by Shraddha NairMay 04, 2020
Artist and architect Catie Newell of Alibi Studio has given new life to an underutilised, forlorn barn in rural Michigan in the United States, subtracting into itself to allow the sky and sun to perfume the building, forming a passageway below through which visitors can navigate and experience the restored structure in a new, poetic way. Called the Secret Sky installation, the structural reworking of the original barn maintains its monolithic form while “literally splitting into two volumes with a fully-walled passage between, left open to the sky,” as per Newell.
Secret Sky is the latest one in an ongoing series of barn projects in rural Michigan commissioned by a regional non-profit organisation, Great Port Austin Art & Placemaking. It carries an ambition to adapt and enliven creatively, derelict wooden barns in the Port Austin region, to celebrate them and the landscape they are home to, at a time where new building forms take over.
Secret Sky slices a large chunk of the once ordinary barn, in tandem with adding a fresh space in its new avatar, revealing a tear in time. The architecture is disclosed imperceptibly, as a corporeal silhouette against passing orange sunsets and drifting clouds, taking a more robust form once the sun takes root in the sky. Existing elements of the volume were renovated and reworked with new ones to stabilise this structural feat. Visitors are able to walk through the barn regenerated as public art, while never being able to actually enter the whole thing. Alibi Studio, along with construction and engineering support from etC Construction Services and Sheppard Engineering, designed and constructed the Secret Sky by hand.
During the day, one can witness the patterning and intricacy of the barn walls, juxtaposed with the steep triangular slice from where daylight pours in. The work glows from within at night, through the choreographed and narrow-spaced wooden slats, “acting as a large-scale lantern in the landscape and casting long shadows across its surroundings, giving light and dark back to the sky,” says Newell. She desired to retain the barn’s architecture as much as possible, extending its essence with a powerful yet delicate play of darkness and light, literally capturing the ephemeral passage of time in the rooted stillness of the isolated barn. The slice is inconspicuous at first look, but reveals itself slowly, elevating the work to a sculptural one on a closer look.
The core intention of the architectural installation was to salvage and save the iconic form of the gambrel-roofed barn, characteristic of the area while providing a space for visitors to experience it, and be welcomed by the setting of the vast sky stretching overhead. The lane underneath is embraced as a void, leading to a sharp point at the barn’s front, right under the structure of the roof. It then extrudes to the northwest direction, seemingly cutting through the volume. “Solar panels and a custom sensor that monitors the fall of twilight control the lights for the nighttime effect,” shares Alibi Studio.
Surrounded by fields of crop, the existing barn was no longer needed for its original use of tending to farm animals and equipment. Its distinct, recognisable, and nostalgic figure in the landscape is still very much cherished. It needed some maintenance, to save it from completely crumbling in the future. “The design was created and constructed while simultaneously tending to the existing barn through cleaning and structural modifications. In this manner, the physical work was tending to, and caring for the barn,” they add.
The adaptive reuse carried out for the experiential installation encompassed carefully reusing and reworking the existing materials, including tending to elements that required support or replacing, reconfiguring old floor beams into sistered columns, and salvaging every piece of siding from inside the barn and a neighbouring down structure, relays Newell. “All the designers of the barn did the site work and became the construction crew for Secret Sky, growing intimate with the building, and working with the existing materials and details of the barn as a means to make on-site decisions,” she continues.
Much of the restructuring happened to remove the two primary beams and one major column, permitting the full optical effect of being able to see through the barn. The side of the barn literally wraps one in and transports the visitor into the original structure, remaining exposed to the skies above. This slice incorporates full walls that were created to make it a space of its own, employing siding salvaged from a nearby barn damaged in a windstorm. She carefully adjusted each board on-site to be just right, evenly distributing the grain of timber and its warm shades for continuity. “In this manner, two barns were transformed by creating a subtractive, architectural manoeuvre that merged building and landscape as a gift to the sky,” Newell observes.
Name: Secret Sky
Location: Hume, Michigan, United States (5201 Pinnebog Road)
Year of completion: 2021
Architect and artist: Catie Newell (Alibi Studio)
Construction: Charlie O’Geen (etC Construction Services)
Engineering: John Gruber (Sheppard Engineering)
Design team: Maksim Drapey, Julia Jeffs, Oliver Popadich, Kelly Gregory, and Ryan Craney; James Boyle, Chris Boyle, Cindy Patrick, Brandt Rousseaux, Carl Osentoski (Greater Port Austin Art and Placemaking); Pete Maley (bricklayer); Terry Boyle (volunteer lead) with Mike Chin, David Gilbert, James Schmalenberg, Tom Schmalenberg, Don Jones, Carol Breitmeyer, Chip Newell, Esther Yang, Scott Hocking and Jon Rees (volunteers); Phil Cooley and Paul Arnet (construction support)