Washington DC’s Union Station, built in 1908, is a Beaux Arts icon from a moment in history when it was not yet clear that the automobile was going to challenge rail for primacy in American transportation. It is a grand building. In the 60’s, a kind of collaboration with the car was made when a large, architecturally utilitarian parking garage was added to the rear side of the station, making the station once again a viable transportation hub. Except…
The intercity buses that served the capital and its many suburbs, run by several different companies, all picked up passengers at a variety of street stops. There was no central bus station, and the street stops offer the passengers any shelter, or much in the way of way-finding.
A change in this situation was sought, and the decision taken to make Union Station into the sole embarkation point for all of DC’s intercity buses, utilizing part of the parking garage. This would allow smooth transitions between auto, bus, and rail, and could provide bus passengers with the kind of amenities enjoyed by railroad and air passengers.
Transforming the rather barren environment of the parking garage into a workable bus station presented interesting challenges. The location was, in some senses, both interior and exterior. It was exposed to the elements, but the structure was not designed to support additional buildings built within it.
Studio Twenty Seven Architecture designed a system of three pavilions to fulfill various needs of travelers. S27 describes the program thus:
“Using the metaphor of a Zen rock garden, the new bus transit center is comprised of three pavilions. One of the pavilions serves as “rocks” in the field. This is formed from two natural, ovoid shapes, merged together to create a complex geometry. This pavilion contains ticketing and shopping. Another pavilion is the rock garden’s “pochi,” or meditation porch, over-looking the neighboring arrangement. This pavilion serves as a waiting space, with a wood and glass enclosure. The last pavilion contains restrooms. Recycled shipping containers serve as the armature for a discreet comfort station.”
The “rocks” in this metaphor presented significant challenges. “It had to negotiate through two or three elements,”explains Todd Ray, one of the principals of S27. “We have two escalators on the site, one up to our platform, one up to the next platform. The platform we’re on is the same one that busses land on. We have over a million people coming through per year. This pavilion is sort of the last stop before you get on the bus, as well as the first place that people coming off the bus can obtain travel information. We were like the first stop along a path. Physically, we had slab we were working on that wasn’t structurally strong enough to support a building, and we needed to create an enclosed environment. So we sought something that was lightweight.”
And of course, these challenges were complicated by a strictly limited budget. (Aren’t they always?)
“We originally looked at this as an aluminum-clad structure with plywood superstructure. We looked at it with aluminum skin, Corian skin, painted steel skin…” continues Ray. “That took us into 3D CNC forming of steel, and then we got into the fiberglass, which was the most (design) flexible.”
On the suggestion of the general contractor, S27 began talking to Compmillennia, a builder of FRP yachts, located in Washington, NC.
“They quickly became a collaborator in the design process,” recalls Ray. “You have an idea, but then overlaying that onto construction, there are a whole variety of ways to build things, but then finding the most cost-effective way to build a thing is another aspect of the project.” Using lightweight FRP solved the problem of the substructure. “We added some structural reinforcing underneath the other two pavilions, but we didn’t need to under the FRP,” explains Ray.
As it turns out, it was Compmillennia’s first foray into making architectural elements. S27 had used FRP elements before, “but those components were pre-manufactured, plug and play,” says Ray. “This was totally unique, and that’s what made the trick for us, the customization of this item.”
There were “linguistic” differences to overcome. “For boatbuilding, we define curved shapes in a standardized way,” explains Jim Gardiner, Compmillennia General Manager. “We needed to exchange information on how that happened. Compmillennia received drawings showing a curved surface covered in parallel lines. The lines would be a typical way to depict a smooth, curved surface for boat-building. However, S27 put the lines on the drawing for a different reason. “I understood the lines as defining a dome,” points of Gardiner, “but they actually meant it to be lines. Originally I was going to make a slip-mold system of casting, because the budget wasn’t there to make a mold. But they wanted facets with visible lines.”
Due to budget and time constraints, the design kept evolving. Originally, two separate structures were designed, one for food service and the other for ticketing. Then they were joined into a single structure with two lobes. The architects didn’t fully realize that these changes had huge implications for the construction process. “The original design was a moebius strip kind of arrangement, that we would have built one way. The textured wall panels were designed a certain way and that changed.”
The faceted silver skin had to be made by hand lay-up, a labor-intensive process. It was determined that the budget would not allow the entire building to be made this way. The curved design was sliced vertically, and a yellow, textured wall was created. This wall could be made by vacuum forming, a more economical process.
The texture is, in fact, a Morse Code version of lyrics to the song “Soul Meets Body” by the group Death Cab for Cutie:
’Cause in my head there’s a Greyhound Station
Where I send my thoughts to far off destinations
So they may have a chance of finding a place
Where they’re far more suited than here.
The Morse Code was carved into a panel of medium density fiberboard (MDF) using CNC routing. The board was coated to seal it and then filled with gel-coat before being vacuum molded with FRP.
“We went through a lot of trouble to get the colors correct,” remembers Gardiner. “The architect figured that was the last thing they had to decide. I had to tell them it was a lead-time issue, because the gelcoat goes down first.”
This process may sound traumatic, but when talking to Gardiner or Ray, you don’t get the impression that either was traumatized. On the contrary, both seem pretty jazzed about the collaboration, despite the learning curves on both sides.
“We were able to work with them to refine form such that their templating was cost effect and labor-effective,” says Ray. Both approached the project in a collaborative spirit, and kept communication lines open, even when they were (unknowingly) talking different languages. That seems to have been a key element in keeping the experience positive, when it could easily have turned nightmarish.
For a more detailed look at the design and fabrication process, see the excellent article in Composites World, December 2013.
Images courtesy of S27 Architecture.