Article No: 229

2008-02-01 09:31:58
Cast for the Future
By: Jennifer Krichels

architecture by Randy Gerner, principal, Gerner Kronick and Valcarcel, Architects, PC 
Architect Randy Gerner has worked on some of the most highly visible structures in the world—residential buildings in Manhattan and commercial projects including the Bear Stearns World Headquarters and the flagship Mercedes-Benz showroom on Park Avenue. His European projects include Olive Grove Tower for the Garanti Bank, one of Europe’s fastest growing financial institutions. In Gerner’s world, bare concrete is beautiful concrete. Picking up the tradition of early 20th-century architects like Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, Gerner and his partners at Gerner Kronick and Valcarcel, Architects, PC, have made it their goal to re-introduce in-situ, or exposed cast-in-place, concrete to residential architecture.

Just as his exposed concrete façades in intricate, environmentally friendly designs are at home in Manhattan’s urban jungle, Gerner’s recent Villa Bodrum project on Turkey’s Aegean coast rises from the land as an extension of the rugged mountainside on which it sits. The juxtaposition of Gerner’s U.S. and Turkish projects demonstrates his faith in cast-in-place concrete’s versatility, and viability, as a residential construction material.

Bodrum, birthplace of the Greek historian Herodotus, today is known as a popular holiday resort. Homes there are built solely with concrete using very simple methods; Gerner says that the concept of wood-framed homes is alien to the local tradesmen.

“The wet trades in Turkey—the masons and the concrete people and the stone people—are absolute craftsmen, and this is a building that could never have been built in the United States,” he says. Conversely, “in the United States we wouldn’t allow three years to go on to build this building—we would be too impatient. Our techniques tend to be much more scientific, and we build buildings much faster.” For his purposes, Gerner appreciated the slower building process. “It allows you to build things very, very slowly and in interesting ways. There’s nothing that scares a Turkish carpenter who’s building formwork for concrete—if you can draw it, they can build it.” 

Bodrum’s climate necessitates a building material like concrete. “There’s very little difference between inside and outside in this type of environment because it’s a semi-tropical environment,” says Gerner. He points to exposed concrete’s ability to stabilize an interior temperature as one if its most significant benefits as an environmentally sound building material. Concrete’s thermal flywheel effect allows it to absorb large amounts of heat from the sun without transferring it to a building’s interior. In cold weather, it sheds heat and warms the interior spaces. Consequently, the internal temperature is stabilized and less energy is consumed for cooling and heating. Additionally, concrete’s ability to absorb moisture in wet weather and shed moisture in dry weather creates a less humid interior environment than that of a wood-framed structure. 

According to Gerner, Bodrum’s original peasant homes were open structures that often lacked doors. During the area’s frequent rainstorms, especially in December and January, residents could simply take cover beneath their shelters. The theme of openness was important as Gerner developed the design of Villa Bodrum, which was commissioned by a friend and built by Dogus Construction Group, owned by the friend’s family. “Even though we’re calling this a house, it’s hard to say that it’s a house, because it’s as much a terrace—as much as a pool, as much as a pavilion as much as a promenade—as it is a house. There’s very little distinction between where the house starts and stops and where the garden starts and stops … I call it a structure because of what you see, probably only 25 to 30 percent is a house.”

When asked about the construction process, Gerner laughs. “We work from the bottom up.” Joking aside, the building is a feat of engineering, at one with its context. “The form of the house really grew out of the texture of the mountains,” says Gerner. The building’s walls were poured on a platform cut into the hillside, which faces the sea. Trench drains divert the hill’s runoff around the home to prevent basement flooding. From the ground, a series of ramps ascends to a garden in front of the home’s habitable areas. This deck includes a cast-in-place pool and large planters containing trees. Concrete walls create the living area and support the walkways that span above the house. A rooftop garden and waterfall help to cool the interiors below. “In many ways, this is very much a green building,” says Gerner. “It’s not certified because LEED hasn’t certified things yet in Turkey.”

The entire structure is concrete, much of it exposed. Gerner highlighted some walls with an erusticated stone that resembles limestone and is indigenous to the area. The stone is cut into brick-sized blocks. “I didn’t want to use big blocks of stone because I felt that that would make it look more like a commercial building rather than a residential building,” he says. The structure’s entire exterior is white, in accordance with local zoning regulations.

Inside, a long corridor leads from the home’s living areas, past the pool, to the bedroom wing. Floor-to-ceiling dining room windows face the terrace. With the push of the button the windows recede into the floor so that the dining area can be fully exposed to the pool and the terrace. “If you have visions of Mediterranean nights where the draperies are blowing in the wind, the moon is out—this is the image that we created,” says Gerner. His architect’s sensibilities bring him quickly back from this vision, and he jokes, “The windows are very, very exotic—they’re actually made in Rochester, New York.”

Though he pokes fun at the pace of building in Turkey, or at the timidity of stateside contractors to try more innovative construction methods, Gerner’s dedication to in-situ concrete is obviously lifelong. He explains his early experience working as a junior architect for famed architect Gordon Bunshaft, whose designs include the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. “He was the one who gave me my love for concrete,” says Gerner. “He had designed a number of important concrete buildings that I happened to be chief pencil-sharpener on.”

Bunshaft’s lessons are with Gerner to this day. “He was a tough mentor,” says Gerner, remembering one session where, as he was detailing a fountain for the Hirshhorn Museum, “he sort of screamed and yelled at me ‘make sure I get good concrete, because if I have good concrete I don’t have to worry about waterproofing’ and stormed out of the room.”

Ultimately, Gerner’s dedication to architectural concrete surpasses his awareness of its technical benefits or its environmental sustainability. With each project, he is drawn into more creative applications that will show the material’s untapped capabilities. “The fluidity of concrete is a terrific thing. I think of concrete the way I might think of a Bundt cake. Whatever form you pick, you can create that kind of cake. As a creative a form as I can create is how creative a building we can make. And that’s certainly is true of Bodrum, as you can see.”

Looking toward the future, Gerner hopes the U.S. concrete industry members will become as proficient as European builders in the use of architectural concrete. “Concrete has always been a structural material for high-rise residential buildings, but it hasn’t been an architectural material for many years. I’d like to think that we are having a great deal of influence in reintroducing concrete as a façade material—as a finish material—and I’m hoping that my colleagues, other architects, are going to start to notice and start to work with concrete as much as we are.”