Director, producer and writer George Lucas has built a career on innovation, transforming the movie industry in countless areas, from special effects to digital filmmaking to sound editing and beyond. Now, in the design and construction of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles, the filmmaker has provided the vision that’s leading a team of innovators to push the boundaries on what’s possible in architecture. That vision is clad in 1,500 GFRP panels – each one a unique shape.

Global design firm Stantec serves as the architect of record for the museum, which will include exhibitions featuring illustrations, paintings, comic art, photography and an in-depth exploration of filmmaking arts. When completed, the museum – designed by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects – will resemble a cloudlike sculpture that stretches 700 feet long and 270 feet wide over portions of an 11-acre site in LA’s Exposition Park. Its sleek, futuristic exterior will be achieved with a rainscreen made of GFRP panels, each one averaging 8 x 30 feet.

Creating these panels has been a demanding four-year journey that’s required investments in new facilities and people, custom technologies and extensive testing. “It’s really an FRP product that doesn’t exist around the globe, and it’s from a factory that’s been made specifically to do this,” says Michael Siegel, a principal with Stantec.

The museum’s design team initially considered 20 different materials before selecting a GFRP façade. Composites allowed for far bigger panels than would have been constructible in stainless steel, resulting in a more seamless aesthetic. GFRP was lighter than stone or precast cladding, making it not only easier to install but also a better choice for a building in a seismic zone. Early tests also revealed it was easier to create curvatures in two different directions on a large GFRP panel compared to any other option. What GFRP lacked, however, was an existing design standard to guide the architectural team.

The need for that guidance was one reason the team chose Kreysler & Associates in American Canyon, Calif., as a fabrication partner. Firm president Bill Kreysler was a “key participant” in conversations between the architect, owner and craftsmen early on, Siegel notes.

Early collaboration among these partners was critical because not only are the GFRP panels complex, but there’s a lot going on behind the smooth façade. The building begins with a geometric structure – straight steel columns and beams that create an angular geometry. That structure is then clad in a weather wall made up of insulation and a waterproof barrier, which is connected to the GFRP rainscreen by a secondary structure of trusses. Those 5,600 uniquely shaped trusses serve as a translator, of sorts, between the angular primary structure and the more fluid GFRP skin.