The Little Jewel

Cleveland's new planetarium is proof that innovative buildings don't have to be monumental to be meritorious
August 11, 2010

During the judging for Building Design & Construction's 6th Annual Building Team Awards, judge Elva Rubio, of Gensler and the University of Illinois at Chicago, uttered a phrase that was quickly picked up by everyone in the room.

"It's just a little jewel of a building," said Rubio, referring to the Nathan and Fannye Shafran Planetarium in Cleveland. Heads nodded in agreement.

This modest, 12,370-sq.-ft. structure, built for less than $7 million ($5.2 million in construction costs), was proof, said judge Philip Tobey of A/E SmithGroup, that buildings don't have to be monumental to deserve recognition — in this case, a Merit Award in the institutional category.

What happened to Mercury?

A recent visit to the planetarium, part of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History campus on Wade Oval in the city's famed University Circle, reinforced the judges' evaluation of this unique, charming, and technically innovative structure.

As I passed through the mysterious cavernous entrance into the exhibit area, I was nearly mowed down by eager grade schoolers. Kids were running, yelling, talking, checking out the displays. It was noisy, boisterous, exciting — nothing like what I remembered as a boy growing up in New York, visiting the staid Hayden Planetarium, or more recently, taking my children to the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. You could tell the kids were really into it: The "red planet" of Mars in one display has been rubbed so many times that it was white, and the little ball representing Mercury has disappeared from the solar system four times in the last year.

Accompanied by designer Paul Westlake, Jr., FAIA, managing principal of van Dijk Westlake Reed Leskosky (VWRL), and Mark Hill, vice president of the local office of Gilbane Building Co., I caught a few minutes of the morning's star show, as astronomer Jason Davis gave an overflow audience of schoolchildren a walk through the heavens. You could tell by the enthusiasm displayed by those eight-year-olds that this was not your grandfather's planetarium.

This is a building that works, both programmatically and aesthetically. Its primary mission, according to museum director Bruce Latimer, is science education for the school population of greater Cleveland ("their audience is the fourth-grader," says Westlake). The sky shows are completely booked through the end of the school year, according to marketing director Marie Graf. Public attendance is up 54%; annual memberships are up 17%. The Shafran has also become a romantic rendezvous for couples on Wednesday nights, when it is open late.

Its intriguing design, even its unusual color, has contributed to its magnetic attraction.

Maternal roots

The building's genesis traces back to the 1950s, when Fannye Shafran started taking her three children to the city's Mueller Planetarium. "She was always interested in the stars," recalls Joseph Shafran, who credits his mother, a member of the Ratner family, founders of development firm Forest City Enterprises, with inspiring his lifelong avocation in astronomy and cosmology.

After college in Philadelphia and 10 years of life abroad, Shafran came home in 1978 and eventually established his own development firm, Paran Management. He also started talking to museum officials about doing something with the Mueller. "It had served its purpose, but it just didn't deliver the goods anymore," he says.

By the mid-1990s, Shafran had consulted with experts from Disney and convinced the museum board, of which he was now a member, to host a charette. "We didn't need an Adler or a Rose [the Rose Center for Earth and Space, the $210 million replacement for the Hayden in New York] in Cleveland, just a small one that could handle two busloads of kids at a time."

Three years ago, the Shafran family put up $1 million and got 250 additional gifts to meet the $6.9 million total price tag. VWRL was hired as architect, with Gilbane as construction manager.

Although the budget was relatively small, the goals for the new planetarium were not. Its chief focus remained science education, since 80% of visitors would be children. For that reason, it had to incorporate live programming. Each "show" would be presented live by the two staff astronomers.

From a design perspective, the building itself had to be a teaching tool. VWRL designed a 9,271-sq.-ft. steel-frame truncated cone, about 60 feet high at its tallest and almost equally wide at the ground plane. The cone is chamfered at the top, creating an elliptical cross-section whose longitudinal axis is aligned at precisely 41.5 degrees, the viewing angle to Polaris at Cleveland's latitude.

This combination of angle and orientation always places the North Star hovering at the tip of the cone. Since all the constellations appear to rotate around Polaris, the building itself becomes a gigantic scientific instrument for visitors to explore the nighttime sky. The 36 rows of stainless-steel panels that sheath the structure were also installed so that the joint lines guide the eye toward the North Star.

Getting the panels right required some fancy computer work by VWRL structural engineer John Pollner and clever fabrication work by steel fabricator Commsteel, M.R. Ulrich Engineering, and the specialty-metals firm of A. Zahner Co., Kansas City, Mo.

Using Catia software, Pollner designed the steel skeleton for the unusual conical shape. The trick was to get the trapezoidal panels, which were curved at top and bottom, to fit perfectly onto the skeleton. The panels had to be cut to a specific shape (programmed by the software), curved, and applied to the conical form of the frame so that the lines between the panels appeared horizontal.

Gilbane's Hill praises Zahner for solving the geometries of this task. "It was crucial to have them on board," he says. "There are only a couple of firms in the country that could do this kind of work." Zahner even built an 8x8-ft. mockup to show how the panels would fit.

According to Westlake, "If the frame and substrate weren't perfect, they could never have got the geometries right. It was unforgiving."

Getting the color right wasn't easy, either. Westlake says he and Shafran wanted to capture the finishes and patinas of the ancient astronomical instruments that would be displayed in the historic Hanna Stardome, which eventually was relocated to house the exhibit area in the new facility.

After considerable experimentation, Rob Zahner, of A. Zahner Co., came up with a sputtered titanium nitride stainless steel plate that had just the right bronzelike hue.

But that wasn't the end of the color concerns. The reveals between the panels also posed a problem. The Building Team and Zahner tried various metals and coatings, all of which proved to be too dark in shadow, before arriving at plain old aluminum as the best match for the metal skin.

"The skin is very sophisticated," says Westlake. "There was no model for this. It was a complete invention that took a lot of research and care" by VWRL (under project manager Christopher Watkins), Gilbane, and A. Zahner Co.

The shape of the passageway from the main entrance to the exhibit area also flowed from Joe Shafran's childhood memories. This time it was the 1956 sci-fi film "The Forbidden Planet," in which Walter Pidgeon played a scientist on Altair IV, studying the language of a people who had been extinct for hundreds of thousands of years.

"There was something about the shape of his laboratory that never left me," says Shafran. "I said to Paul, 'Don't just make it a corridor, make it something.' I wanted stone in the front and metal at the end, to take the children from Stonehenge to today."

Westlake created a passage that starts with an archway of golden Ohio sandstone, which he handpicked at the quarry to get the color just right. Visitors proceed through a 50-ft. corridor adorned with perforated black metal panels and fiber-optic lights, which Westlake and Watkins installed. Eerie music and broadcasts of space flights fill the tunnel. It's dark and creepy; naturally, the kids love it.

Construction by committee

"What amazed me was how many committees the museum has," says Gilbane's Mark Hill. There's a site committee, a planning committee, committees for design and construction, all with highly educated, intellectually curious members. The kind of people Joe Shafran calls, with the utmost respect, "geek heaven."

"They wanted to know whether birds would nest there, and whether insects would get inside the reveals between the panels," says Hill. (One board member is an entomologist.) "They were worried about whether kids would get their fingers caught between the panels, or whether they could pop the panels off." While excavating for the foundation, Gilbane's crews had to be on the lookout for fossils and Native American artifacts.

Great efforts were made to achieve what Westlake calls "a combination of beauty and ruggedness." The floors, made from recycled rubber, are, in museum parlance, "vomit-proof." The structural walls are cured concrete. The titanium nitride-sputtered panels were finished in a non-directional rose-vibration technique that hides fingerprints.

Queries from board members and staff often led to innovative solutions. For example, museum officials want to make sure the planetarium's exterior lighting wouldn't interfere with nighttime stargazing at the adjacent Mueller Observatory. This led to the use of an intricate system of 1/16-in.-diameter fiber optics centered on each of the vertical panels, creating a network of 440 light points that do not interfere with the observatory.

There is still much work to do. A viewing exedra, inlaid with the planets of the solar system, will be installed this summer so that arriving groups of children can get an astronomy lesson even before entering the building. Artist Walter Matia is casting a 12-ft.-diameter bronze sundial whose sections will display fossils from the 12 evolutionary periods — an example of the cross-disciplinary education favored by museum director Latimer (see box, left). A review committee has been set up to advise the museum on future development of the planetarium, and there's talk of adding a third astronomer because, in Shafran's words, "We've never dealt with crowds like this."

Although Fannye Shafran visited the job site every week for months, she died, just shy of age 90, two months before the opening on Jan. 12, 2002. It was the biggest fundraising event in recent Cleveland history.

Her son recalls the day in December 2001 when they broke ground on the project, using a little robotic earthmover that a child had built: "We have a wonderful picture of her, and the look on her face was worth everything."

Construction Costs

Site work: $437,400
Concrete: 461,160
Masonry: 254,670
Metals: 1,202,630
Wood/plastics: 107,610
Thermal/moisture protection 135,740
Windows 102,280
Finishes 384,790
Specialties 12,900
Equipment 1,173,300
Special construction 4,690
Plumbing 70,560
HVAC 360,110
Fire protection 33,640
Electric 425,350
Building automation systems 42,370
Security systems 10,760
TOTAL $5,206,150