University President Mary Sue Coleman had a goal. She had a vision that every student, by the time they graduated, would spend time inside UMMA, The University of Michigan Museum of Art. There was only one problem. Not a lot of people, let alone students, knew a museum existed. IDS architects and engineers worked in collaboration with Allied Works Architects to convert and expand historic 1910 Alumni Memorial Hall, a dark uninviting structure, into an open contemporary hubbub of activity showcasing world class art collections.
UMMA officially opened in March 2009 and embodied Director James Steward’s vision of a 21st Century Town Square boasting 250,000 visitors within the first year. Today this structure is one of the largest university art museums in the US and is commonly called a meeting place for the arts!
The UMMA project combined a 40,300-square-foot renovation with a 53,500-square-foot addition and presented the penultimate design challenge to create synergy between the classical and the contemporary. Historical integrity not compromised, the final structure emerged with clean dramatic design, featuring a three-story vertical gallery and cantilevered concrete walls. Today daylight washes over stone and glass illuminating movement inside and out engaging students and faculty as they travel the diag.
Architect Paul Stachowiak and Engineer Matt Perez reflect on the scope and challenges of the UMMA project.
Describe the scope of the project?
STACHOWIAK: James Steward, the museum director at-the-time, was a passionate driving force behind this project. He believed that in order for the museum to truly attract people, it needed to be destination architecture.
PEREZ: Aesthetics were extremely important. The engineering & design teams really had to consider all of the objectives and challenges from each other’s perspective. We developed a lot of mutual respect and collaborative creativity among disciplines. It really set the standard for our future and how we work as teams.
What do you mean by destination architecture?
STACHOWIAK: Steward gave the design team the challenge to let the outside world know what was going on inside to see life, to be welcomed-in. We partnered with Allied Works (Portland OR) to accomplish a dramatic artistic structure.
So interesting the structure itself almost became art?
STACHOWIAK: Yes, we received a lot of architectural praise. In March 2009 John Gallagher Free Press Business Writer toured the new space and wrote, Finally a museum had gotten the balance right between its art collection and the architecture that houses it.
But the project extended beyond creating an open visible structure. We also designed a 125-seat lecture hall that required students to pass through the museum to get to it this aligned with President Coleman’s goal to get all students in the museum!
What were the biggest challenges of this project?
STACHOWIAK: The biggest challenge was budget. It took five years to raise the money for the project and although the costs escalated during that time, the budget was not adjusted. This is something we deal with often. Unique to this project, of course, was the design challenge to build a contemporary addition in the midst of the historic diag.
PEREZ: From an engineering standpoint, controlling the humidity and preventing condensation was the big challenge with all of the freestanding gallery walls in a way that didn’t ruin the aesthetics.
How did you manage the budget constraints?
STACHOWIAK: We had to compromise and strategize. A great example is the vertical gallery. This impressive wall that houses all of the visiting exhibits, came as a result of when they were trying to shrink the building. Budget did not allow for a third floor so it became a mezzanine and the vertical gallery was born.
What are your thoughts on the project today?
PEREZ: If UMMA could speak, she’d say, Stand back, take a look because I’m awesome, but come on in!
STACHOWIAK: One of my favorite memories was when the suggestion was made to use columns instead of the cantilevered floors. Architect Brad Cloepfil (Allied Works) responded, No Columns. If you do this you’ll be ripping out my soul.‚ It was clear to me that without this kind of passion and our ability to make it all come together as a team, UMMA would not be relevant today.