Shade. It is something that San Antonians desperately seek out as respite from the grueling heat and sun. Even those who design multi-story buildings in an urban South Texas environment rely on shade devices to help with solar gain. One common exterior strategy for shading is to use the overhang of the roof, but for a multi-story commercial building this can prove to be a challenge, and vegetation or high-tech glass only goes so far. In the case of a healthcare facility, eliminating windows is not an option—studies show that blocking access to daylight hinders the speed of one’s healing process. Awnings, vertical fins, and light shelves are other exterior methods, but these can limit the appearance of the architecture.

When RTKL (now CRTKL) and local architects Overland Partners were planning the design for University Health System’s Robert B. Green Clinical Pavilion in San Antonio, they realized the current limitations on shading device options and took the matter into their own hands, also involving the creative genius of world-renowned artist, Ned Kahn.

About Ned Kahn

Born in Connecticut, Ned Kahn now resides in Sebastopol, California. Some of the pieces that put him on the map were those he did for Exploratorium in San Francisco. He is known for creating artwork that focuses on making the invisible forces of nature visible; such as wind, water currents, fire, etc. In an article by David Mather entitled “An Aesthetic of Turbulence: The Works of Ned Kahn”, Mather describes Kahn’s work by saying,

“Kahn harnesses kinetic, natural forces within formal, exhibition settings, and his works come to resemble interactive science experiments.”

Kahn’s piece, “Feather Wall,” is the result of his collaboration with Overland Partners to resolve for solar gain at the Pavilion. Located just West of downtown and facing West, many people in their daily commute will miss the sculpture, yet will come very close to it as our highway systems curve at IH-10/I-35/85. Kahn describes “Feather Wall” as:

“Composed of 5,029 tilted aluminum vanes that sway in the wind, the artwork seeks to dissolve the boundary between architecture and atmosphere, linking the building to the ever-changing and normally invisible currents of air.”

UHS Robert B. Green Campus Ned Kahn Feather Wall

“Feather Wall” Design Story

In an interview, Modern in San Antonio spoke with Tim Blonkvist, FAIA, LEED AP—Founding Principal and Chairman of the Board at Overland Partners—about the design story behind “Feather Wall”, the strategy that brought it into existence, and how it has benefited the occupants of the campus.

During the Design Development phase of the project, the design team noted that they had a six-story building which included a 200-ft. wall of glass that would need a shading device. On the interior and behind this wall of glass was planned a series of patient waiting rooms. It was here that much of the $1.2 million art budget for the project would be utilized. It was written into the requirements that a large percentage of the artwork would need to feature local artists, but who would they reach out to for an international artist? During his research, Blonkvist remembered seeing a piece by Ned Kahn installed in Singapore. It was kinetic, moved with the wind, and had an ever-changing pattern. This concept would eventually become the ideal shading device for the Robert B. Green Clinic’s west-facing wall of glass, but what did it cost to make something like this a reality in San Antonio?

A Ned Kahn sculpture of this magnitude would typically run a project an additional $2 million, but the project team had budgeted a maximum of $200,000 per piece of art for the project. This could have discouraged the average design team to give up, but Kahn was not speaking with an average design team. They dove deeper and asked for more details to think strategically about how to make this happen for San Antonio, uncovering that for a $2 million sculpture, Kahn’s take-home would be roughly the amount the project team was able to spend. The remaining $800,000 would be spent on materials, construction, and installation. The team proposed that Kahn design his piece as usual, but have it fabricated and installed locally. Kahn acknowledged that while it was unconventional, he was willing to entertain the prospect. Then—with true San Antonio hospitality—Blonkvist invited the artist to come to San Antonio, stay at his home, and work in his studio as they hashed out a design together that functioned for the project and still had a Ned Kahn signature. Within three days they presented to the client’s Design Enhancement Public Art Committee for approval, and the rest is history.

Not only did the piece come to fruition through innovative budgetary and fabrication techniques (fabricated and installed by local Sharp Glass), but the United States Green Building Council also thought highly enough of the sculpture that it contributed toward three LEED NC Innovation Points for its unique strategy on reducing energy loads. The building received a LEED Gold Certification, which “Feather Wall” helped achieve.

Patient and Community Well-being

As patients sit in the waiting areas where “Feather Wall” is located, the staff has noticed that it brings a sense of calm to patients awaiting medical procedures, reducing stress and anxiety as they are able to watch the movement of the wind that also resembles the movement of water. The staff parking lot faces the sculpture and even staff have commented on how they enjoy it as they come in to work as the pattern is soothing and ever-changing.

It is common knowledge that the Westside of San Antonio is often overlooked when it comes to new development. Those involved in developing the Robert B. Green Clinical Pavilion did not want to neglect the Westside; therefore, the serene “Feather Wall” faces West, a small park exists to the West side of the building, and many of the clinic patients come from the west side of town. The Robert B. Green Clinic is yet another great example of what thoughtful and deliberate design can do for the community when you take a moment to think and feel deeply for the local population.

UHS Feather Wall by Ned Kahn from Overland Partners on Vimeo.

¡Viva MiSA!

Project Awards:

San Antonio Best of Downtown Awards Best in New Construction and Public Art Incorporation 2013
San Antonio Business Journal, “Best in Commercial Real Estate: Best Medical Project,” June 2011

Elizabeth Williams is the Editor for Modern in San Antonio, a digital media publication highlighting modern and contemporary art, design and architecture in San Antonio and surrounding areas.
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