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ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN For founder Alan Metcalfe, creating playful and comfortable learning environments is an integral part of the job, from architectural designs to museum exhibits.
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Metcalfe Architecture & Design of Philadelphia, PA, is unusual among architectural firms for designing museum exhibits as well as architectural structures. For founder Alan Metcalfe, bringing the two together is an obvious solution to create playful and comfortable learning environments. The Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, located in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill section, has enjoyed a 66 percent increase in attendance since “Out on a Limb,” a 450-foot, fully accessible, sustainably built tree canopy walk designed by Metcalfe Architecture & Design, opened in July 2009. Part of the multi-station, Arboretum-wide Tree Adventure exhibit, “Out on a Limb,” is one of the few and among the most elaborate of tree canopy walks in North America. Its success, says Metcalfe, was the product of years of collaboration between Metcalfe, the Arboretum, and the fabricators. The exhibit had to frame visitors’ experiences of the forest without detracting from its natural elements. Where less bold architects might have chosen to blend into the forest with a wood structure, Metcalfe’s vision made the exhibit its own thought-provoking learning experience. “It was really clear to us early on that it wasn’t going to disappear,” Metcalfe said. “In an exhibit, you want to be very clear about what is part of the natural environment and what is a manmade intervention.” For that reason, among others, Metcalfe chose to construct the canopy walk from steel. The material was sustainable and strong enough to withstand the effects of human traffic and falling tree branches. At the same time, the steel could be made to appear “gossamer-like,” he said. Though the structure is sturdy, it gives visitors the thrilling sensation of climbing high into the trees. The target audience of young children are natural thrill-seekers, Metcalfe said—though the same can’t always be said of their parents. “The kids are usually the ones that charge right onto it, and the adults, including me, are more cautious,” said Metcalfe. “There’s a sense of power and reversal there that is really great for kids and makes them feel like they’re in control of their parents.” These notions, though they may seem more psychological than architectural, are central to Metcalfe’s approach to design. The firm’s designs are intended to tell a story, and instill in children a love of independence and exploration while still providing a safe space for learning. “We were really intentional about all the experiences,” said Metcalfe. “So we made these architectural moves and set things up so people would have the tools to play.” The entrance to the tree canopy walk through a vine-covered trellis makes visitors feel as though they are entering a magical portal; when the walkway opens up, they are greeted by sweeping 4 Architecture Leaders Today
1. From left to right: Alan Metcalfe, IA, LEED AP; Paul Trapido, Partner, Creative Director; Aaron Goldblatt, Partner, Museum Services. 2-3. Seidenberg House, Conshohocken, Pa. MA&D reconstructed this mid-century kit house, taking advantage of its location by creating a bedroom nestled in the treetops. A glass connector bridge links the bedroom to the rest of the house. This house reflects our focus on play and romanticism. Trees and bridges evoke peace, solitude and memories of the escapes of childhood.
Metcalfe Architecture + design. by Rachel Goldberg
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views of the forest below. The movement all flows toward the centerpiece of the exhibit, a 250-year-old chestnut oak tree. The majesty of the tree is balanced by the whimsy of a peoplesized bird’s nest suspended from cantilevered columns, complete with oversized eggs. Kids truly experience a bird’s-eye view of forest ecology as they move physically through the exhibit, having so much fun in the process that they hardly notice how much they’re learning. The Arboretum exhibit is a prime example of Metcalfe Architecture & Design’s core principle of learning through play. “The more you can introduce surprising juxtapositions, turn things upside down, and make people look at them differently, the more curious they’ll be,” Metcalfe said. The firm’s architects and designers strive to make the users active participants in creating and experiencing their designs. Whether they are designing an exhibit or a school, they start by asking people to use their imagination to playfully inject their ideas into the process. “I try to help kids to free associate about what excites them about life, and then put those items into the things we’re creating for them,” he said. “Because every time you get kids feeling like they’re part of a project, they feel like they own it, and it’ll mean so much more to them.” Metcalfe’s recognition of the value in integrating diverse points of view is a key to his company’s success. With diverse backgrounds, each member of the firm brings a fresh perspective to their projects. Their design process is an open exchange of ideas with everyone involved from beginning to end. ALT 4-5. Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa. This fully accessible 450-foot walkway in the treetops is one of the few and among the most elaborate tree canopy walks in North America. 6-7. The Little Treehouse, Philadelphia, Pa. This 6,000 sq. ft. cafe and children’s play center was designed to provide a safe, creative and actively engaging experience for children, and a relaxing and sophisticated environment for adults.
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