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Frank Gehry’s EMP Museum: Musical Musings in a Mesmerising Mess

Posted by
on September 15, 2015 at 01:18 PM

It’s loud. And difficult to escape. And totally engulfs the observer. And takes one swimming through a range of experiences, starting with shock and awe and ending in, possibly, sublime Nirvana. It displays unbridled creativity and boldness. It’s colourful, undulating, contorted, convoluted, daring, risk taking, screaming, transfixing and ever changing. That is the iconic Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle designed by the inimitable Frank Gehry! “Let the experience begin!” is what billionare Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, fan of rock icon Jimmy Hendrix to whom he ascribed his own creative inspiration, screamed as he smashed a glass guitar to inaugurate this temple to pop culture commissioned by him. Well, the experience has never stopped even 15 years since it was created for the millions who visit this edifice to ‘pop culture + sci-fi + music’. 

© Courtesy of Internet Resources

The Museum

Paul Allen commissioned the $100 million EMP Museum as a platform to share his passion for rock and popular culture as well as his collection of Jimmy Hendrix memorabilia. But, rather than being only a static display of his collections, he wanted the museum to be an interactive experiential zone where visitors could play, learn and experience different kinds of musical instruments, a place to have concerts and musical events. He ignited Frank Gehry with his vision and emphasized his wish to make it the most advanced and varied experiential zone that technology could possibly achieve. It was also to host a science fiction museum and a theatre for horror films, among others. The largest collections in the world of rare artefacts, hand-written lyrics, personal instruments, and original photographs celebrating the music and history of Seattle musicians Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix is housed here. The museum, thus is not  just a building, nor is pop or rock music just an art form – both are experiences. 

The Concept

Originally a follower of classical music, Frank Gehry set out to understand pop and rock on being inducted into the EMP museum design. In the early conceptualisation, he and his team brought over several guitars to office, sliced them into pieces and assembled these in a variety of arrangements to come up with the building’s external form.  This extremely shaped and complex exterior skin was conceptualised and formalised using CATIA, the highly evolved software used in designing Mirage fighter jets, Boeing and Chrysler, which allows complex sculptural forms to be digitized into electronic models. This was a first for any architect ever.

The Building

As an arrangement of totally incongruous forms, supposedly sourced from parts of various guitars, the exterior of this museum hardly looks like a building. All aerial view pictures, in fact, resemble some kind of a massive industrial mess. However, closer views offer the observer myriad visual experiences to enjoy in its complex undulations and colours that keep changing at every view point or with every change in the angle of sun rays hitting it, a photographer’s delight.

The interior is almost as complex as the skin, and similarly offering even more mind blowing experiences. With a 13,000 sq m built area sitting on a 3,300 sq m foot print, the premises offer a variety of experiential spaces for private and public events like concerts, conferences, reception dinners, film premiers and intimate gatherings, in addition to hosting the pop and rock history museum, sci- fi museum and hall of fame. Another first in this project is the Seattle monorail going right through the building, connecting it to various parts of the city.

The Structure

Civil Engineering Magazine calls it the "most complex exterior skin ever devised for a building", and in that area lie some of the most extraordinary feats achieved in this project. If Paul Allen is to be credited with dreaming up something so bold, and Gehry credited with giving it a daring and risk taking form, then Zahner, the construction company certainly deserves all the applause for its flawless execution.

Zahner had previously devised the method of building complex curves by reducing the curves to large panelized sections, whereby the building could be pre-engineered and fabricated for delivery and rapid installation.  The forms of EMP were created using over 4,000 ZEPPS™ (aluminium) panels fabricated by Zahner using over 21,000 sheets of metal, where no two sheets and no two panels were the same. This skin is assembled on an inner framework of steel and 2-8 inch thick shotcrete layer which is the structural base of the building.

The Experience

Being a non-profit venture that supports the creative ideating and risk taking enterprise that forms the pop music industry, the EMP museum provides a range of platforms and services for this purpose. These include individual music labs where you can play and experience different instruments and sounds, lofty arenas, spacious reception diners, conference and meeting spaces of varying scales, libraries, displays, and so on. EMP also acts as an educational resource space by collaborating with schools to have in-curriculum music workshops and creativity camps for kids and teens as well as an annual sci-fi contest.

The main concert venue, Sky Church, capable of holding up to 800 guests, is tailor made for head banging rock performances, Sky Church boasts 70-foot ceilings, state-of-the-art sound and lighting, and a mammoth indoor HD LED screen which is, allegedly, the largest in the world.

Dedicated to providing a cutting edge educational and interactive experience for all visitors, it champions inclusion. It has wheel chair accessibility, with electronic door openers and optimum counter heights, to all spaces within including the seats at its main music venue, the Sky Church. It also has hi-tech assistance features like assisted listening, sub-woofers, audio narration, rear window captioning,

IF VI WAS IX is a central display piece, a sculpture made using more than 500 musical instruments and 30 computers by Seattle-based sound sculptor Trimpin. It is equipped with earphones that allow audiences to tune in to the various musical permutations performed.

In sum, from the exquisite visual experiences of the exterior to the mind-blowing multi-media ones inside, EMP is undeniably X-treme experience zone. It has been described as “something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died” by Herbert Muschamp (New York Times architecture critic) and one of the world’s 10 ugliest buildings by Forbes magazine. One wonders what compels or drives Frank Gehry, or the people who go the journey with him on any project. But the range covered by his works, from the lyrical harmony of his early successes like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to the screaming hard rock that is the EMP museum, is just as insanely wide and unignorable. What an X-treme journey!!

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