detail here – the central opening and curved reflectors in the barrel-vaults of the Kimbell – also in Texas and designed by Louis Kahn (who Piano briefly worked for).This one construction detail defines a whole building. The combination of ferro-cement ‘leaves’, cast iron truss and glazed roof at the Menil Collection are intended to filter top-light into the gallery spaces. But here they also provide the roof covering, structure, lighting gantry, a delicate ceiling to the internal spaces, colonnade, entrance canopy – and ultimately the building’s main external image as it floats amongst the Texan trees.

This is a tour-de-force technical solution: the ‘leaves’ were cast over reinforcement in steel moulds and form the lower string of the roof truss above, which itself is formed from ductile iron. In addition to filtering the light the layered assembly also keeps warm air at high level between the concrete and glass above. The great engineer Peter Rice deserves at least equal-billing to Piano here.

Menil collection photo

Menil collection photo

As with many Hi-Tech era details there is the suspicion that all this could have been achieved with less elaborate means. But for me the gentle and humanising way in which the technology is expressed, the resulting luminous, ever-changing internal spaces and the sheer visual elegance make it worth all the acrobatics.

John Puttick Associates is currently working on the revamp and new youth centre at Preston Bus station

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