Sparano Mooney's Kimball Q&A

With the jury going into deliberations at the end of the week, the Kimball Art Center in Park City, Utah, is poised to announce the architect and design of its new extension. I've reported on the quintet of finalists, but I was particularly curious to hear from the only Utah firm to make the final cut: Sparano Mooney. I asked John Sparano—whose house we covered in the July/August 2010 issue—about what his design means for Main Street in Park City, how it feels to be the only local firm under consideration, and what winning this commission would mean for his and Anne Mooney's practice.

Sparano Street

Considering how central the Kimball is in town, how does your proposal hope to both make a landmark and not overpower Main Street?
The Kimball Art Center’s stated desire was for a building that was easily read within its context and thus would “not disappear into the surrounding building scape." Our solution achieves this through the diaphanous layering of a glass skin and a highly textured wood wall within it, and locating the building circulation between the two layers.  The design is unlike anything in the region, while remaining compatible in scale and texture with the existing surroundings.  The associations imbedded in the materials and imagery of our design proposal are evocative of the natural surroundings and the City’s history and speaks to the vision of what Park City was, and what it can become. The aspen screen, wood wall, projecting screening room/classroom, stairs and recessed studios at the lowest level come together on this side of the building to form a 3-dimensional composition that reads differently day and night. The accentuated depth-of-field on this side of the building serves to reveal the activities within the KAC to the street and not overpower it with it massing. The lightness and transparency of the architecture adds life and energy to the activity along Main Street.
I spoke with Robin Marrouche, director of the Kimball and she talked about wanting something of the Bilbao Effect in Park City. Is yours a building that can do that?
Our solution will have a powerful presence in Park City through more subtle and seductive means. It is not overly formalistic in its expression and relies more on the power of beautiful materials and thoughtful details in its expression. Our impression of what the KAC wanted from this project was for a more mature response to the creation of their “icon” and seemed to be asking for a building that relied more on nuance and thoughtfulness then bravado to make its point. Our approach to the “Bilbao effect” is to design a highly experiential architecture with substantive ideas imbedded in it at many levels.  The result leaves both the local visitor and the international jetsetter wanting to return again and again to the Kimball to understand it more thoroughly.

This image shows an interior gallery space from Sparano Mooney's proposal. The logs you see in the wall are actually dry-stacked, allowing light to flow between the rooms.
This image shows an interior gallery space from Sparano Mooney's proposal. The logs you see in the wall are actually dry-stacked, allowing light to flow between the rooms.

This section shows how an additional level will be added to the existing Kimball structure, which was a livery when it was erected.
This section shows how an additional level will be added to the existing Kimball structure, which was a livery when it was erected.
Can you talk about the material palette you chose? Looks like lots of wood and glass. Why did you go that route, and were you surprised to see that some of the other proposals did the same?

The materiality of the architecture evokes the natural and constructed history and mythology of the city and region without making direct historical references.  No one used glass in quite the way we did and we were not really surprised to see the use of wood as it is part of the local vernacular.  We were particularly interested in creating architecture from the vast number of trees that have been destroyed in the area from the bark beetle infestation.
Yours is the only Utah firm in the final five. Does that surprise you? Disappoint you? Maybe you feel it should give you a leg up.
It doesn’t surprise us. We also don’t think it gives us a leg up.  As the only finalist with a local office, we were not required to team with a local firm.  The advantage here was that the means by which our design team collaborated was established before day one of the competition.  This included consulting engineers and manufacturers which we knew and worked with previously.  The individuals that worked on the KAC project in our office have collaborated many times in the past to resolve tough programmatic and urban planning challenges with clear and elegant solutions.  Because of this familiarity we were not involved in working through the learning curve of collaborating with a new partner.
The jury, which makes its choice on February 3rd, will use models each firm provided to help decide the winner. This is Sparano Mooney's model.
The jury, which makes its choice on February 3rd, will use models each firm provided to help decide the winner. This is Sparano Mooney's model.

You're also probably the smallest firm in the final five (no offense). Architects like Bjarke Ingels certainly bring a bit of star power to the game, but what do you offer that BIG or Bruder or Williams Tsien can't?
The project is more important to us than it is likely to be to our competitors.  We can’t imagine anyone with more passion for the creation of great architecture that’s about the American West.  While the other architects are working on projects all over the world, we practice in the American West. We love the landscape, the people, the stories and the mythology of this region and our practice is focused on the creation of architecture that reflects the rich culture of this place.  At the end of the day the jury will be deciding if they are seeing the best work from a major name or a more compelling proposal from an emerging practice.
Here you can see the corner of Main Street that the new structure hopes to activate.
Here you can see the corner of Main Street that the new structure hopes to activate.

At present, there's little rooftop activity at the Kimball, but the Sparano Mooney plan would significantly alter that.
At present, there's little rooftop activity at the Kimball, but the Sparano Mooney plan would significantly alter that.
Finally, tell me what kind of programmatic needs an art center has that an art museum doesn't. How does the Kimball as a kind of living arts space, one that offers classes and galleries and a whole host of arts activities, effect your thinking about the space?

I think it is very easy to fall into the trap that this is an “art museum” competition. It is not. There is a large education component to the program with these functions operating in a fundamentally intertwined relationship with the exhibit spaces.  The wide variety of events that take place in the center led us to develop the project as a series of highly flexible spaces that could accommodate almost any program or event, from a Sundance screening to an elementary school field trip to a black tie dinner.  The relationship of the Art Center to the street was also important and we designed the project to allow the art studios to open to Main Street as a direct response to the unusual, perhaps even unprecedented, program.

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