Crystal Bridges is temporarily closed to support efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. Follow our updates.
Crystal Bridges is temporarily closed to support efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. Follow our updates.
Taken at the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market in 1974 by photographer Art Meripol
High South Moments Celebrates Farmers’ Market Values
May 10, 2019
The Wall That Heals
What to Expect This Memorial Day Weekend
May 20, 2019
Show all

The Summer of Nature: Discussing Architecture on Museum Way

Museum Way Podcast

Read this episode’s transcript

 

Subscribe Now!

Subscribe to be the first to listen, and head over to our social media channels to let us know what you’d like to hear on future episodes.

Listen on Google Play Music Listen on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify Listen on Stitcher

In the newest episode of Museum Way, released last Friday, Crystal Bridges Facilities Engineer, Ken Robinson joined host Stace Treat to discuss the building of Crystal Bridges, reflecting on the building itself, its construction, and the care that was taken to preserve the natural forest around the building and the ravine flowing underneath the building.

It might be surprising to some to learn that the trees that were cut down during construction were repurposed to create the museum benches found in the galleries! Learn more about our conservation efforts with the building and surrounding forest as you prepare for Nature’s Nation, opening May 25.

Episode Transcript

Stace Treat:
Welcome to Museum Way, the podcast of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. We’re sharing all the ins and outs of the museum from the galleries to the trails, the architecture, and more. You’ll learn the museum way of Crystal Bridges. The museum lives in a beautiful 210,000 square foot building designed by architect Moshe Safdie. But what did it take to build a museum in the middle of a natural forest and a ravine, nonetheless. And what does it take to keep it running? We’ll find out today as we talked with Crystal Bridges Facilities Engineer, Ken Robinson. So let’s jump into this episode of Museum Way.

Stace Treat:
We’re here with Facilities Engineer, Ken Robinson. Welcome to the podcast, Ken.

Ken Robinson:
Thank you. Good morning.

Stace Treat:
Good morning. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about your history with Crystal Bridges, because you’re probably one of the longest-serving employees, or staff members with us, I would say, right?

Ken Robinson:
Longest on site. Probably not near the longest as far as Crystal Bridges employment. I came on the property in 2006 in the fall and did not go to work for Crystal Bridges until actually 2010. We were four years into construction when I transferred.

Stace Treat:
So what were you doing in those four years? Were you working for the construction company?

Ken Robinson:
Yes, we had a joint venture. Crystal Bridges was so large that we had to have Linbeck-Nabholz join together for one time only to build Crystal Bridges. And Linbeck’s out of Texas and Nabholz is out of Arkansas. So it was a good partnership.

Ken Robinson:
And I’d heard about it, a couple of news articles, I wanted to know more about it. So luckily I was able to get on board and see it built from the ground up.

Stace Treat:
Must’ve been exciting since you’re actually a local guy.

Ken Robinson:
Born and raised right here in Northwest Arkansas. And yes, there was a few of us on site. But a lot of the folks that came in to build it were from Texas because Linbeck is based out of Texas.

Stace Treat:
Okay. So let me start, I don’t know actually, talking about this building is such an amazing building. One of the things I wanted to know about was the construction process. We try to live and dwell in a sustainable way at Crystal Bridges. And that started early on. Can you tell us a little bit about the decision of making the footprint of Crystal Bridges? How that went about?

Ken Robinson:
The footprint of the building itself was not allowed to do a normal lay back of a one to one. So we were allowed about eight, nine feet all the way around the structures on a vertical cut. So we could have mature trees right next to the building when the construction was completed. And as you see it today, that was successful.

Stace Treat:
So you literally had to carve it into the ravine that it sits in?

Ken Robinson:
Absolutely. There were a lot of excavation, a lot of rock and earth, a lot of blasting, but we were really cognizant of trying to make sure that we did not disturb any more than necessary.

Stace Treat:
Okay. So that explains why when you look around the building that you literally do see mature trees living next to it.

Ken Robinson:
Absolutely. The setback, or the nine foot cut that we made around the property lines of all buildings, if they were shallow, that was easier. But if they were deep it was more difficult, because we had to hold that bank back, or that cut back until the construction was finished. So we used soil nailing techniques and some other construction methods that have not been used a lot around here, but some.

Stace Treat:
Now as an engineer, that must have been quite a challenge.

Ken Robinson:
It was difficult. The construction process coming out of the Arkansas ground was probably the most unpredictable, because we weren’t sure where the substrate, or competent stone, and things like that that we were looking for actually lay. So it took a lot of research and a lot of borings and a lot of the technical data before we could even begin.

Stace Treat:
Yeah, because we have combinations of granite and limestone and sandstone and voids as you call them.

Ken Robinson:
Yes, absolutely. Arkansas is full of all the items that you described under your feet. And from the North end of the property it was pretty much loose chilton limestone and when you come down towards the southern end admin building, great hall, it was pretty much hard granite.

Stace Treat:
You have a story about how during this process that you had meetings about how do we save specific trees, or certain trees.

Ken Robinson:
When we started the construction process itself, there were some that we had to move to because they were obviously in the way of the construction, but if it were possible, we tried very diligently to try to make sure that we didn’t take any more out than necessary.

Stace Treat:
So there’s a story of two particular trees. They’re mythical, they stand as the symbol of our restaurant, Eleven, tell me about Thelma and Louise.

Ken Robinson:
Thelma and Louise were choice trees, tulip trees that don’t really survive much further north than here. And we happen to be on that median line where the tulip trees are just about as far North as they’ll really thrive. And so we stopped construction, actually did quite a bit of redesign, brought in an arborist and had him do some studies on is it possible to save these two trees. And it was determined we thought we could if we redesigned the link. So therefore as you see it today, the link has a notch in it for the root ball of Thelma and Louise and they’re still doing very well today.

Stace Treat:
So how did they get their name?

Ken Robinson:
Thelma and Louise was chosen by a person on site and the Thelma and Louise movie were still fresh in people’s minds. And it just made sense to the guy to say, “Hey, let’s just call those Thelma and Louise.” Because we were trying to identify by name as much of the tree population as we could. And those names just stuck.

Stace Treat:
Yeah. The infamous scene at the end of that film where the two characters are at the precipice of the Grand Canyon and make the choice, spoiler alert, to fly off over the edge.

Ken Robinson:
That’s basically where it came from. And I think it’s been a popular name and has just stuck because it seems appropriate.

Stace Treat:
Yeah, and look, these trees have not gone over the edge.

Ken Robinson:
They’re still there.

Stace Treat:
They’re still there. All right. Well what were some of the other forward thinking and sustainable practices that were considered when building the museum?

Ken Robinson:
We were really careful about what we did for spoil removal, earth, rock removal and trying to make sure we did concrete washouts and everything exactly per spec. The lumber materials that were sourced to try to come in to start with Crystal Bridges, because it’s mainly concrete, glass and wood and copper. And that’s the component that everybody sees when they come.

Stace Treat:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ken Robinson:
And overhead in all buildings, the galleries especially, library level, you have the No. 2 yellow pine, Southern yellow pine that was harvested in Arkansas. The biggest part of it all came from Southern Arkansas. And a manufacturer, the glulam beams, those beams as well are a No. 2 Southern yellow pine.

Ken Robinson:
So pretty much everything overhead was a locally sourced product and we tried real hard to put a radius around Crystal Bridges construction site. And as much as possible we tried to get local resources to fulfill that. And that was per the owner’s direction when we started.

Stace Treat:
So that’s really pumping money back into the local economy.

Ken Robinson:
That was the purpose of what she wanted to see done is to make it where we could try to right off the bat, help the local area while it was being built.

Stace Treat:
Well, and also I know that the trees that were taken out during construction, they’ve also been re-purposed.

Ken Robinson:
It was all taken to a mill and harvested and dried and then we had to craftsmen build a lot of the benches. Most every bench you see in the museum today is from locally harvested wood from the site, so we could actually do some re-purposing and get some life out of it after the fact.

Stace Treat:
Yeah, that’s really amazing. And even some of the promotional materials and boxes that were created.

Ken Robinson:
Yeah. Some of the giveaway items and things that were created early on were again by local artisans. And they did use the sycamores and hickories and maple and oak and that were taken off the site.

Stace Treat:
I love the idea that those trees still live in their home, so to speak.

Ken Robinson:
Yeah. They’re still there, just in a different type.

Stace Treat:
Different form. Yeah. So what about the pond system? I’ll tell you, most visitors notice that our ponds aren’t crystal blue. And I love the story of how you built this building while preserving the creek.

Ken Robinson:
The waterway was a challenge from day one. The property, it’s 120 acres and there was lots of places that might’ve been a location, but Moshe Safdie and his vision, he saw it in the ravine, he saw it in the creek bottom. And so that started a pretty big process. We had to divert the stream during construction and then try to watch per rain events to make sure that it didn’t impede us too much. But there’s a lot of folks who rely on that stream. So we had to really worry about water quality, and make sure that we didn’t hurt the ecosystem and there wasn’t any spills.

Ken Robinson:
And so the quality of water that the farmers used beyond us were still available to irrigate, or to use for stock or whatever.

Stace Treat:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ken Robinson:
And so the process of the building Crystal Bridges, it took about two and a half years of FEMA, CLOMR regulations back and forth on paperwork, to finally get approval because typically you don’t build a world-class museum in a flood plain.

Stace Treat:
That’s true.

Ken Robinson:
So it was a difficult challenge and a lot of paperwork, but we finally settled it all. And as you see it today is just as designed, it has actually performed as good, or if not better than what we thought back in ’06.

Stace Treat:
But you all actually drilled, or bored a pathway for it to drop down where you so to speak, turn off the creek, drop it down underneath, and it’s still able to do that now, right?

Ken Robinson:
That’s correct. There was a diversion system created so that we could do construction while the waterway was still flowing. And so we brought it under ground and we have a diversion well that does have a valve, that we can today turn the water off and go back to the diversion system if we were to need to drain the ponds or do any remediation with the clay line, or anything like that. It’s possible now to do.

Stace Treat:
Wow. Engineering is so fascinating.

Ken Robinson:
Pretty crazy.

Stace Treat:
Did you know that we have a Frank Lloyd Wright house on the grounds of Crystal Bridges known as the Bachman-Wilson House, the structure is an example of Wright’s classic Usonian architecture. Because the house was threatened by repeated flooding in its original New Jersey location, It was taken apart and each component was labeled, packed and moved to Crystal Bridges, where it was reconstructed in 2015. The home is free to tour, but tickets are required and they do sell out. Tickets and more information at crystalbridges.org.

Stace Treat:
So a lot of people also wonder what’s the risk of flooding.

Ken Robinson:
One of the big insurance questions that I look at every year, and they do visit us quite often to talk about how’s the system running. There were models done by local engineering firm, CEI and they go with a hundred years of recorded data. That’s how they begin their studies. But they modeled it all the way up to about a 3000 year plan to see what possible event could cause, what kind of damage. And truthfully in my tenure there, which is quite a while, we’ve had some pretty serious rains and we’ve had some pretty serious rains during construction as well as after construction. And the ponds have performed exactly like designed.

Stace Treat:
Well that’s certainly comforting to those of us who work there.

Ken Robinson:
I was very nervous for us when we were building it, because I was trying to figure out how we were going to protect the people, the art, the building, and make sure that our engineering and the practices that we’ve put in place for the weir system, especially, was going to work as designed. But a lot of people looked at it, a lot of people put a lot of math and thought into it and a lot of computer models. And I was a little doubtful, or skeptical at first because a hundred years isn’t a lot of data when you’re talking about building a 300 year building. And so the models were very, very useful.

Stace Treat:
Okay. Well Ken, tell us a little bit more about your current role.

Ken Robinson:
After construction, actually before we even got too far in construction, the folks at Crystal Bridges were talking to me about, “Would you like to come to work at Crystal Bridges?” And after 28 years in commercial construction, I thought, “That might be a really good place to retire.” I fell in love with the building during construction, knew it was going to be something that no one had ever expected, or could see in Northwest Arkansas. So I was happy to jump on the opportunity.

Ken Robinson:
But my first few answers when they would talk to me about it was, “Let me get the building built.” About one year before we opened, they said, “You need to come over now. We need to get you ready for operations”, which I had never done before. And as it turns out, I’ve been training for it my whole life. It just seemed to fit. It’s a really good fit. So today, my basic duties are to make sure everything runs properly in the mechanical systems, electrical systems, plumbing systems, ABI, everything that’s in the building is pretty much envelope. Anything to do with it is mine. It something for me to take care of.

Stace Treat:
And these are some pretty complicated systems.

Ken Robinson:
They’re very smart. This building, I’ve told everybody since we’ve opened it, I feel like she’s a living, breathing entity and we have a really good relationship. I know when she’s happy. I know when she’s sad. I know when she needs attention, when she needs some love. And so my job is to make sure my team takes care of whatever needs she has.

Stace Treat:
You’re like the building whisperer.

Ken Robinson:
I try to be. And as has the years go by, I have learned a lot about what to listen for, what to look for. And some of the sounds we’ve first opened, there was a lot of people that complained about the noise of the chiller room, or this or that when they walked by the doors. Those sounds are like music to my ears, because when it’s silent I’m in trouble. It means things are not running.

Stace Treat:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). A lot of people may not realize that we have to keep our galleries at very specific temperatures and humidities.

Ken Robinson:
Oh gosh.

Stace Treat:
Which requires a pretty complex system.

Ken Robinson:
One of the first guys that was on site was my first boss, David Burkhardt, and he told everybody during construction that he thought we were building the building to house the mechanical because of a such a heavy mechanical system. But our gallery spaces, we hold it 70 degrees, plus or minus three, one and a half each way. And on relative humidity, it’s 50% relative with two and a half percent each way. And that’s really a razor’s edge when you look at the magnitude of the space and the volume of the space.

Ken Robinson:
All my career, I’d worried about pretty much making sure everybody was comfortable about six feet off the floor. In this property we have to worry about all the wall to wall, floor to ceiling, micro-climates everything. And with all the glass and the concrete, which doesn’t have a big R value, I was pretty concerned about being able to maintain it. But it’s done very well. The engineering on this project, nothing was hardly missed at all. They thought of everything.

Stace Treat:
So what’s your daily routine look like for you?

Ken Robinson:
I get to work usually somewhere around 5:00 AM and I try to give 10 hours every day, to try to make sure that we do what we have to do. Of course when the building calls, whether it’s two o’clock in the morning, or whatever, you do what you have to do. But I come in, I check the BMS system to make sure the billing management system is where it needs to be and everything looks right on all the readings and the numbers. And then I get my computer and everything in my office fired up and get my emails answered before anybody gets there.

Ken Robinson:
Next step is I go on the second floor break room, make coffee for everybody to get the day started started, so everybody comes in and get a fresh cup of coffee. That’s something I’ve done since day one during construction and for Crystal Bridges. It’s just part of who I am.

Stace Treat:
I remember that’s how I met you on my first day at Crystal Bridges, or first week, sometime I went in there. You were making coffee. That’s how I met you.

Ken Robinson:
You’ll see me quite a bit in there making coffee. I hope I don’t make more than one, or two, three pots a day. But sometimes I make more, because it’s just something that’s necessary. And I feel like the folks that are coffee drinkers, it’s part of what you do to make sure your day goes by smooth and you have the energy to complete the day.

Stace Treat:
Do you have a name for the building?

Ken Robinson:
Not actually. My baby. Allison and I have talked a lot of times about how’s her baby doing and I treat it just about like that. I have a lot of personal involvement. I have a lot of blood, sweat and tears involved in the construction and after construction. And I take it very personal. This building means a lot to me, personally. And so I have a lot of personal pride in how it looks, how it performs. It really hurts when something breaks because all mechanical systems are all man-made. At some point they will break. And you have to have a plan in place.

Ken Robinson:
And so for the last seven years, our protocols have been prioritized basically on what could happen to bite us that we don’t have an answer for today. And so trying to put programs in place, extra parts in stock, service partners, which we have to have to help us keep it going, make sure I have all those guys on speed dial. And hopefully when something does go down, it’s not going to be catastrophic and I can get it fixed relatively quick.

Stace Treat:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And you are currently training the next generation to take over the building one day.

Ken Robinson:
Trying real hard. It’s a difficult process, but I do have some students that I’ve been working with that are employees of Crystal Bridges, some a Dee’s team, some of my team. And I’m three years in on about a five year program. And it’s basically just to give them the basics to start on how to correct an action, or correct a problem, or if they don’t know exactly what to do, I’m trying to give them a place to begin. And so it’s very difficult to transfer 30 plus years of knowledge in a short period of time. But if you give him the right tools and where to go and who to call and what to look for, it’s a big leg up when they do get it handed over. And at some point I will retire and someone will have to take it over.

Stace Treat:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, we’ll be sad when that day comes, but for now you’re still with us and we really appreciate it.

Ken Robinson:
I hope to be there for a few more years, if my health holds out and I’m still a productive member of the team, I’m hoping to stay on.

Stace Treat:
So what’s your favorite space in the museum?

Ken Robinson:
Since the North Tower was constructed, the hundred foot bridge that goes back to the North Forest. I fell in love with that spot, because you can see more of the buildings from the ground than anywhere else that I’ve been since I’ve been there. The only better view you’re going to get’s from an airplane. And so when you stand on the a hundred foot bridge near the tower, you can see virtually a part of every building and you can understand how large it is. And it gives you a bit of perspective.

Stace Treat:
How many buildings are there?

Ken Robinson:
Eight.

Stace Treat:
Eight buildings.

Ken Robinson:
I count it as eight. You can chop it up any way you like. The museum store, the dining bridge and the restaurant kitchen is all basically tied together and some people have broken that down. But when I went to the city of Bentonville to get the permits ready, I got eight permits. So I’ve stuck with eight buildings in my mind.

Stace Treat:
Eight buildings. And you’re right, that view from that bridge is pretty stunning.

Ken Robinson:
It’s crazy. When I get a chance, I don’t have much to do, I linger up there sometimes just looking around.

Stace Treat:
I also love that you can see the Roxy Paine Yield sculpture up top and you can see the Buckminster Fuller’s Fly’s Eye Dome down at the bottom.

Ken Robinson:
Absolutely. Since architecture is one of our four pillars, bringing on the Frank Lloyd Wright house and the Buckminster Fuller Dome has been a big asset. But the Roxy Paine Yield sculpture, the teardrop is just beautiful from just any vantage point that you can see. From the bridge, or from Walker Landing or from the West side over there where Gallery Six dock is.

Stace Treat:
Yeah, it’s pretty iconic. All right, well Ken Robinson, thank you so much for joining Museum Way to talk about the baby.

Ken Robinson:
I appreciate it so much, Stace and appreciate you inviting me.

Stace Treat:
Art connects us and Crystal Bridges strengthens these connections through programs that bring people together, spark conversation and inspire creativity. Expand your world and build your community by becoming a museum member. Members enjoy a wide range of benefits. Plus, your support helps fund the free, or low cost events, classes and community outreach that allow Crystal Bridges to make the power of art accessible to all. Join now and get inspired. Inspiration awaits at crystalbridges.org.

Stace Treat:
Thanks for tuning in to Museum way. We hope you enjoyed the episode and tune in each month to hear more. Head over to our social media channels and leave a question, or comment about what you’d like to hear on future episodes. I’m Stace Treat and I’ll catch you next month right here on Museum Way.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *