Since the 1970s, Hugh Hardy’s work for the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) has run the gamut, spanning new cinemas and a café for the experimental film and performing arts venue to, most recently, a faithful restoration of the 1908 facade of its historic Peter Jay Sharp Building. But one job was left unfinished: “We needed to install a permanent entrance canopy,” says Hardy, FAIA, the principal of New York–based H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture.
Oddly, the building, an eclectic Beaux-Arts gem, wasn’t designed with such a shelter. To create one, Hardy looked to period photographs of the arcing, tripartite canopy (since replaced) of Manhattan’s Lyceum Theater, completed in 1903 by BAM’s original architects, Herts and Tallant. But with the blessing of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Hardy forsook the precedent’s heavy cast iron in favor of a seemingly weightless, undulating glass ribbon that would “allow you to look up and see BAM’s fabulous facade,” he says, “while offering the rhythm you’d expect of what is a very contemporary, progressive place.”
Therein lay the challenge: To form a faceted, sinusoidal wave made as light and transparent as possible, the design called for 65 triangular panes of 1-inch-thick, laminated and tempered, low-iron glass. Each pane, measuring 19 feet long, 4 feet at the widest, and weighing 500 pounds, would be held in tension, aligned head-to-toe. Each would also have to resist vertical, lateral, and rotational loads, not to mention the possibility of breakage. Taking eight years to complete and mocked-up at full scale in a Brooklyn warehouse before being installed over 16 weeks on-site, the 132-foot-long canopy would use structural glass “at the then limit of glass fabrication capability,” says H3 project manager Jonathan Strauss.
The firm’s solution rested, rather literally, on two parallel, 9- and 11.5-inch-diameter, stainless-steel pipes that define the canopy’s curvature. To support them, a total of six columns—one on either side of BAM’s five entry bays—were added to the building’s existing steel frame and reinforced by lateral beams. From each column, a bracket punches through the facade to connect to the undulating rear pipe, on which custom-made, stainless-steel rotules—so named from the French word for kneecap, which they resemble—bolt each glass pane in place. The rotules repeat on the second, front pipe, which is supported by diagonals running back to the new building columns.
It’s an elegant setup that brought no shortage of grief. Among the endless redesigns, complicated calculations fine-tuned the canopy’s geometry to accommodate nearly identical (hence, more easily fabricated) glass panels. The front tube was hinged to allow for some give while, at the rotules, specially designed washers act as springs. “They’re like shock absorbers that build in flexibility,” says Michael Ludvik, an associate at Dewhurst Macfarlane & Partners, the project’s engineer. “Let’s say someone shoots a gun at the glass and it breaks catastrophically,” Ludvik adds, citing a worst-case scenario. “The tension load will be redistributed to the adjacent panels.”
Still, there were much likelier threats to consider—namely, bird droppings. And Hardy’s response? A custom-designed oval frit pattern applied to the glass. “I think it will succeed in masking anything the birds have in mind,” he says.
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