Skyscraper!: Achievement and Impact

Topic: Technology

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Wayne LaBar

Published on June 09, 2008, Modified on August 05, 2009

  • Description and goals

    As technological inventions, skyscrapers define the large cities of the global society and our local community. These amazing structures incorporate engineering solutions in their construction and provide abundant opportunities to highlight many scientific and technological principles. At 12,800 square feet, including a 1500 square foot mezzanine gallery, Skyscraper! Achievement and Impact is the largest permanent exhibition at the newly renovated Liberty Science Center.

    A key goal of the exhibition is to enlighten visitors about the complexity of the planning and construction of skyscrapers; to engage them in the work performed by the many and diverse professionals involved in accomplishing such sizable projects; to understand the science, engineering and technology behind these massive structures; and to inspire future careers in the field. The entire process of skyscraper planning and construction is deconstructed within the space through a broad variety of presentation formats—including multimedia, full body interactives, and experiment-based lab stations.

    This exhibition examines these structures through four different
    content areas:

    Zone 1 – Skyscraper World
    Guests enter a soaring, thirty-foot high two-story space that is populated by large images of some of the world’s most awe-inspiring skyscrapers. The featured buildings are distinctive and understood as modern, sophisticated and originating as part of the evolution of skyscraper design and engineering. Each presentation is representative of themes woven throughout the exhibition.

    A gallery mezzanine structure as well as a connecting two-story passenger elevator is seen as part of the landscape of forms. Gallery lighting morphs in cycles recreating the day to night experience of a city landscape. This introductory zone features a look at how skyscrapers have been featured in movies, television, and other cultural contexts; a database projection of hundreds of global skyscraper silhouettes; and an opportunity to hear personal stories associated with skyscrapers, including the World Trade Center. A large artifact recovered from the WTC site provides a contemplative focal point.

    Zone 2 – Designs and Plans
    The architectural design and engineering processes, and the design and operation of building systems that make skyscrapers possible are explored in this zone. A recreation of a cityscape allows guests to experiment with building and site planning. Scientific explorations of wind forces, materials, and mechanical systems ground the design concepts in the physical demands of real environments.

    Zone 3 – Construction Site
    This zone, which looks and feels like a construction site, allows guests to put on a hard hat and explore the science behind constructing a skyscraper, from prepping the foundation and erecting the steel and concrete, to enclosing the frame. Here, visitors have a chance to operate a construction crane or to walk an I-beam situated well above the main gallery space.

    An enclosed curtain wall test chamber enables live demonstrations that allow guests to
    experience the impact of wind and rain hitting speeds up to 100mph. Guests step into the tangible nature of the construction site with a large scale model of a crane towering over the site. The process of construction unfolds with each next step within
    the space, exhibiting the materials and processes that are involved sequentially. Foundation testing, earthmoving equipment, a large, structural steel frame under construction, concrete and glass, becomes the environment for experiences. Steel construction decking, plywood, safety netting, steel mesh and cables are the materials used to create walls, floors and surfaces for interpretation. The grays and rich browns of the natural materials are punctuated with the palette of safety yellows and oranges. Caution and safety signage layered on the surfaces add to the realistic yet abstracted landscape of construction.

    Zone 4 – The Building
    An 18 ft high mezzanine and connective elevator serve as the backdrop for a series of experiences that make transparent the story of skyscraper interiors. Guests are given the opportunity to make connections in their lives to issues of our collective future. Exhibits about energy comparisons, current and future technologies and the surprising human habitats that are skyscrapers are some of the themes explored. Atop the mezzanine, views of the surrounding exhibition and the city of skyscraper models are visible below.

    The educational goals of the exhibition derived from the three main themes of the institution: Health, Environment and Invention/Technology. It intended to cover scientific as well of human topics. The educational goals can be summarized as follow:

    P R I M A R Y G O A L S

    Guests will be able to:
    1. Define what a skyscraper is.
    2. Describe various processes, science and technologies used to design,construct and demolish tall buildings.
    3. List the most common materials used in building skyscrapers and learn why these materials are important
    4. List the systems and the infrastructure that allow people to use and inhabit a skyscraper.
    5. Describe and compare the positive and negative environmental aspects that result from bringing so many people together in skyscrapers and cities.
    6. Identify the roles that individuals and teams play in the design, development, construction and operation of such a complex technological structure.

    S E C O N D A R Y G O A L S
    Guests will be able to:
    1. Understand the importance of bedrock and geologic study in the construction of New York City buildings, and in particular, the role the Manhattan Schist played and continues to play.
    2. Describe the major construction steps that are part of building a skyscraper.
    3. Define load bearing walls and beams—walls/beams that bear the weight of the building — and understand how the frame of the building transmits the building’s weight through
    these to the ground below.
    4. Experience the mechanical advantage of the pulley and describe where this principle
    is used in skyscraper construction.
    5. List common architectural components that make up a modern skyscraper.
    6. Explain why elevators have been critical in the development of skyscrapers.
    7. Understand that skyscraper design must account for wind, seismic activity and other
    natural forces.

    8. Experience some construction, engineering and design tasks that are part of creating a skyscraper and gain an understanding of and appreciation for the science used in these jobs.
    9. Describe how skyscrapers and cities affect local meteorological conditions in both the city and surrounding areas.
    10. Understand that materials and tools used in constructing skyscrapers come from global sources and the consequences of accessing those resources.
    11. List different approaches that lessen the environmental impact of constructing and
    operating skyscrapers.

    H U M A N I T I E S T H E M E S
    Guests will be able to:
    1. Describe ways skyscrapers have become part of popular culture.
    2. Learn about some families and personalities in the “world of skyscrapers,” paying
    particular attention to those involved in creating the skyline of New York City.
    3. Describe how the culture in which a skyscraper is being built can affect the construction, design and operation of the skyscraper.
    4. List some characteristics of cities and skyscrapers that have an impact on the
    sociocultural behavior of human beings in urban areas.
    5. Experience how people create personal “landmarks” such as skyscrapers that can
    foster personal stories and memories, e.g., the World Trade Center.
    6. Describe the changing “meaning” of why skyscrapers, especially the very tall ones,
    were built and what is the current debate on tall buildings.

  • Development process and challenges

    We made Skyscraper! the biggest and tallest exhibition about tall buildings in the world, partly because we wanted to convey that sense of their enormity throughout the exhibition. To start, we designed an immersive space rising up toward the 30-ft ceiling, where people can literally walk in and around tall visual representations within a skyscraper world and feel part of it during their visit. We use videos to present the human side of the story, allowing professionals to talk about
    their experiences. Interactive devices give real examples of physics, mechanics and technological subjects. Multimedia interactives allow for statistical simulations. Graphic panels helped explain each topic, adding depth and simplicity through the use of specially-made illustrations.

    We address the exhibition content from different points of view. The main one is the scientific from which we explain what things are and how they work. The second one if from the point of view of the professionals that work in the architecture, engineering, construction and environmental fields and they explain the human side of the topic. Our visitors also have a voice in the story when they write their own memories about tall buildings, when they draw and submit a skyscraper design to be exhibited in the gallery or when they assemble their own internet-based project, blogging about skyscrapers built in their neighborhood.

    Another way in which we addressed our interpretation challenges was in the way we designed the information for the graphic panels. We made sure that the information was presented at different depths, to accommodate different learning styles—for visitors who like to browse panels and those that prefer in-depth reading. In the panels, the title, subtitle and illustrations convey the main learning points of the panel. Illustrations and photo captions fill visitors with chunks of information that is short and easy to read. Introductory paragraphs offer a deeper explanation about the topic. This way our visitors don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of information that we
    present and also get introduced to the topic in phases, allowing interest to drive the exploration of the content.

    Four environments were created. The first zone is a skyscraper city where visitors walk among the scaled recreations of iconic skyscrapers. The second zone is the world of design and engineering including a problem solving studio-lab to experiment with and understand the testing involved with the process. The third zone is a construction site, with an unfinished steel building frame, equipment, tools and gear. The last zone is divided into two areas, the lobby and the roof of our skyscraper. An elevator within the gallery provides access and interprets the importance of this
    technology to the development of skyscrapers.

    The materials selected for the exhibition include steel, aluminum, glass and composites, frequently found in skyscrapers or on construction sites. The panels are tall and narrow, adding to the verticality of the exhibition. The tables are rods and pipe structures, echoing reinforcing frames. Footings are bent metal; fasteners are visible components of the design aesthetic. Computer kiosks are slender and refined, like screens in modern lobbies and elevators. We used steel trusses, pipe frames, industrial mesh, and other construction materials in the environmental
    treatments. White acrylic and polished steel added the sophistication of the architectural world. Leather chairs and sofas fit out the interior of the building, while a terrace and a panoramic viewer sets the feeling of a roof space.

    The color palette was selected to identify and reinforce the environment of each zone. 3D, 2D and media design was integrated to be a seamless graphic presentation, the look and feel of the exhibition is consistent in every element from media interfaces through materials and lighting effects.

    Photography was a singular effort in the exhibition, unique to this project. The fourteen models were photographed and photo-collaged to achieve the detail and resolution needed to reproduce such enormous images without distortion. Photography was used editorially to emphasize story telling and document process—especially the collection created during the construction of The New York Times building.

    The above design and asset acquisition was the work of an in house design team, allowing a deep understanding of the specifics of our audiences and site. Some prototypes were tested on the museum floors prior to closing for the expansion. The collaboration with all fabricators began very early in the process, taking full advantage of the expertise each vendor, artist or interactive fabricator could bring to the table. The result is an exhibition created successfully to budget and
    with a commitment to continuing remediation based on actual visitor experience.

    Every effort was made to conform to or exceed ADA standards in the exhibition. Easy paths of access for wheelchair users, heights of all monitors, graphics and interactives were thoughtfully considered. Graphics followed internally developed standards for font sizes and contrast ratios for legibility. Visual cues are paired with text passages to appeal to a variety of learning styles and for a quick “read” of the content. All videos have audio and close caption subtitles allowing visual
    or hearing impaired visitors to access the content. Instructions (some in prototyping stage) are also meant to support audio segments, facilitating the use of interactives for the visually impaired.

    Lighting levels were focused and calibrated to support the design intent and provide adequate lighting for reading all content panels. Interactives were prototyped to assure a comfortable fit for small hands and a reasonable weight for objects being lifted. “Walking the Steel” in which visitors experience the challenge of being an
    Iron worker by walking along a beam that is 18 feet above the ground required permitting by the State of NJ. Our staff is certified in the management of the safety harnesses and is prepared to follow emergency procedures. The Curtain Wall experience necessitated review by fire officials to assure quick shutdown of the show controller during an emergency. Seating is provided at every kiosk and additional benches are scattered throughout the gallery.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    One observed behavior is that visitors react in different ways depending on the format of the exhibit. Interactive devices and lab areas enjoy the greatest attention, but our most complex multimedia exhibits—such as The New York Times Schedule or our Crane Simulator—and even some of our artifacts—such as our WTC pieces— have proved to be captivating as well. These activities often demand attention and time, and our visitors are willing to dedicate themselves to engaging in the stories.

    Summative evaluation is underway

  • Exhibition Opened: July 2007

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: Jersey City, None, United States

  • Estimated Cost: Over $3,000,000 (US)

  • Size: Over 10,000 sq ft.

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. 0206350

  • Other funding source(s): Steelworkers Union

  • Website(s):

Latest Comments (1)

And a review

by Wendy Pollock - June 12, 2008

Thanks for the background on this exhibition that’s received so much positive attention. For those who haven’t yet read it, Paul Orselli wrote a review of Skyscrapers shortly after it opened:

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