Morphosis’ Highly Sculpted Art Museum in Orange County Responds to its Urban Context
AUTHOR: Sarah Amelar
The new Orange County Museum of Art in Costa Mesa has garnered much attention in the past few months. Totaling 53,000 SF, the museum was the last venue needed to complete the Segerstrom Center for the Arts campus. Architectural Record recently featured an analysis of the OCMA – how the design by Morphosis interacts with the buildings closely surrounding it, and how it plays with the boundary between indoor and outdoor space.
“This is an architecture about civic space, about city-making. It’s also about interactions, rather than shiny objects. I’ve been attacking the idea of ‘object’ building for years,” says Morphosis founder Thom Mayne. “I’m most interested in the interstitial moments, the spatial experiences of the in-between, and how those seeming fragments can become a cohesive whole.”
The OCMA features a complex rainscreen—clad in off-white, lightly glazed terra cotta panels—that warps and bends across its faces. Each curve skews the wrapper’s large brick-like pattern at a different angle, as if it were a wallpaper overlay. The screen also pulls away in key places to reveal idiosyncratically shaped areas of glazing or muscular structural elements, including canted supporting columns.
Directly next door to the OCMA is a concert hall designed by Cesar Pelli, which possesses a glassy, wavelike façade. Whether intentionally or not, the museum’s terra cotta wrapper seems to riff on the pale, strictly rectilinear stonework of Pelli’s side elevation.
Tying it all together, the enveloping skin—independent of any solid volume and appearing almost as fluid as a textile—continues from outside in. “It’s a hybrid solution that expresses multiple conditions at once,” Thom Mayne continues. “It’s part urban space, part landscape, part building, part outdoor, part indoor.”
OCMA’s dynamic rainscreen “brings together low- and high-tech solutions,” says Morphosis partner-in-charge Brandon Welling, referring to the artisanal craft of glazed terra cotta and the cutting-edge digital techniques that made possible the precise design and construction of such a complex façade. The 6,534 panels themselves were fabricated by Boston Valley Terra Cotta using age-old extrusion methods that give the cladding an internal cell structure, thereby reducing its weight but not its strength. While about 70 percent of the panels were made flat, others were post-formed to create specific curves or bends.
Without compromising the sense of sculptural variation across the wrapper, the architects tried to minimize the number of different factory-produced panel lengths and curves. That optimization came through multiple iterations, analyzed and developed with CATIA software (which was originally devised for 3D-modeling high-performance aircraft). “It embedded every [panel] (in its virtual form) with its own ‘intelligence,’ ” explains Harris, “which meant that, on our computers, each [panel] ‘knew’ who it was, where it was, and who its neighbors were—so, whenever the design was modified, they all adjusted and updated themselves.”
The rainscreen system also enabled Morphosis to study different approaches to applying brick-like cladding across such complex contours. Each terra cotta unit, labeled with a unique location-specific number, was then clipped into the supporting metal framework on-site. Where panels required trimming to accommodate such edge conditions as oblique angles, adjustments were made in the field by trained contractors.
Playing against the continuous and digitally exact joint pattern, subtle differences among the panels are detectable—including variations in the white glaze’s transparency and the underlying tan clay body—allowing natural and handcrafted qualities to read through.
Header image: ©Mike Kelley 2022