The Birds that Never Sleep

Date: 2016

Location: Renwick Gallery, The Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.

Exhibition: Above the Renwick (invited design competition)

Description: “The clouds, the only birds that never sleep.” - Victor Hugo in The Vanished City

Throughout architectural history, architects have used their structures to build a connection between earth and sky. From ancient structures like Stonehenge or Chaco Canyon that were used to measure solar and lunar cycles to contemporary skyscrapers that allow us to live and work among the clouds, architects have found inspiration and opportunities in looking up. ABOVE the Renwick presents an amazing opportunity to reimagine the ceiling of the Grand Salon.

Our approach builds on the rich and diverse architectural history of ceilings designed to disappear and thus reveal the sublime beauty of the heavens above. This technique, known as trompe-l'œil (“deceive the eye”) and quadratura (“opening up”), has been used in public buildings such as theatres or churches to create the surreal illusion of an interior space with an intimate relationship with the sky above. In projects such as Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza or Andrea Pozzo’s ceiling of Sant’Ignazio in Rome, the ceiling is painted with a nearly photo-realistic rendition of clouds, sky, and in the case of Sant’Ignazio, a host of angels. Despite these ceilings being relatively flat, the painted surfaces create the illusion of nearly infinite depth.

Our proposal builds on this concept but interprets it through a contemporary approach to architecture, engineering, and design. We are interested in creating not a fixed depiction of the sky, but a dynamic, self-organizing system that is never the same sky twice. Like most complex systems, our proposed installation, The Birds that Never Sleep, is composed of very simple components following very simple physical rules. The result is an ever-morphing cloud above the Grand Salon that is able, like real clouds, to take on many different atmospheres. From lazy cumulus to striated cirrus to massive and turbulent cumulonimbus, the ceiling above will be a performance composed of clouds..

The installation also builds on the history of American painting and photography through its focus on capturing the sublime. Artists from the Hudson River School as well as more recent artists like Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe, and others have attempted to depict both the subtleties and sensation of light and shadow within the sky and its effect on how we understand the landscape below. The installation offers the public a dynamic visual experience and acts as a reflection on the larger and more complex climate and its dynamic role in society. In addition, the installation is enjoyable and provocative for both the casual visitor who might only have a few minutes to stop by or the longer term visitor who might be attending a symposium, reception, or other event and is able to witness longer trends in the installation’s evolution.

One of the primary drivers of the design was to create an installation that compliments the programmatic diversity of the Grand Salon. The installation is designed to be engaging to visitors through the day and night as well as by a single viewer or a whole crowd. The installation, like actual clouds, is designed to hover silently above the visitor’s heads. No part of the installation goes below 15 feet from the floor. Similar to the room’s lighting, the programming of the installation’s movements will be adjustable by museum staff to increase or decrease the intensity of movement to tune it to the desired atmosphere of various events. Several pre-programmed settings will be provided to easily and quickly tune the installation behavior.

The Bird that Never Sleeps is an innovative and visually engaging piece of speculative architecture that will offer the Renwick’s guests a constantly evolving kinetic performance.

Credits: Andrew Kudless and Taylor Metcalf

Using Format