Sculpting in Light
With James Carpenter on a project, the difference is night and day
Annie Block -- Interior Design, 8/1/2010 3:18:00 PM
There have always been two driving forces behind James Carpenter's work: light and glass. Before founding James Carpenter Design Associates in 1978, the Rhode Island School of Design graduate was a sculptor and film artist while consulting on materials research for Corning Glass Works. The latter led to collaborations with Norman Foster, Richard Meier, and David Childs of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill on buildings in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. In New York alone, Carpenter has left his mark at 7 World Trade Center, the Hearst Tower, and the Time Warner Center. He has also consulted occasionally with his wife, architect Toshiko Mori, on such smaller projects as a visitors' center for Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House in Buffalo. But it wasn't until the expansion of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that he and the licensed architects at his firm could point to a project for which they were the lead designers. Here, he illuminates us.
You started out studying architecture at RISD-why the switch?
Over the year that I was in the architecture program, I became more and more intrigued by working directly with materials and understanding them at a deeper level. Sculpture allowed me to do that. And glass, in particular, allowed me to explore and manifest my lifelong captivation with the qualities of natural light.
How did you then get back into architecture-related work?
Two ways. First, my artwork involved taking disconnected fragments of film, usually of an occurrence in nature like koi swimming, and assembling them as gallery installations. This conceptually constructed a new space that included elements of the original one, the gallery. Film, essentially light, activated the space physically, and that's directly connected to how I think about architecture. The interplay of light enhances one's experience of a particular place.
Second was my Corning research, which dealt with the development of photo-responsive glass. I was speaking about it at a conference, and someone from Norman Foster's office happened to be in the audience. We ended up working with his team to incorporate the material in sheets of glass that were ultimately used for the curtain wall of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation headquarters.
How did you connect with Edward Larrabee Barnes?
I met Ed when I was one of three sculptors being interviewed for a commission for his IBM tower in New York. In fact, that's also how I met my wife, Toshiko Mori, as she was working for Ed at the time. I didn't get the commission, but several years later Ed asked me to collaborate on windows for the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. To this day, it's one of my favorite projects. When the sun passes over the windows, they seamlessly strengthen one's connection to nature and experience of place.
You've won many awards-has one been particularly thrilling?
The MacArthur Fellowship. It was both a surprise and a remarkable gift to further my explorations.
Have those explorations manifested themselves in any of your projects?
Yes. At the Israel Museum, we used the extruded terra-cotta that the fellowship had allowed me to research. Our four new buildings are low-iron glass, and the sunlight in Jerusalem is extremely strong, so we shaded the glass with terra-cotta louvers. They turn direct light into indirect and bring a subtle drama to one's passage through the museum campus, which includes a sculpture garden by Isamu Noguchi.
We chose glass because our goal was to sensitively insert a new vocabulary into the rich architectural history of the site. The glass buildings introduce a different material while essentially following the geometry of the existing concrete-box buildings from the 1960's. In addition, we reorganized circulation and the museum entry, creating a 100-yard-long passageway above and under the ground. The project overall is our firm's largest and most complex to date.
At 7 World Trade Center, what did your work encompass?
When David Childs asked us to come up with a solution for the building's base, which is a transformer station, we developed extruded stainless-steel panels that both reflect and redirect sunshine during the day and incorporate LEDs at night. Light then became the operative concept for the entire building, with the unique linear lapping of the curtain wall incorporating reflective blue sills that bounce daylight up into the spandrels. This produces depth or what I refer to as "volumetric light." From the street, one reads light reflecting off the transparent glazing, superimposed on the bounced light projected into the spandrels behind. This phenomenon of overlapping light breaks down a mass that might otherwise have been monolithic. We also created the blast-resistant entry glazing and the canopy system, a whole project in and of itself, and collaborated with Jenny Holzer to produce the walls of diffused glass sandwiching her LED text in the lobby.
Ultimately, we used light at 7 WTC to help people reengage positively with downtown. Urban areas are, by definition, disconnected from nature. Through glass, I'm able to isolate and emphasize sunlight in architecture, making an often overlooked natural element part of one's daily experience.
How many types of glass have you worked with?