After seeing Francis Kéré’s Louisiana Canopy installation at the Louisiana Museum of Contemporary Art, Cathy and Peter Halstead were inspired to commission the Berlin-based architect to add a piece to their vast Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana. A few years on and Xylem, a piece developed in Louisiana, is now complete in Tippet Rise. The art center is home to a number of monumental art pieces, including three large concrete works by Madrid-based architects Ensamble Studio and a complex wooden construction by the New York-based artist Stephen Talasnik.
While Tippet Rise stretches over 12,000 acres across southwest Montana’s broad, high plains, Xylem is located on one of the property’s few intimate spaces. Rather than site the project on the top of a butte or at the base of a canyon, like many of the other monumental art pieces throughout the art center, Kéré’s pavilion sits nestled amid a stand of cottonwoods and aspens along the bubbling Grove Creek. Unlike the rest of the center’s collection, Xylem is meant to have a specific function as a gathering area for guests and a performance space for artists.
“The Louisiana project was the inspiration for Cathy and Peter,” explained Kéré while walking through the new pavilion, “but Louisiana was in a museum, in a room, enclosed, protected. Here was have this landscape, which can be windy, hot, with a lot of snow. What can you do?”
Kéré’s solution involved sourcing hardy local materials and playing with form and light, all while working to understand the clients’ wish for an intimate, yet accessible, space. The 60-foot-diameter pavilion is comprised of thousands of linear feet of ponderosa and lodgepole pine logs. Each log was sustainably sourced from the nearby forests that had been ravaged by invasive mountain pine beetle or wildfires. Once stripped of their bark, the logs were cut to length and bound together to produce the bulk of the pavilion. These large masses of timber make up a series of lounging surfaces, as well as the expansive cantilevering canopy and the column cladding. That canopy is comprised of specially configured hexagonal bundles suspended from an AECOM-engineered steel frame. This seemingly straightforward construction method has been the focus of Kéré’s office for a number of years and involves a title collaboration between architect and craftspeople. For Xylem, Kéré worked with local architects of record Gunnstock Timber Frames, who also served as wood fabricators for the project. Gunnstock Timber Frames is also responsible for the other buildings on the Tippet Rise main campus.
Spaces for small groups or individuals were shaped and carved into the masses of logs as if they were a single volume, providing a cool space to sit and lounge in any number of positions. The smoothed wood formations are dappled with light throughout the day, as sunlight slips between the gaps in the bundles of overhead timber and the steel frame. The careful positioning of the pavilion also directs views out to the often-dramatic setting sun, while maintaining a sense of enclosure in other directions. In its current state, the freshly constructed pavilion emits a fresh pine scent, which adds to the pleasant experience of being in the naturalistic surroundings.
“The first instinct is not to consider this plot, why not build out there,” said Kéré as he discussed the siting of the pavilion with AN, while pointing out to the vast landscape. “We realized though, we had a chance to deal with this site, and respect the trees, and even to increase the feeling you have while listing to the water. Here you can focus on the sunset.”