U.S. Building of the Week

Art Preserve

Tres Birds
28. juli 2020
Photo: Durston Saylor

Originally scheduled to open next month, the Art Preserve will open in June 2021, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The museum is using the time to finalize interior construction and installation of the artworks, all of them artist-built environments. Denver's Tres Birds answered a few questions about the building located in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, just steps from the town's namesake river.

Project: Art Preserve, 2019
Location: Sheboygan, Wisconsin, USA
Client: John Michael Kohler Arts Center
Architect: Tres Birds
  • Design Principal: Michael M. Moore
  • Project Architect: Shawn Mather
  • Project Managers: David Hoffman, Doug Newby
  • Project Team: Jack Ricci, Erin Jacobson, Meg Verplanck, David Power, Zach Chatelain
Structural Engineer: KL&A Engineers
MEP/FP Engineer: Arup (Cory Abramowicz, Rob Tazelaar)
Landscape Architect: Mike Beeck and Tres Birds
Lighting Designer: Arup (Kristen Garibaldi)
Interior Designer: Tres Birds
Contractor: Mortenson Co.
Construction Manager: Jeremy Morehouse
Acoustical Engineer: Arup (Ryan Biziorek)
Security Consultant: Arup (Ronald Ronacher, Travis Rothbloom)
Exterior Concrete Envelope: International Concrete Products, Inc.
Exterior Timber Shades: Forestville Builders and Supply
Building Area: 56,000 sf
Photo: Durston Saylor
What were the circumstances of receiving the commission for this project?

We received the commission as a result of meeting with the John Michael Kohler Arts Center for an art project in a park close to the Arts Center. After visiting Sheboygan to discuss, Mike Moore had the chance to meet with Ruth Kohler to discuss the Art Preserve and they hit it off. A month later Mike Moore and Shawn Mather flew out to meet with the Art Preserve committee and Ruth Kohler and they were offered the job.

Photo: Durston Saylor
Please provide an overview of the project.

The Art Preserve is the the world’s first museum devoted to artist-built environments. Tres Birds served as planners, architects, and exhibition designers for the project. The new building is part of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center and will complement its main building in downtown Sheboygan, a small city along Lake Michigan an hour north of Milwaukee.  

The Art Preserve will provide exhibition space and visible storage for more than 25,000 works by over 30 artists in the Kohler Arts Center’s world renowned collection of artist-built environments. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center is known for its exhibitions, study, and preservation of the work of self-taught and contemporary artists. It holds the world’s largest collection of artist-built environments, a unique art form created by artists who often transform their homes and yards into multifaceted works of art.

Photo: Durston Saylor

The Art Preserve is located within an attractive natural setting on 38 acres on Sheboygan’s west side. The design embraces community accessibility and interaction with the artwork while addressing exhibition and preservation concerns. The building is a primarily concrete structure, a material choice in keeping with the prevalence of concrete as a medium in the creation of many art environments. Visitors entering the building will move through a forest of soaring timbers angled like trees growing on the site. These “timber shades” shield the collection from continuous direct sunlight, while still providing directs view out to the trees, river, and meadow from within the museum.  

In addition to exhibition areas, the Art Preserve will be a center for academic study and research, and will include an education area, library, study collection, and other spaces that will provide access to the collection for researchers, tour groups, and the public.

Photo: Durston Saylor
What are the main ideas and inspirations influencing the design of the building?

The main design inspiration is A Walk in the Woods. Since the potency of much of the Art Preserve’s collection is found in its relationship to nature, the walk-in-the-woods design approach allows moments of interaction between the artwork and the natural environment. The John Michael Kohler Arts Center felt strongly that the art should be visible and that the site, collection, and building should be greater than the sum of its parts. They wanted the building to be connected to nature and made from “sticks, stones, and earth.” The timber shades are the sticks; the hill is the earth; the stones are the regional river rock aggregate of which the building is mainly composed. Engaging the landscape in its design, the building will feel as if it has grown organically out of the hill and meadow site. Visitors will view the artworks with nature as a backdrop.

Photo: Durston Saylor
How does the design respond to the unique qualities of the site?

The building is designed to shade itself. The plan of the building undulates in reaction to the hillside on the site, the trees on the hillside, and the annual path of the sun. Direct sunlight is kept to a minimum to protect the art. The building’s shape engages the hillside in a non-rectilinear fashion. This was done to have moments where the building protrudes into nature and then recesses so that nature can enter. Tres Birds was tasked with creating a space that provides different experiences and inspires a sense of wonder. This was achieved by creating unexpected corners, spaces, differing proportions of rooms, and specific views to the natural world outside.

Site Plan (Drawing: Tres Birds)

We were inspired by trees in the wooded areas surrounding the Art Preserve, which we walked many times during all seasons to observe with a light meter. Even in the early winter with no leaves on the trees, we noted that the sunlight was ten times less within the forest than in the meadow. That stuck with us. As the collection needs to be shielded from sunlight to protect the art, we invented a solution. The tall wood planks are timber shades designed to shield and diffuse sunlight from the windows of the Art Preserve, while still providing directs view out to the trees, river, and meadow from within the museum. Working with the engineering firm Arup, we determined exactly how to position each timber for maximum protection throughout the year and to frame views looking outward. The timber shades are also a nod to the woods surrounding the building, echoing the trees and their slightly askew stance. Aside from serving as shading devices, the largest array of timber shades create a processional entry “through the woods” into the Art Preserve.

Level 1 Plan (Drawing: Tres Birds)
Was the project influenced by any trends in energy-conservation, construction, or design?

The Art Preserve has been built with low “embodied energy,” referring both to the emissions associated with manufacturing of the building materials and to the operating energy of the building. The building is built from 70 percent local river rock, which requires no manufacturing energy and uses very little transportation energy, hence very low embodied energy. The building itself is robustly insulated with continuous high-density foam and triple-paned glass windows. Very little building energy transfers through these thermal barriers. Like a wine cellar, the Art Preserve is built into the side of a hill, tapping into the Earth’s constant underground temperature. This relationship helps the building have more consistent interior temperatures. In addition, the default state of the building is darkness, which is quite rare for a museum. Motion-activated sensors turn on the lights only when a person enters each exhibition space. All of these elements of the Art Preserve are interconnected to create a system with reduced fossil fuel usage.

Level 2 Plan (Drawing: Tres Birds)
What products or materials have contributed to the success of the completed building?

When Ruth Kohler was asked “what should this building be made of?,” she responded with sticks, stones, and earth, similar to materials of the site. With that in mind, the primary elements that are most important to the exterior structure are the concrete panels comprised of stones and rock found in Wisconsin glaciated riverbeds and the regionally sourced timber shades that create the forested entry of the building. 

Email interview conducted by John Hill.

Level 3 Plan (Drawing: Tres Birds)
Building Section (Drawing: Tres Birds)
Visualization: Tres Birds
Visualization: Tres Birds
Visualization: Tres Birds
Photo: Durston Saylor

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