Cast Glass Centerpiece: Shaw Center for the Arts | Bendheim Channel Glass Facade

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This editorial content was originally published in Architecture Week, June 2005 edition.

Cast Glass Centerpiece
by James McCown
Take a spicy mixture of the visual and performing arts; add a wide range of support from university, government and civic sources; cover with an unusual application of glass and stir; serves 250,000. That’s the “recipe” for the Shaw Center for the Arts, which Baton Rouge, Louisiana is counting on to lift its civic profile.
This building might seem more likely in Rotterdam or Paris than in a medium-sized, generally conservative southern U.S. city. Its form was driven by a complex program that sought to accommodate the two lead “anchor” institutions, the Louisiana State University Museum of Art and the Manship Performing Arts Center.
At one end of the building, a 322-seat theater is served by a fly loft at the upper reaches. The opposite end stretches north over the lobby and extends as a cantilever above the 1930s-era “Auto Hotel” parking garage and terminates with an upward thrust that marks a clerestory window for the museum’s changing-exhibition gallery. A clear glazed central space serves as the main entrance for the entire complex.
The drama of building’s exterior massing is heightened by a facade clad in hundreds of multilength cast-glass channels. The Shaw Center is said to be the largest building in the United States to be completely clad in U-shaped cast glass and the first to use the channel glass as the rain screen for a wall system.
The Shaw Center, which opened in early March, 2005, is the result of a collaboration between Schwartz/Silver Architects as design architects, New Orleans-based Eskew + Dumez + Ripple as executive architects, and Baton Rouge-based Jerry M. Campbell and Associates as associate architects.
“The building’s facade is conceived to evoke many local associations: a paper lantern, glass beading, the meandering Mississippi,” says Warren R. Schwartz, FAIA, principal of Schwartz/Silver.
“It may at first seem counterintuitive to glaze an entire building that has relatively few windows,” adds Christopher B. Ingersoll, a principal at Schwartz/Silver and project director for the Shaw Center. “But the end result is a building that protects the valuable collections within while forming a memorable image on the city’s skyline.”
Design Evolution
When Boston-based Schwartz/Silver was hired in 1998 to design a new art museum for Louisiana State University 12 miles (19 kilometers) east of downtown Baton Rouge, the architects proposed a low-rise building with wide overhanging roofs and deeply shaded loggias. This design approach was grounded in the regional traditions of Louisiana, which boasts some of the nation’s most iconic southern plantation houses.
But even as that design was being approved, a new chancellor at the university, in meeting with city and state officials and major nonprofit entities like the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, recognized an exciting potential: combine the museum with the LSU School of Art, with the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge’s adaptive reuse of the Auto Hotel, and with a performing arts center already in the planning.
Halting its original plans, LSU presented a challenge to Schwartz/Silver in 2000: create a new design for the LSU Museum of Art, this time atop the Auto Hotel, and develop a master plan for a multiuse “Arts Block” in the heart of downtown Baton Rouge.
Rain Glass
Early in redesign, Schwartz/Silver considered a number of cladding systems, among them prepatinated copper and glass channel. While the initial budget would not accommodate the glass channel system, there was some enthusiasm to pursue that option, so mockups were constructed on the site to demonstrate to the steering committee that channel glass would give depth and visual complexity to the building’s surface while serving practical ends.
Specifically, the proposed facade was composed of two layers – an outermost layer of channel glass and an inner layer of corrugated aluminum – serving as the weather barrier, with an air gap between layers to create a rain screen configuration. During the development of the cladding system, technical tests demonstrated that even in the heavy rains common in the region, the channels reduced the water to a mist in the cavity, thus functioning as a true rain screen.
To heighten the visual effect of the vertical channel glass, the architects specified channels in two different widths and various lengths. The channels are supported in the usual way, at top and bottom by horizontal aluminum members, but the horizontals are broken and sometimes overlapping, lending a syncopated rhythm to the exterior.
The channels are braced back to the structure with aluminum clips where required to resist wind pressure. Two-inch (5-centimeter) gaps between the channels allow them to perform the rain screen function for the aluminum wall system located six inches (15 centimeters) behind.
Rethinking the Material
U-shaped channel glass is most commonly used with the flanges facing inward for applications where natural light with translucency is desired, as in a hospital. However, Schwartz/Silver found that outward-facing flanges added more texture to the building’s outer surface and added to the visual complexity.
The facades of the Shaw Center have channel glass with the flanges outward over most of their surface. However, at the building’s lower levels, the flanges are pointed inward to prevent accidental damage. This is especially important given that the plaza with an interactive fountain outside the building is a favorite gathering spot for locals and a venue for concerts and other public events.
Baton Rouge is only 60 miles (100 kilometers) inland from the Gulf of Mexico. To test the glazing system against hurricane-force winds, a mockup was produced and placed in front of an old DC-3 airplane propeller to simulate wind-driven rain and for 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) per-hour wind pressures. Additional tests were done in Germany by the glass channel vendor, Bendheim Wall Systems.
Another dramatic design element of the building is the 40-foot (12-meter) cantilever over the existing Auto Hotel. Accomplished through the use of multiple steel trusses, the cantilever prevents the older structure from being overwhelmed by the new. It also frees up roof space to allow the informal display of sculpture.
A bar/restaurant leading to a roof garden and sculpture terrace cap off the Shaw Center and have already become one of the city’s most photographed destinations. This diverse mixture of uses is at the heart of the vision for the Shaw Center, which within three months of opening had begun to show signs of being the economic catalyst that was the founding group’s intention.
The Shaw Center is an important part of an emerging “arts and entertainment district” in Baton Rouge which will include a new state history museum, Louisiana’s Old State Capitol Center, the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, the USS Kidd Museum, and a hotel/casino. Schwartz concludes: “the Shaw Center is the centerpiece of the whole district, so it had to command attention.”
James McCown is director of marketing and communications for Schwartz/Silver Architects
About Bendheim

Bendheim is one of the world’s foremost resources for specialty architectural glass. Founded in New York City in 1927, the fourth-generation, family-owned company offers a virtually unlimited range of in-stock and custom architectural glass varieties. Bendheim develops, fabricates, and distributes its products worldwide. The company maintains production facilities in New Jersey and an extensive showroom in New York City