Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Meeting "artist-architect" Sara Caples

Source: Caples Jefferson Architects

Last Wednesday we had the inspiring experience of meeting with artist-architect, as she describes herself and her partner, Sara Caples from Caples Jefferson architects. As we introduce ourselves, the New York based sustainability maven architect unveils a 15-year-old friendship with Grazyna, chair of the MA of sustainability for the Interior Environment at FIT.   When asked what made her decide to embrace sustainability she answers “it was never a question! Part of our ethos, we wanted to be part of the people who were doing this.”

Caples starts her oration with what she calls a principle that she and her partner had when they started the firm in 1987:  “perform at least 50% of their work for public community based projects and specifically neighborhoods undeserved by designers."

The firm has indeed kept its promise - which is a pretty impressive accomplishment already.  Her presentation starts with an original approach to a museum "visitor center" that celebrates the visitors' cultural heritage and continues with the ingenious design of "light shafts" in a building reclaimed for ex-prisonners. Overall the connectedness with the communities and the natural environment is really the  driving force of the designs; and this is what is impressive.
The first project she uses to illustrate her design approach is the Weeksville Heritage center in Brooklyn NY scheduled to open in 2013.
This community-oriented project is typical for the firm: it is a museum center located on an African American heritage site in Brooklyn.  There, located on the city block delimited by Buffalo Avenue, Bergen Street and St Marks Avenue, historic houses (literally "time capsules") were rediscovered in the 1960’s. The agglomeration, called the Freedsman village, has survived the 19th century for 150 years.  Though located in a rough neighborhood, a local community got together to create a House museum.  Because the houses were naturally not designed for a "bus school full of kids" (they can take 10 kids at a time) the archtiects proposed that the visitors undergo a "pre-experience" before entering the historical houses. For this to happen an Afro-centric museum located on the same city block had to be designed.
Caples explains how they  approached the extent of the landscape between the museum center and the row of houses and defines it as “a continuum within the landscape, to the architectural structure, to the interior of the buildings.” Indeed her philosophy when creating a space is about “Capturing the natural forces: harvesting the daylight, breezes, to make it available to the people”.  Here again the sense of connectedness is fundamental for the design to be successful according to speaker.
The design is based on sustainable practices and Caples lists features such as: Geo-thermo wells, motorized blinds to prevent heat gain, and the orientation of the building which is so fundamental to the architecture in order to not only be functional to the users but also energy efficient; offices are facing east and west, the gallery is on the south side with entirely closed rooms so the archival materials and textiles which require a specific cooling and humidity system control can be protected form the outside ultra violets.
But the most fascinating part of the museum resides in the implementation of characteristic of the African culture and heritage which are woven into the building: indeed the architecture is embedded with colors, patterns, textures and paving patterns from the western African palette in the very glass of the building.
Furthermore, Caples explains again the importance of harvesting the sun to render the kinetic aspect of the sun/shade thought the skylight: "Earth going around the sun".  in addition details throughout the building such as a cast iron Fence, which is water-jet-cut, is an example of locally made architectural details. Though originally planned to be made in china for cost reduction, after reviewing the design, the firm was able to produce it only 500 miles away from NY.  On that note, the architect encourages us to “let the contractor bring his experience into sourcing because there may be detail you didn’t think about during the design process”.  She also reminds us “When designing sustainably, the driving force of sustainable design should always be health. This is the factor that is the biggest bridge for the clients: the number one reason why they would decide to have you design with sustainability in mind- so build health into the building.”

The second project Caples presents us is the Heritage, Health and housing headquarters in New York, NY. Built on an extremely low budget, the colorful cladded façade project, also typical for the firm, was designed for people just out of prisons. In its previous life the building had been a garage and a social club and the 2 were combined to make the building one center. When gutting the place, the basement was moldy and funky and had to be treated and bleached. But that was not enough. Luckily, when inventively inserting 4 light shafts equipped with 3x3 skylights, the design invited light into the building: the miracle of UV’s happened and finished off the clean up of the mold.  The architect stresses on how important it was to work with the builder’s skill-sets to make the place constructible. But the most moving side of the story is when she concludes with a revealing experience: when told by the users, ex-prisoners, that at a certain time of the day the rays of light from the shafts were falling through the building, they had to stop working and watch and pray. The light effect really spoke to the users to the point of having a spiritual effect on them; 

Design has the ability to touch people in their heart” is how she describes the communication between people and design.

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