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Northern exposure: a multi-purpose centre brings urbanity and an understanding of nature to Alaskan suburbs.

At one of the remotest northern boundaries of the American continent and on the outskirts of a rapidly growing city, this recently completed building in Alaska seeks to create a new physical and social centre. Planned to nurture the communal life of an isolated settlement and respect the spectacular natural landscape of its physical setting, the bp (British Petroleum) Energy Centre is an inspired response to a demanding programme.

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This new building is sited within an enveloping low-density sprawl characteristic of most world cities. Anchorage is no exception and though relatively young, it is the largest city in Alaska with a population of about 260 000 made up of a diverse group of people including the indigenous Inuit and established settlers as well as significant yet often nomadic communities from international business and strategic services. First developed as a result of the Gold Rush, the city is now a major distribution centre and has grown rapidly as a result of the discovery of rich natural resources, the construction of the Alaska Pipeline and tourism. Lying within the circumpolar region, between the ocean and spectacular mountain ranges, its long dark winters are offset by plentiful hours of summer daylight.

As a part of the community and anxious to play a constructive role in its evolution, bp discovered a shortage of spaces for various local non-profit community groups, neighbourhood associations and educational institutions. So the centre provides different types and sizes of spaces and amenities including meeting rooms, social spaces, exhibition areas and a business centre that can accommodate many uses. The exhibition space is an integral part of the community development agenda for as well as being available for changing exhibitions and receptions, it also incorporates a permanent display devoted to the region's natural resources, the culture of its indigenous people and their relationship with this place of extremes. The building entrance lies at the end of a pedestrian path threaded between the dense forest of silver birches and across a creek on a small wooden bridge. This creates a distinct separation between the centre, the forest and the anonymous built landscapes beyond, imparting a palpable sense of calm. The meandering route is emphasized by a specially designed sign in the form of an LED that weaves its way between the trees. Intended as a reference to the Alaska Pipeline, this electronic sign carries a changing flow of illuminated information about Alaska and its natural resources.

Planned as a long narrow bar of space, the exhibition hall forms an armature for the scheme. Designed as a glazed hall, it connects visually and materially to the natural landscape and the surrounding forest. Like a sophisticated fragment of a Plugin City, it has also been designed to connect a series of seemingly independent boxes. Clad in a range of materials, the boxes variously contain meeting rooms, offices, lavatories and a large multi-purpose space.

In contrast to the transparency of the focal exhibition hall, most of the meeting spaces and rooms on the upper floor are wrapped in a skin of finely detailed dark grey corrugated metal cladding. However, this is peppered with groups of random yet carefully composed small openings that capture framed views of the forest while also creating delicately patterned elevations. These views effectively locate the rooms within the airy spaces of the surrounding tree canopy.

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The larger multi-purpose space is treated differently. Opaque on three sides, the fourth side is fully glazed to frame a panoramic view of the forest beyond. Opaque elevations are clad in a rainscreen wall of green glass panels, each fixed with point fittings, to create a series of precise grids. Exit doors, external lighting and alarm systems are all carefully integrated within the facades so that the volume assumes a tantalizingly scaleless sculptural quality, reading as both a constructed object and neutral backdrop. Wall planes are animated by the changing reflections of trees, sunlight and shadows, so that they almost disappear during the summertime. However, in Alaska's long dark winters, the ingenious cladding also works as a reflecting surface that mirrors and enhances precious daylight and the twinkle of artificial lights within the building.

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The building is used by community groups and public service agencies, bringing together a disparate array of teachers, firemen, housing officers, schoolchildren, business people and many others of different ages, interests and backgrounds. So the centre is conspicuously different in an area shaped by predominantly singleuse zoning. Within a predominantly corporate enclave, it introduces an informal, occasionally light-hearted and distinctly local emphasis.

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The building's design clearly recognizes the importance of nature in a growing city. While its siting defines the edge of a remaining fragment of the natural landscape stranded within tumultuous urban sprawl, the wall-like quality of the building offers protection to the woodland. Together with the thoughtful planning of spaces, this new centre creates places where the diverse range of interests of a community can be energetically cultivated at the edge of the world.

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Architects

Koonce Pfeffer Bettis, Anchorage, Alaska

Photographs

Kevin G. Smith
COPYRIGHT 2004 EMAP Architecture
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Carter, Brian
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Words:853
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