Construction of the Mesa Laboratory

 

Construction of the NCAR Mesa Laboratory, 1965 (UCAR Digital Image Library #DI02114)

Ground was broken on the NCAR site in June of 1964 under a $4.5 million contract with Martin K. Eby Construction Company of Wichita, Kansas. The cost of approximately $24 a square foot was a considerable bargain for the time, especially in view of the complexity of the architecture. Construction of the poured-in-place concrete walls, nine inches thick, was described by the construction superintendent as "like building a dam." Through this period, Pei continued to be heavily involved in the project. He was concerned that the finished walls have a stony, roughened texture. To this end, he ordered a series of sample slabs erected at the site, on which he tried various innovative finishes.

Architect I.M. Pei inspects test slabs, 1965 (UCAR Digital Image Library #DI02092)

This experiment resulted in a technique pioneered at NCAR and used extensively by Pei in subsequent concrete constructions. Called bush hammering, it involves combing the dry concrete with a fork-like tool driven pneumatically. Bush hammering had been used for roughening concrete to which another finish was to be applied but had never been used before in its own right. On the Mesa Laboratory, it provided a series a narrow vertical grooves, invisible from a distance, that prevent the smooth, sidewalk look characteristic of many concrete constructions. To Pei, the success of bush hammering is exemplified by the fact that the aggregate itself is chipped away, allowing the mica in the stone to shimmer in the sun.

The project did include a third tower, designed to hug the southern edge of the mesa and provide 50,000-60,000 square feet of working space. However, the third tower was postponed due to budget cuts and was never built. The loss of this third tower, an anchor to Pei's original design, was a major disappointment to the architect. As Pei explains it, the southerly tower, which would have come down below the brow of the hill and clung to the mesa's edge, would have given the building a sense of rootedness, much as the Mesa Verde structures are anchored to their cliffside perches. That firm sense of "tapping the soil," as Pei put it, is lost in a building that simply sits on top. 

 

Watch historic footage of the road to the Mesa Laboratory being built.
Watch historic footage of the Mesa Laboratory groundbreaking ceremony.

 

 
View more from the NCAR Archives Digital Collections
Ed Wolff summarizes his visit with I.M. Pei and staff (Cobb, Weinstein and Mixon) at the NYC office. Topics covered include plans for the upcoming visit and initial presentation by Pei in December 1961, potential cost concerns and space allocation issues with respect to philosophical and functional work concerns. Memo: Edwin Wolff to UCAR Planning Committee detailing the status of architectural and landscaping plans and strategies for bidding out work for the Mesa Lab. Plans for a Conference Center are also discussed. NCAR Planning Committee updates the UCAR Board of Trustees on the progress of plans for the Lab on Table Mountain after meeting with I.M. Pei & Associates on July 13, 1962. Strategies for preserving the mesa's natural beauty, the cost of air-conditioning and potential materials for building are discussed. The Planning Committee suggests the updated plan be sent to the UCAR Architectural Dean's Advisory Board for approval. Daniel Rex summarizes an extensive re-evaluation of NCAR's building needs and concerns about and kudos for Pei's design proposals. The memo also details potential funding issues because of a desire to build in one stage rather than two, as well as a section on goals for an upcoming meeting with Pei.