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Making Xylem: Circles, Senses, and Community

Making Xylem: Circles, Senses, and Community

August 1, 2019

World-renowned architect Francis Kéré has designed Tippet Rise’s new 2,100-square-foot pavilion, Xylem. Ten teams of highly skilled and passionate people worked together to build the natural gathering space where communities can meet, share, and listen. Nestled in a grove of aspen and cottonwood trees beside Grove Creek and the art center’s central campus, Xylem was completed in July of 2019.

Produced and narrated by Zachary Patten
Recorded and mixed by Monte Nickles
Photo by Erik Petersen

Pedja Muzijevic performs Cage: In a Landscape

Matt Haimovitz performs Isang Yun: Glissées for solo cello
Emma Resmini performs Ian Clarke: Great Train Race for solo flute
Calidore String Quartet performs Beethoven String Quartet N. 9, Op. 59 N. 3 “Menuetto


00:03 MELISSA MOORE: Welcome to the Tippet Rise podcast, brought to you from Tippet Rise Art Center, located on a 12,000 acre ranch in Fishtail, Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. I’m Melissa Moore. At Tippet Rise, we celebrate the synergy of art, architecture, music, and nature, out of which we weave our identities. The Tippet Rise podcast explores these connections. Today’s episode, produced by Zachary Patten, takes us through a sound journey into the seven month process of building the newest addition at Tippet Rise. Designed by world-renowned architect, Francis Kere and brought to life by ten different teams, Xylem opened to the public in July, 2019.

01:03 FRANCIS KÉRÉ: The sense of circle in my life comes from being part of a community. From raising up in a community where everyone helps each other to sustain the community. There is a strong relationship between the members of that community. This is the reason why I feel very strongly attached to this community.

01:52 ZACHARY PATTEN: Walking through the quaking leaves of aspen trees, the 2,100-square-foot pavilion, Xylem, welcomes the viewer from two points of entry. The metaphor of circles manifests in its physical structure, as it consists of two perfect circles, a canopy and a floor. The seating elements’ organic shapes are inspired in part by the abstract forms of microscopic life and create a playful dialogue with the overhead contour of the pavilion and the topographic lines of the landscape which encompass the space. The ponderosa and lodgepole pines have been shaped and placed to expose the many layers of the wood from the exterior down to the wood’s heart and when surrounded by the pavilion, there is the feeling of inhabiting the heart of a tree or the heart of a community.

02:47 FK: My approach to architecture is first based on the fact that I’m looking where I am. What is the community? The architecture emerges from the need to create space where communities can meet, the communities can share, the communities can use. And then, at the same time, create space that protects that community. To create a shelter.

03:19 ZP: Community is at the heart of world-renowned architect Francis Kéré who draws inspiration from the wooden and straw toguna structures sacred in Dogon communities in West Africa. Here at Tippet Rise, a community was formed of passionate people working together to construct Xylem, using locally sourced materials.

03:39 FK: To have the chance to be able to serve the community usinging your skills, and you use it. People are happy about the result and people are even inspired by what you do. That is a driving motive for me. It’s like food for the soul and creativity. You feel you are useful. That is a great feeling!

04:05 ZP: Over the course of seven months, ten teams and over forty people contributed their unique skill sets to design and build Xylem. This podcast is an exploration of the fabrication process, the materials, and the teamwork involved to create a space with the purpose of bringing people together.

04:44 FK: We started. We wanted to have a burned forest, we wanted to use the wood, so we start to say “Oh, let’s make it nice, pure architecture”. Burned wood, they have to see it! We went to the place and we realized you cannot use this for construction. We kept looking and we found much more wood we could use and Peter would describe it as “Giving a life to dead wood.”

05:15 PETER HALSTEAD: We wanted to use dead wood from the Stillwater River Road. A fire came through there and here are all these dead trees standing there for miles and miles. What if we could use them and give them new life building a building, but it turned out they were too crumbly to actually use. So we got other dead wood from Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, and we used that. So it was mainly local Montana dead wood.

05:42 FK: We wanted to collect all these dead trees and give them a new life.

05:50 STEVE CHAPPO: They started, I think, with 35,000 lineal feet of logs. My name’s Steve Chappo, site supervisor for On-Site Management. There is a lot of material that they had to process.

06:05 PH: Basically eight miles of wood and over 20,000 individual logs.

06:10 SC: The logs needed to be sorted and culled, picked for sizes and peeled.

06:15 ZP: The dead wood was delivered to Chris Gunn and Laura Viklund’s workshop Gunnstock Timber Frames in Powell, Wyoming

06:22 FK: A workshop not far from here. They have a beautiful workshop. I have to be honest, I’m jealous of them. They have machines, they have space, but I love them.

06:31 ZP: On a site visit, Chris and Laura show Francis the fabrication process starting with the peeling of logs.

06:38 CHRIS GUNN: My sixteen year old peelers can do about two to three hundred feet per day. And my forty and up peelers do about one-fifty to two hundred feet per day.

06:48 LAURA VIKLUND: In twice as many hours!

06:49 CG: Yeah! So, it’s a young man’s game, there’s no question. The young boys that are in highschool have been coming out in the evenings. They go to school all day and then they’ll drive their pickup trucks over and they’ll peel until dark some nights.

07:08 LV: Sometimes they turn the headlights on.

07:11 ZP: Information about the lengths, sizes, and groups of all the cut logs was organized and kept in a binder, nicknamed “The Bible.”

07:18 CG: We peel the logs over there and then, when they’re all peeled, they come here. We have the “bible.”

07:28 FK: I like the Bible.

07:29 CG: That tells us we need sixty pieces at “x” number of lengths and that’s where they get cut right here. You can see there’s almost twelve inches of sawdust on the ground here. We cut them all, we load them into boxes, and then we bring them into the shop and start the process.

07:47 ZP: Inside the shop, the logs get bundled together into groups of between thirteen and thirty logs. The circular bundles are held together by very long “brutus” screws.

07:57 PH: The only part that came from Germany are the screws. They’re six foot long screws that hold everything together and you can’t see them. Part of the genius is how do you build a thing like this that will withstand one hundred mile per hour winds and will stand up under any circumstance at all, and how to do it and make it seem seamless, as Francis has done. That’s the incredible miracle of the architecture.

08:20 FK: The screws were brought by Chris and Laura. I couldn’t come with them. But it was good, a working cooperation. It was really great because in the U.S., sometimes everything seems to be possible, even dead wood!

08:39 ZP: A pilot drill was required in order to keep the six-foot long screws aimed in the right direction.

08:46 CG: The really dense wood is very heavy and it doesn’t like to get drilled. It’s hard to do the pre-drill for the brutus. It’s hard to put the screws in it. It’s just not as friendly.

09:01 FK: But it will have a long life.

09:02 CG: It will last a long time! No question.

09:09 ZP: Once the logs are permanently fastened into a bundle, the tops needed to be sculpted to the correct contour. As one can imagine, sculpting with a chainsaw isn’t easy.

09:21 CG: So the lower string is the actual plane target. Because it only works where the string is touching the wood, we have to use another method to get in to get the line. Because it’s not straight, it’s either up or down when you get inside. So, it gets kind of “goofy complicated”. We have a six inch string up above that we can then project and take a level. Then we run it across. I butt into it and then connect the dots with a ruler. So that’s how I get into all these intricate spaces. I need a line, basically, all the way around it at the right place in order to guide the chainsaw. So, after three tries, this is the system we came up with.

10:13 ZP: During the fabrication of the wooden components at Gunnstock Timber Frames, the On-Site Management team began work on the foundation and steel structure of Xylem

10:25 SC: Step one here was clearing the site and digging down to the level where we were going to put in helical piers. This site, because it’s in a creek bottom, it’s not a bearing soil. It’s not good soil to build on, so we had to use what are called helical piers. Which are essentially thirty foot long drill bits for lack of a better description. It’s a steal rod that has eight inch diameter fins on it which drill down into the soil. Once those are installed, essentially the pavilion is on stilts that go thirty feet down into the ground to help hold it where it wants to be. After that, each helical pier or group of helical piers gets a concrete bearing cap poured onto it. From there, we can build up.

11:25 ZP: The twenty concrete bearing caps looked like perfectly flat lily pads balancing on long steel stems

11:32 SC: A structure this size with the amount of weight on top of it, there will be some movement. The goal was to try to limit the cracking that will happen in concrete. The concrete that is around the “Y-shaped” columns is about a two-foot circle pad.

11:48 ZP: A total of seven columns support the entire weight of the canopy structure.

11:53 SC: The floor beams do not attach to the seven roof columns. On top of the steel floor beams we put pan-decking and that’s where we pour our concrete floor. Around the edge, the concrete contractors made the edge form out of wood. Before we were able to put that form on, we had to find the center, swing an arc - the circle, like a compass, essentially. It was a twenty six foot compass, to get our perfect circle.

12:24 ZP: The perfectly circle floor was created from a single, monolithic, concrete pour.

12:29 SC: It’s really interesting to me to think about how people would’ve done this before there was a concrete pump truck, before there was a concrete truck, when there were big slabs of stone and the ideas they would use to do that kind of stuff is always fascinating to me.

12:52 ZP: The thematic nature of the circle, as Francis described, continues to make itself present in beautifully subtle ways.

13:00 NINA TESCARI: The circle is a very important element for the pavilion, from the single log that composes it, to the bundle, to the whole plan of the pavilion. My name is Nina. I work with Francis as an architect. Both Francis and I were really inspired by the landscape. What we wanted to do was intervene in a very subtle and gentle way in the landscape to not impose this pavilion, but rather to nestle it in the landscape. We thought that the best way to do this was to have a very clean and pure shape in plan, so you will see that the pavilion is a perfect circle. To have this very pure shape that is inserted into the landscape, but that contains a very rich spatial configuration that allows the visitors to feel like they are in a new world.

13:53 ZP: Francis and his team returned to the build site, about halfway through the construction, and into the cold world of a montana winter

14:01 FK: First, it’s very, very cold - freezing - and great to be here this time of the year, to really experience this different weather. It’s great to be here and to see that things are shaping very well. I have seen the amount of work that has been done in Chris and Laura’s workshop as well as onsite. To see the structure coming out, the columns and the platform are ready. The next steps are to hope for the better weather conditions so that they can lift the structure which is going to hold the entire canopy.

14:37 ZP: Fortunately, Steve and his team are used to this kind of weather.

14:41 SC: Most of the work we do is in Montana or Wyoming. So, we’re accustomed to building in places that are challenging. Our job is to figure out how to implement the plan. That never takes into account that you’re in the creek bottom, below zero, you’re on the side of a mountain, and it’s winter time in Montana.

15:05 ZP: When viewing from above, the huge canopy roof structure resembled a giant steel honeycomb.

15:11 SC: The steel honeycomb structure for the roof was cut into segments of five so that we could truck it in. We brought the steel to the site, unloaded the steel onto the concrete pad with the crane, and fit the five sections together to weld them all together and lift it as one unit.

15:34 NT: This pavilion, if you think about it, is kind of a dream because you have these very heavy logs that are kind of flying over your head. This is the first idea of it, this huge canopy made of logs that is flying over you. Then there is reality and it has to be a very strong structure to bear this wood. So, from that idea - that cloud - the whole process and the most challenging part was to make it real.

16:03 ZP: perhaps the most critical moment of the project was using the biggest crane to lift the entire steel roof structure.

16:11 SC: When we lifted the roof structure to the top of those columns, even though I had checked it probably two-dozen times to make that we were right, I was nervous and I would check and check and check. That’s what gives me peace of mind. I know that I’ve checked it several times. I get nervous when I realized that I haven’t checked something several times, so that’s when I start to get nervous. Even then, when you have a big moment, you get nervous then. The pick points could be a little tricky because that’s a “hard to balance” piece. We had a center of gravity, we knew where the center of gravity was on it, but you can’t always pick from that center of gravity and be able to grab the places you need to grab. The foreman of Western State Steel Erection has a lot of experience lifting strange, awkward pieces and he was able to, knowing approximately where the center of gravity was, stand back and look at it and decide where he wanted to put the pick points. He even, just before we were going to lift, he said “Stop, hold on”, and moved two of the chokers to a different spot and it was exactly what it needed. We wanted one side to be slightly higher than the other side, so rather than trying to come down on all seven at once, we wanted to ease it down, lock it to one, and that would give us the ability to rotate a little if we needed to. It picked up, just like a dream. It was perfect.

18:10 SC: That was a pretty big day. That was exciting for me to see that happen and land in place. Everything was perfect, right where it wanted to live. To me, that was the pinnacle. Just to see that roof, that structure go up and go into place as easily as it went into place.

18:45 ZP: Once the roof was welded in place to the steel columns, the Gunnstock crew returned to install several truckloads of circular wood bundles which were secured to the hexagonal angle iron frames.

18:57 SC: While we were assembling the steel and putting the roof structure into place, most of the large hexagon bundles were trucked up. We had to essentially pick the bundles off of the trailer and put them into their final resting places. We were able to get two trucks so the crane never stopped swinging. The bundles went in as smoothly as could be expected.

19:24 ZP: The penultimate step was the installation of the ebbing and flowing island-like benches, and their design came with beautifully personal touch.

19:33 PH: The thing I was very touched by was you found, online, the pictures that Cathy did for Lufthansa years ago - those little shapes. And you used those shapes as sort of a collaboration with the past to make the beautiful islands that are in this amazing sea of trees.

19:55 ZP: The sea of trees was further enhanced by adding aspens, cottonwoods, willows and grass to complete the circle of this communal gathering space.

20:02 FK: The best gathering space, first, is natural and protects, but is not closing you off. Everyone is invited to join this gathering, to join the shade under the canopy. To connect and share your daily life, your stories, and what you have been dreaming. Everyone is invited to listen. In my village, the moon is how you count the years of people and who has seen many, many moons can tell stories.

20:34 PH: I’m amazed at how each little bench is telling a story. The kind of expertise that went into this.

20:45 CATHY HALSTEAD: Well and it all makes us want to touch it.

20:48 PH: It makes you want to sit on it.

20:49 CH: It makes you want to feel it.

20:52 FK: It’s challenging all the five senses!

20:56 ZP: Francis and every team involved in the construction of Xylem have created a profound sensory experience for all Tippet Rise visitors. Through his work and his own life experience, he reminds us to use those senses and to especially take time to listen.

21:12 FK: We are becoming more and more blind because we stopped listening to our mothers, to our grandmothers. You get lost if you don’t listen to these people. If you get these stories, these experiences, which is about being a human, a powerful human, a human that is there to serve humanity. That is important to reconnect with that. My mother is still alive which is always pushing me. You are going far, but accept that it is part of the journey. I’m seeing it and I want to see more because she was so right, she was so right. I am in the U.S., Montana, Tippet Rise! From Gando, I mean, that is a long, long way. That is my own personal relationship to my mother and it’s important to reconnect with that, so that we can make our peace in the world, I’m sure. This is fundamental.