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Tuesday, June 20, 2000

EMP's cutting-edge rolls and curves depended on a Little Wing and a prayer

by Caitlin Cleary
Seattle Times staff reporter

In the middle of the night, when most Seattle streets have emptied, the nocturnal crews are at work, blasting Nine Inch Nails around the convoluted innards of the Experience Music Project.

They play Pat Metheny and Japanese pop mixmaster Cornelius, testing and equalizing the spectrum of sound, tinkering with the treble of Sting's snare drum and the extreme bass of a hip-hop beat. U2's lighting designers focus spotlights, the Rolling Stones' stage designers program the video board in the Sky Church.

These are the days leading up to the opening of the EMP, and crews are testing the Artist's Journey virtual-reality ride, firing up the restaurant's kitchen, and fine-tuning the Smithsonian-standard temperature and humidity controls.

EMP factoids

  • The multicolored skin of EMP has 21,000 metal shingles, held on by more than 3,000 metal panels, no two the same.

  • The building measures 140,000 square feet. The highest point reaches 85 feet, at the Sky Church.

  • The amount of data cable installed in EMP could wrap around the Earth.

  • If you took the amount of steel used in EMP and made an E guitar string, it would stretch 1.6 million miles, circling the Earth 65 times. If you took the amount of steel used in EMP and made it into the lightest banjo string, it would stretch one-quarter of the way to Venus.
  • "They like to do it at night," said Paul Zumwalt, director of design and construction for EMP.

    Zumwalt is working, too, even while he's asleep. This isn't quite the craziest thing he's ever worked on, but almost, he said. It's nearly a 24-hour-a-day thing. He keeps a pad of paper and a Dictaphone by his bed, in case he remembers something in his dreams. Did he get the disabled-access phones in both lobbies? Yes. Now he can sleep.

    From the engineers and superintendents on down to the construction laborers, the experience of building the Experience has been unique. The use of CATIA, a 3-D computer modeling program designed by the French to craft fighter jets, enabled the contractors to fabricate the rolling metal skin and fashion hundreds of different curving steel ribs, without calculating the geometry of any single one.

    The making of EMP has changed the people who worked on it. It has forced construction teams to reinvent their techniques, applying basic principles to strange shapes and designs. Its computer-based underpinnings could potentially free architects from the straight lines and other limitations of traditional design.

    "It's like building a piece of modern art, a sculpture," Zumwalt said. "Ten years ago, Frank (Gehry) couldn't have done this."

    The making of EMP has also transformed computer-illiterate people into experts in state-of-the-art 3-D computer design, and brought together companies from all over the country.

    The construction teams met every day in the trailer offices: skin, structure, pipe, electrical, mechanical, said Zumwalt. Smart people, trying and erring and solving. They would attack areas of the complex building and not leave the room until they figured them out, communicating on a massive computer conference call that brought together architects in Santa Monica, curtain wall suppliers in Kansas City, steel contractors in Portland.

    Using an instrument that looks like a dentist's drill, Gehry's staff put the tip to the undulating surface of the architect's models, every half an inch or so. Each point was digitized into a 3-D electronic model, and the information fed into CATIA. CATIA then allowed the engineers to virtually peel off the skin and design the structural ribs that hold it up.

    "CATIA was everywhere we turned," Zumwalt said. "Every rib was pre-cut, pre-bent. Every time we tried to shortcut and not use CATIA, we failed."

    The building's elements were designed from the skin down. The purple, gold and silver skin is made of lightweight stainless steel, dipped in electrically charged acid bath. The red and blue skin is painted aluminum.

    The skin is clamped to steel pedestals of differing lengths. Under the pedestals is a 2-inch-thick water seal; under the water seal is 5 inches of reinforced concrete laid on a wire-mesh surface, draped rib to rib. Since the metal skin is not watertight, the concrete channels rain into drains underneath the skin. Finally, curved steel ribs provide the shape and support for the outer surface.

    "We had to reinvent some construction techniques," said Dale Stenning, project engineer for the interior of EMP. "The learning process came in trying to apply basic principles to strange shapes. We had to pre-build and practice installations. We did a lot of mock-ups as we learned what worked."

    The winter of 1998 gave the crews 91 consecutive days of rain, forcing workers to tent everything while they poured the concrete shell. They had to get it perfectly poured, correct within one-eighth of an inch.

    The skin became one of the most difficult challenges. They were dealing with tight radii, Zumwalt said, trying to bend metal in three directions to tightly cover the rolling roof of EMP.

    "You can only torture metal so much," Zumwalt said. "The physics of metal just doesn't permit it. We eventually had to break the curves down into smaller sections to get the metal to behave."

    Most people involved in the making of EMP can safely say they've never been involved in anything like it before. Even now as the finishing touches are made, the signs hung and the floors cleaned for opening day, the workers talk about the singular experience they've had.

    "I was almost computer illiterate when I started this," said Robert Kotrola, an electrician with Holmes Electric. "By the time I was finished, I was pretty much up on AutoCAD."

    Kotrola was so inspired by the creativity of the place he was working on, he took to decorating hard hats for the fire marshal, Zumwalt and others.

    Zumwalt's hard hat has the incredibly detailed likeness of Jimi Hendrix, etched into the plastic and antiqued with black shoe polish. Zumwalt has since asked Kotrola to paint a hallway in the EMP and several guitars in the lobby exhibit.

    Most of his EMP work, though, the public will never see, buried as it is underneath the building - the arteries of electrical wiring and piping that will make EMP run.

    "There's some heroes out here," said Zumwalt. "If the superintendent electrician hadn't pulled extra pipe in the beginning, thinking ahead, anticipating, we'd be dead. From the workers to the suits, everybody knows they're doing something extraordinary."

    "I think it's fantastic," Stenning said. "I hear a lot of comments on how ugly it is, and I think those comments usually come from people who would drive by a strip mall being built on their way to work and not think twice about it."

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