"It is amazing we got it built,” says architect Brad Cloepfil of his design for the National Veterans Memorial and Museum (NVMM), which recently opened on the banks of the Scioto River, in Columbus, Ohio. Now, nearly six years after his firm, Allied Works, won an invited competition for the $75 million project, Cloepfil still seems incredulous—largely because of the 53,000-square-foot building’s demanding structure. The roughly circular NVMM comprises a series of exposed concrete arches that are curved in plan and overlap to create three intersecting rings and a spiraling circulation path, both inside and out. The behavior of the unusual form was tricky to analyze, and its construction was labor-intensive, according to Thorsten Helbig, a partner of Knippers Helbig, the project’s New York– and Germany-based structural engineer. The poured-in-place structure was so challenging that, after participating in a design-assist phase, the preselected concrete contractor declined to bid on the building’s construction. It took two months to find another qualified contractor. “I had never designed a building that no one wanted to build,” Cloepfil says wryly.
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The idea for what would become the NVMM was first conceived by the late U.S. senator and astronaut John Glenn, who was also a Marine Corps fighter pilot. Although Glenn’s initial goal was recognizing veterans from Ohio, the project’s ambitions ultimately expanded to include all of the country’s servicemen and -women. At its core, however, the primary goal remained consistent: to celebrate veterans and honor their service and sacrifice. The new entity is distinct from other military museums, which are typically dedicated to a single branch of the armed services or one particular conflict. “There is no other institution like this,” claims Amy Taylor, COO of the Columbus Downtown Development Corporation. The NVMM is part of a larger effort to revitalize the Scioto Peninsula, directly across the river from downtown.
In order to create a home for the NVMM, which is part shrine and part civic-engagement initiative, Cloepfil decided on arches since “they are somewhat ceremonial.” But his chief desire was to “consecrate or set apart” a place for veterans on the seven-acre site, which at the time of the competition was home to an outdated conference facility slated for demolition. His inventive structure seems to emerge from a grass-covered hillock. It supports an ascending serpentine ramp that culminates in an amphitheater-like plaza encircled by a swath of green roof. “It is as though we lifted the earth and inserted the museum underneath,” he says. This “sanctuary in the sky” is intended for memorial services or other ceremonies, and as a place where visitors can take in views of the downtown skyline, watch runners and cyclists pass by on Columbus’s recently revamped river walk, or appreciate the surrounding landscape designed by OLIN, which features a grove of elm trees and a reflecting pond.
Inside, where the exposed muscular structure and the helical circulation route continue, there are more spaces for both gathering and contemplation, such as a double-story great hall for dinners and other functions and a below-grade, circular “cyclorama” for meetings or temporary exhibits. A mezzanine level looks out onto the rooftop plaza through windows with glazing striped in multiple colors inspired by the service bars that members of the military wear on their uniforms. But most of the interior is devoted to a permanent multimedia exhibition developed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which snakes through much of the perimeter and middle rings. Above the displays, the composite steel-and-concrete roof structure and the wood-louvered ceiling gradually slope downward to create an intimate space. Visitors feel almost as though they are alone while they take in NVMM’s displays, including videos relating to the personal stories of veterans, told in their own voices. Joshua, for example, describes his urge, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, to leave West Point early and enlist; Jaspen talks about her desire for her son to see her as a soldier rather than a single mother; and Thom, who emigrated from Vietnam as a child, and whose father had been imprisoned by the Viet Cong, explains that he joined the army “to give back to the country that let me call it home.”
While these narrations can be sobering and intense, the generous areas of glazing inserted within the perimeter ring of arches provide sunlight and a visual connection to the city. “Visitors can step away and go to the window,” says Cloepfil. But, unfortunately, although people on the inside can see out, those on the outside can’t see in, since keeping heat gain in check necessitated tinted glazing that appears almost black in typical daytime conditions. The lack of transparency is off-putting, lending the building a somewhat forbidding character that detracts from its compelling form and the project team’s significant structural achievement.
And the structure is significant. As just one example of its complexity, Helbig points to the curved chain of arches, explaining that their structural behavior is less straightforward than that of typical planar arches, which transfer forces to the ground in pure compression. Along with compression, the NVMM arches respond to loads with bending. But the shape of the arches was not the only source of engineering challenges. Since the concrete bands also overlap—which creates the impression that they slip past one another—transferring forces between the seemingly sliding pieces required connection details that include intricately interwoven steel reinforcement. Throughout, there is a high density of rebar, with as many as 51 longitudinal layers in some locations. The steel helps resist torsional forces and control the quality of the concrete surface, explains the engineer.
The quantity of reinforcement brought with it a host of other problems, namely, tuning the self-consolidating concrete mix to ensure that it flowed without forming voids or large cracks. Contractors and engineers also needed to carefully consider the arches’ construction sequence so that the concrete rings would appear monolithic, even though they were made in multiple pours, says Helbig.
The resulting concrete work has been very well executed, though it is not pristine: the outlines of the edges of the plywood forms are visible, as is the occasional hairline crack. But the structure was never intended to be “precious,” says Cloepfil, and the slight imperfections do enhance, rather than diminish, its materiality and its formal power. If only the NVMM were more transparent, it would have been a building that was approachable and welcoming without blunting its sculptural presence.
1532 SW Morrison Street, Portland, Oregon 97205
12 W 27th St, 18th Floor, New York, NY 10001
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Brad Cloepfil, Founding Principal; Kyle Lommen, Principal in Charge; Chelsea Grassinger, Project Lead; Nathan Hamilton, Project Architect
Project Team: Kyle Caldwell, Chris Brown, Rachel Schopmeyer, Alexis Kurland, Luciana Varkulja
515 East Main Street Columbus, OH 43215
Structural engineering: Knippers Helbig
MEP/FP engineering: Prater Engineering Associates, Inc.
Civil engineering: EMH&T
Lighting Design and Daylighting: Arup
Acoustics / AV / IT: Jaffe Holden
Code: Code Consultants, Inc.
Concrete: Reg Hough associates
Building Envelope: Morrison Hershfield
Ralph Appelbaum and Associates
Jeremy Bittermann, Brad Feinknopf
Architectural Cast Stone: Baxter Precast
Custom: Flynn Facades
Keim Concretal: Keim Mineral Coatings
Ultra Face: Tectura Designs
Canadiana Entrance Doors: Alumicor Limited
Metal doors: Curries metal doors
Wood doors: Mohawk Flush Doors
Operable Partitions: Hufcor
Thermiser insulated Doors: Cornell
Exit devices: Von Duprin
Pulls: Tice Industries
Even Better acoustical plaster: Fellert
Optima Vector: Armstrong
Classic Line: Caeserstone
Floor and wall tile:
Classic Tile, Color Walls: Design and Direct Source
Classic Tile, Saturated: Design and Direct Source
Urban Retreat: Interface
European Union: Interface
White Oak edge grain flooring: Kaswell
Interior ambient lighting:
Litelab (exhibit lighting)
Gotham Architectural Downlighting
Other unique products that contribute to sustainability:
Vapor mitigation system
PVB and visible light reducing interlayer at curtain wall insulated glazing assemblies