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Ringling Façade, From Concept to Construction

Jeffry Burchard   December 2017

“Museum design is an opportunity to create dramatic public spaces, and this project - a renovation and new addition to an existing campus - rises to the challenge. Sublimely articulated, it is as much a sculptural object as it is a remarkable building that is highly responsive to its environment.”

Jury, 2016 BSA Design Awards


he Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida features both permanent collections and temporary exhibition. It sits on a historic 66-acre estate that includes a Venetian-Gothic Cà d’Zan mansion (the winter-residence of John and Mable Ringling, historic grounds and gardens, the reconstructed 18th century Historic Asolo Theater, and the Circus Museums. The Museum is now governed by Florida State University establishing the Ringling estate as one of the largest museum/university complexes in the nation and Florida’s official Art Museum. Our job was to renovate the existing west wing galleries and add a new pavilion for the display and study of Asian Art.

(left) site diagrams (right) aerial view of site before intervention

The new Asian Art Pavilion is both an anchor and hinge for the site, providing a circulation hub for the Museum while serving as a monumental new point of entry. The addition takes a deferential bow to the existing buildings by setting itself back from their courtyard frontage. This design approach allows the new addition to highlight and accentuate the oft overlooked architectural features of the West Wing, and preserves the uninterrupted axis of the Central Courtyard towards the Ocean Bay, as seen in the diagrams above.

View of the Museum of Art Courtyard

This project was envisioned by the client to support a fast growing tradition and collection of Asian Art. At its founding, the Ringling’s collection included artwork from China, Japan, India and Southeast Asia. Over the years, the Museum has showcased numerous historic and contemporary exhibitions devoted to Asian Art, as well as hosting a wealth of related performances, programs and events. It was the primary vision that the new Pavilion act as a contemporary and bold monumental addition that challenged the existing architectural style of the campus.

In our response to this and the reality of serious budgetary constraints, we opted to restrain the building form and focus the project resources on the design and development of a high-performance, visually striking building envelope. The specific design of the facade is a conscientious effort to relate the building to the physical and cultural context of the museum's site, history and contents. In particular we studied the Jade Collection of the Ringling, the history of terra-cotta in Asian architecture, and the intense colors of the Estate’s lush gardens.

Samples of Jade Sculptures from the Ringling Museum’s Permanent Collection
Geometry of Roof Tiles from the History of Asian Architecture
Mable Ringling’s Secret Garden at the Ringling

A combination of these characteristics was employed in the concept of a panelized, terra-cotta, tiling system, rendered in striking green. Hand sketches were used to develop initial geometries that represented repeatability and expressive form. The new pavilion holds a gallery as well as reading spaces and a lecture hall. Windows were conceived to be integral to the panelization rather than incidental or external to the tiling patterns.

Initial Sketches by Rodolfo Machado

As with all design ideas generated in our office, we test and iterate through multiple versions of a principle concept. This is less of a form finding exercise and more an effort to understand actual and perceived constraints of a material system and the potential of its visual and architectural effects. Here we finally designed a pattern that was at once unprecedented in its specific attributes but in dialogue with centuries old concepts of repetitive patterns and their capacity to introduce the perception of variability vis-a-vis the orientation of a viewer and changing atmospheric conditions.

The addition’s facade is composed of nearly 2800 individual terra-cotta tiles whose geometry has two-dimensional and three-dimensional precision. In 2D a regular mesh is used to organize and constrain a pin-wheel tessellation pattern, as seen above. Two tile sizes are distinguished and the larger can hold a window. In the third dimension curved and straight geometries are used to create both surface continuity and distinctive breaks between the tiles. The result is a pattern of form that exceeds the dimensional limitations of any individual tile, introducing nuanced visual effects within a highly controlled and repetitive system.

Computer model of terra cotta tiles

The terra-cotta was developed with assistance from Boston Valley Terra Cotta. Tiles were fabricated through a ram-press process that involved a combination of mechanical and hand production. At least 12 sets of hands touched each tile from pressing and finishing to shipping and installation. Each tile required 28 days to complete the entire sequence of fabrication, prior to shipping. The tiles were twice fired at 2043 degrees F and are glazed in a custom glaze specifically formulated for the project. The back-up system is a standard rain screen solution that has been modified to accept the unique orientation of the tile.

Terra Cotta Tiles during the fabrication process at the Boston Valley Terra Cotta Facilities in Buffalo, NY
Installation of the tiles

“We had to invent a category for this project. The ceramic exterior skin was of such quality and beauty that we had to acknowledge it. At once calm and electrifying, the skin portends well the Asian art that lies behind its walls. This rain screen wall makes the project sing.”

Jury, 2014 AIA Florida Gulf Coast Chapter Design Awards

Windows are integrated into the form and geometry of the terra cotta tiles. They appear in groups or “clouds” throughout the building. Perhaps the most effective windows are in the third floor conference room (show below in construction). Here, small windows carefully framing the landscape are quite effective - almost like looking at a painting. In this case, fewer smaller windows work better.

Portal windows in construction

“The jury appreciated how this addition was clearly positioned in contract to the existing building. The deep involvement and care of the team with the craft of making the facade is the perfect counterpoint to the starkness of the form. The ease with which the project used bold color adds to the masterful but restrained palette of architectural moves. The project touches upon so many issues surrounding contextuality while it chooses to create a very distinct ‘other’.”

Jury, 2017 AIA New England Design Awards

View of new entrance courtyard and west terrace entrance, under the pavilion

The new addition is a pavilion that sits above the ground. This provides a space for a formal entrance into the museum, an events plaza and lifts the building and its sensitive objects out of the flood plain. Four large cast-in place concrete legs support the weight of the pavilion, and two egress stairs descend from the ceiling. The underside of the pavilion has a ceiling that is faceted and folded to match the saw-tooth edge of the rotated facade tiles.

Looking toward the Ringling grounds, the Ca’ D’Zan mansion and the Sarasota Bay

“The addition could have been a glass box reflecting nearby palm trees, but instead, the beautifully crafted pavilion skin is an extraordinary overlay of terra-cotta panels.”

Jury, 2016 BSA Design Awards

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Project Credits

Owner: Florida State University; The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
Architect: Machado Silvetti
Local Consulting Architect: Sweet Sparkman Architects
Terra-Cotta Fabrication: Boston Valley Terra Cotta
General Contractor: Willis Smith Construction
Structural Engineer: Stirling and Wilbur Engineering Group
Civil Engineers: AM Engineering, Inc.
MEP/FP/AV/IT/SEC: TLC Engineering for Architecture
Lighting Design: LAM Partners Inc.
Specifications: Kalin Associates, Inc.
Code Consultants: RJA Associates
Exterior Envelope Engineering: Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, Inc.
Landscape Architects: DWY Landscape Architects
Photographs: All photos of built project are by Anton Grassl | Esto

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