Rodolfo Machado, principal at the Boston-based architecture firm Machado and Silvetti Associates, was seeking a way to create a sense of place and privacy in the new glass-walled lobby of the Chazen Museum. Located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the 86,000-square-foot building is a freestanding extension of the existing museum designed in 1970 by Harry Weese. The new three-story structure, which opens to the public on October 22, houses galleries but will also serve as a space for performances and events, including both university-sponsored and private soirées in the lobby. “We needed something to help visually define the lobby from the courtyard, and we wanted it to be contemporary and site-specific,” said Machado.
Machado proposed commissioning a piece by Dutch textile designer Petra Blaisse, whose work had made an impression on him during a visit to the Casa da Musica in Porto, Portugal. Blaisse’s firm Inside Outside created massive knotted curtains that added texture to the OMA-designed space and also acted a screen for concert hall windows. Machado organized a trip for the Chazen’s director Russell Panczenko to Blaisse’s studio in Amsterdam, and Blaisse in turn visited the site in Madison. When she began to sketch out her vision of a semi-transparent curtain, Panczenko was convinced of the project’s merit as an artwork in its own right. “We have a textile collection here, so we were able to use accession funds for it,” said Panczenko, describing how the museum was able to cover the roughly $250,000 cost of Inside Outside’s installation.
The net-like curtain, measuring 65 feet wide and 22 feet tall, entirely covers the lobby’s glass facade. Composed of two layers of fabric, the combination of materials was intended to create a three-dimensional effect, said Peter Niessen, who supervised the project at Inside Outside. “We started by looking at the collections of the Chazen Museum and then emphasized a more scientific approach,” said Niessen of design inspiration drawn from Japanese art and origami as well as fractal geometry. The stiffer layer of light gray felt was machine-cut in a cube-like fractal pattern that evokes an Escher drawing. The felt acts as a frame for a diaphanous layer of voile, which is printed with the same pattern; the two layers and their carefully overlapping patterns are connected at multiple points with a simple cross-stitch. The choice of materials also produces an illusion of transformation: voile, a finely woven polyester, appears transparent when backlit but becomes opaque under direct light, so the curtain offers a sense of openness during the day and privacy at night. Because of its high profile role in the lobby, the piece, which was fabricated in Europe by the German manufacturer Gerriets, was made to meet U.S. flame-proofing codes and standards.
Living up to its designation as art, Blaisse’s piece doesn’t stop at being functional and decorative—it’s performative, too. When the museum wants to encourage passersby to gaze in, the curtain can also retract. Punctured with grommets at the top and suspended from a track, the motorized curtain coils around a thin column of LED lights, creating a glowing cylindrical sheath almost five feet in diameter. The fabric column provides a sculptural and animated presence in the lobby. “It swirls up like a dancer doing a pirouette,” said Panczenko.