Studio Gang

On Tuesday, the National Building Museum released the first details and renderings of "Hive," Studio Gang's upcoming summer installation in the museum's Great Hall and the fourth large-scale commission for its Summer Block Party series. Last year, James Corner Field Operations submerged the Great Hall in a layer of blue mesh "water"; this year, founding principal Jeanne Gang, FAIA, and her Chicago and New York teams are manipulating the sound inside the cavernous hall with three chambers, built with cardboard tubes typically used to form concrete during construction. Gang spoke with ARCHITECT about the project following the announcement.

ARCHITECT: Where did the name “Hive” come from?
Gang: [laughs] I think it was it was a group effort at finding a name that was going to reflect the buzz and the programming excitement in the space that we have planned. There were some other ones that didn’t get picked—like the Boom Room, because one of the events is going to be about drumming and these drum tubes they're made of—but they wanted to use one word like all the other exhibitions they have had in the National Building Museum, and that word just seemed to reflect a little bit of how it looks and also the activity that's going to be inside.

Why did you decide to use cardboard tubes? Have you used them before?
We’ve used it in projects, because it is a typical material that is used for pouring foundations. It’s the Sonotube, it’s the tube that you pour the concrete into. It’s a building material that's readily available and not super expensive, but the other thing that is cool about it for this project is that we were really interested in sound and changing the way that the Great Hall sounds when you go inside the space. And Sonotubes are tubes that are circular and they also help reflect sound, but you can also use tubes to create sound. So some of the activities we have planned involve instruments that are made of tubes. Think of drums, or chimes, or tubulum is another one, those are all things that we'll be able play with in the space. [Ed. note: Sonotube is a brand of concrete forming tubes. Studio Gang clarified that "Sonotube" here is describing concrete forming tubes in general. The manufacturer of the cardboard tubes has not yet been announced.]

The colors are quite dramatic. How did you land on those?
We found out that during the manufacturing of the tubes, we could easily—because it is made out of paper, so it’s also a good material for the environment, it’s not like making a big thing full of plastic—layer in a colored piece of paper. So we decided to utilize the insides to give it color and on the outside.

So the color is not paint, it’s an extra layer of paper?
Right, correct.

How did you develop the form of the chambers?
We noticed inside the Great Hall space, that the sound in there is almost like being outside in the middle of a field. You can say something if you are standing 10 feet away from someone and you can’t almost hear it, it’s that big of a space. So we wanted to bring that down and create a space where the acoustic properties would be noticeably different. The main big space is just for more people, and then we have smaller spaces that are for these individual instruments. The shape comes from the footprint, wanting the footprint to be a certain size, but also the structure being a kind of catenary curve that allows us to form the structure without any additional supports. So it’s a gravity structure like a dome.

Are the tubes going to come partially attached to each other or is it all going to be assembled on-site?
Everything will be assembled on-site, and it's a relatively straightforward way of connecting them. I don’t know if anyone will decide to connect a few together at a time before they come on, but in general, the entire thing is getting made on-site. It’s much too big to prefabricate and bring in. One of the things about the design that was really interesting, is that you can reach everything from one bucket lift on one side, in other words you don’t have to put scaffolding up on two sides of the dome, you can build it all from one side, so that made it possible to go faster.

How are they attached?
It's a slotted connection, so the lower tube has a slot in the top of it, and the upper tube will have a slot in the bottom of it and then they connect together—a little bit like wood joinery, but obviously it’s a unique thing, a cardboard tube. It is a very simple connection detail, but it’s super rigid. We worked together with Thornton Tomasetti and Joe Burns was the main engineer that helped us to make sure that the joint was strong enough and that the shape was structural.

And is that sufficient? Will it need any additional adhesives or reinforcements or anything beyond that?
No, we did not want it to just be glued together, it’s really built up element by element. I hope we don’t end up sticking some glue in there! [laughs] That would be terrible.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.