Take a forest stroll at the NRS’s Sagehen Creek Field Station, and you will encounter an Invisible Barn. The structure’s edges fade into the open air, until angled glimpses of tree trunks reveal a roof or wall. Surprise, then amusement tickle your brain as it wrestles with the sight of a building disappearing into the forest.
“Many architects and designers consider nature as just a background. We thought it could be interesting to flip this. We liked seeing a built structure that would be part of a bigger environment: nature,” said designer Seung Teak Lee, aka Tech, of design firm stpmj. “We started to look for a way for a man-made structure to lose its shape but emphasize the background, nature.”
Tech originally conceived the barn with fellow architect Mi Jung Lim in response to a competition to construct a “folly” for a New York City park.
Illusions spark reflection
For their folly, Tech and Lim focused on a grove of similar-sized, evenly spaced trees in the park. They noticed that the tree trunks disoriented viewers in their midst. The designers determined to have their folly strengthen this disorientation. They achieved this by wrapping the structural confection with reflective paneling to make some objects appear to vanish. At the same time, the reflections expand the visual boundary of the grove.
Yet the barn goes beyond visitors literally reflecting on their position in nature, Tech says. “It’s more about the delicate dynamics among a man-made structure, the natural environment, and users.”
Though not selected for the competition, the Invisible Barn triggered design conversations around the globe. Tech and Lim were soon fielding invitations to build the barn from places such as London, Paris, New York, and Chengdu.
The NRS’s Sagehen Creek Field Station rose to the top of this list for several reasons. The reserve’s forest setting included layers of randomly positioned trees that could support the illusion of invisibility.
But it was the enthusiasm of reserve managers Jeff Brown and Faerthen Felix that carried the day. “Through conversation with Jeff and Faerthen we knew they were interested in art, science, and the natural environment, which matched our vision. And we liked that Sagehen has addressed real-world problems in a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary manner, and has reached out to broad audiences to solve them.”
The barn was constructed over a period of about four weeks this spring. Sagehen steward Dan Sayler poured the foundation and framed the building. Tech and a helper completed the exterior paneling and weatherproofing, then added the reflective film. The resulting structure is tall but only three feet at its widest, providing just enough space for a visitor to sit inside and peer out at the forest.
Melding art and science
The barn is also bird-friendly. Tech worked closely with Sagehen assistant director Felix to prevent the building collisions that kill so many migratory birds.
“We figured it out by incorporating science into the art work,” Tech says. They found a type of mirrored film that is highly reflective in the optical range of birds, enabling avians to spot and avoid the building.
Tech has already presented the Invisible Barn to an AIA (American Institute of Architects) gathering at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. And in mid-June, the museum’s conference on intersections between art and science brought attendees on #ArtSciConverge a field trip to visit Sagehen. In addition to the Invisible Barn, conference-goers viewed Sagehen in the High Sierra: A Proving Ground, a work examining climate change by renowned environmental artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison.
“To me the most amazing part of the meeting was the response from a wide swath of the different communities in attendance and actively engaged in art/science convergence,” says reserve director Jeff Brown. “There is a real and compelling need to enable science and art to work more collaboratively together. They have the potential to expand their roles to society beyond the feeding of information.”
For his part, Tech views the Invisible Barn as a prime example of how synergy between art and science can creates a good project. “Art can stand alone but it is so much more convincing when it meets science.”
More photos of the Invisible Barn and its construction.
"Raising an invisible barn," UC Natural Reserve System