Dutch designer Jerry van Eyck didn’t set out to create a building. He and his New York–based urban design and landscape architecture firm !Melk had been hired by Sacramento, Calif.–based Fulcrum Property to help invigorate the Bridge District. The 178-acre mixed-use development in West Sacramento suffered from the perception of being in the “unsavory part of town even when that reputation was no longer deserved,” says Stephen Jaycox, Fulcrum’s chief marketing officer and design director at the time. The site, he continues, needed a “larger, more operatic gesture” to draw residents across the Sacramento River.
As such, van Eyck proposed creating a gathering place for all event types: a shade structure, perhaps, in which “the river ecology leaps into the organized geometry of the city and locks fingers with it,” Jaycox recalls the !Melk founding principal saying.
The design team ran the material language of the archetypal structure of California’s Central Valley agrarian heritage—the barn—through parametric design software as if through a translator, exploring novel forms that could be built with nominal lumber. Working in Rhino and the Autodesk T-Splines plug-in, they began with the shape of a sprouting seed in plan and then studied sun angles to maximize the amount of shade the structure could provide. After controlling for several factors, including an existing right-of-way that meant firetrucks had to be able to drive through whatever was built, they arrived at the sinuous, wood-shingle-clad structure now known simply as the Barn.
Only a third of the Barn’s 9,100-square-foot plan is indoor space. The rest is essentially a giant breezeway, an 80-foot-long canopy roughly 30 feet wide that soars 20 feet over a large public plaza. The structure functions as a double cantilever, according to !Melk. A series of intersecting, angled, and trestle-like glulam trusses, whose top and bottom chords measure 8.75 inches wide and 21 inches deep, extend toward one another from their respective anchoring pods, which also act as ovoid-shaped enclosures. “When we started designing, that was our intent: to be this weird, ambiguous element,” van Eyck says. “Is it landscape? Is it architecture? Is it installation art? And then afterward, it was, ‘Oops, we designed a building!’ ”
The trusses, the longest of which span 140 feet, are supported by cross-bracing and criss-crossing steel tie-rods that range in diameter from 0.75 inches to 1.5 inches. Glulam truss members are joined with heavy-duty, gang-nail plates secured by dozens of 3.5-inch-long timber rivets.
Giving the Barn its sleek form is a secondary structure made out of 3D frames of nominal lumber. Spaced 2 feet on center in proximity to the pods and 1 foot on center near the canopy's apex, the frames provide the armature for 0.75-inch OSB plywood sheathing topped with a waterproof membrane and Class A untreated cedar shingles. Structurally, the Barn’s skin is as crucial as its cantilevered trusses. “If you leave one of the elements out, the barn starts deflecting,” van Eyck says.
Still, he maintains the structure is not overly sophisticated: The secondary members are “all 2x4s and 4x4s,” joined using standard connections, though “the lengths and the angles of the joists vary.” Early on, the design team made physical models of the structure—some 3D-printed, others from Starbucks stirring sticks—to ensure they understood it themselves. The firm also consulted with Seattle-based structural engineering firm Magnusson Klemencic Associates.
They ultimately realized that, while the details themselves might be familiar, the number of unique angles could be overwhelming for local builder Brown Construction. “It’s not going to be a six-page IKEA instruction manual [that the design team would be creating]," van Eyck remembers thinking, "but more like a 200-page IKEA instruction manual.”
And yet construction went smoothly. Wood Tech Services in Eugene, Ore., fabricated the glulam members, made of Douglas fir and larch woods, and Brown Construction erected the Barn between April 2015 and June 2016. Because the skin plays a structural role, van Eyck says, “there were temporary supports underneath until the very last shingle was up."
It’s no secret that the Barn was meant to improve public perception of the neighborhood while also creating a revenue stream for Fulcrum. “But it really worked," van Eyck says. "Man, it worked! The effect was much stronger than I ever could have imagined.”
Even so, Jaycox adds, the Barn represents much more than an aesthetic object. “Though it’s sort of satisfying as a sculptural thing, it was never designed just to be something you look at,” he says. “It was designed to be something you experience.”
This article has been updated since first publication.