Volume 21, Issue 2 - April/May/June 2007

On Review
Assessing James Carpenter’s Work
By Jerri Smith

Trained primarily as artist and sculptor, with 10 years as consulting artist at Corning Glass (and party or witness there to technological developments in glass and coatings), James Carpenter has engaged in an ever-widening series of collaborative endeavors with architects, engineers and others in his 25-year-plus career. 

James Carpenter Environmental Refractions by Sandro Marpillero, an architect and associate professor at Columbia University, is the first monograph of his work and it is a revelation. The work shown ranges from film and artistic glass objects to full architectural and environmental works, each operating at the interface of nature and culture. Quoted in an early interview, Carpenter describes witnessing a sea of phosphorescent squid at night and his desire “to make things that could heighten people’s awareness of phenomena that occur around them all the time.” 

The author describes the book’s organization as a geography, a map articulating possible interpretation, a collection to be navigated. He offers the image and explanation of the stick chart of ancient Pacific mariners—an object woven of straight and bent sticks in which islands are represented by shells. With the patterned stick chart as guide, the navigator works out his probable position relative to the islands by observing the swell pattern in the ocean surrounding him and comparing it to the pattern of the stick chart.

This comparison of ways that the works could have been categorized (by linear sequence; formal or functional attributes; chronological, typological, thematic, genealogical or geometric classification) sets in motion a compare-and-contrast way of viewing and interpreting the overlapping and layered concepts and perceptions and leads naturally to the cross-referencing between projects, underscoring the richness and internal consistency of Carpenter’s work.

The projects chosen as models or paradigms are grouped into three categories: refractions, constructions and apparatuses. Lucid text, gorgeous diagrams and beautiful photos describe each piece, its conceptual framework, the natural, scientific, and technological processes at work, the collaboration and development of the project and the perceptual result. Marpillero’s thesis is to capture Carpenter’s contribution to a redefinition of design practices that seems to be emerging as hopeful antidote to older, more limited notions of architectural rhetoric and practice. The preface by Jorg Schlach and essay by Kenneth Frampton emphatically support the thesis.

Refraction is the bending of a ray or wave of light, heat, or sound as it passes through layers of differing density. In these pieces, the physical properties of glass transform relationships of subject/object, window/wall, observer/interpreter, creating physical and spatial constructs that activate vision—and work magic. The combined text, diagram, and photos makes the whole understandable and, just as the Periscopic Window exceeds the experience of transparency and the Dichroic Light Field exceeds the experience of reflectivity, the layered descriptive devices both describe and cross-reference processes and intentions. Each work is placed in its context and always the sun—light, and by its movement time—is the primary variable.

Construction refers to a structure, a building, but also to a 3-D work of art, usually made of several materials. This series shows Carpenter’s work and collaboration at larger scale—the scale of architecture and working in concert with artists, architects and engineers. In these projects the collaboration results in “significant integration of art objects into complex processes of large building construction.” Natural phenomena, art, technology, and invention are integrated and balanced to produce systems in the exterior wall and public spaces that reduce the materiality of glass and prismatic stainless steel wire to absolute minimums. Natural and artificial light are introduced and manipulated, generating spatial and temporal effects in the urban field. Light reflecting and emanating from the surface registers the presence of the participant/observer and merges the building with the sky. Marpillero contrasts this activation with Mies’ “formal silence” at the Seagrams Building, stimulating further comparisons. 

An apparatus is a complex device or machine for a specific use or experiment. In this group, which includes early films as well as complete environments, the devices concocted are again emphatically at the interface of nature and culture. At the Tulane University Center, Carpenter and Vincent James approach environmental comfort by applying traditional and invented technology to make devices responsive to localized climate—a machine for utilizing and making apparent natural processes. In these pieces, again, inhabitant/participants are introduced to the wonder of phenomena that were there all the time. 

This is a collection of the most generous and optimistic works that analyze, examine, introduce and reintroduce participants to the natural world by way of culture—or to culture by way of the natural world. Natural phenomena are sometimes simply introduced and sometimes integrated into complex and specific apparatuses. One of the wonders of the book and the collection is that each piece seems to be at the perfect point of balance and integration of science and art.

Discussing his collaboration with Carpenter, Jorg Schlaich describes the engineer’s pursuit of absolute reductionism and the artist’s identification of a minimal deviation from this pursuit of necessity to introduce a further degree of aesthetic experience, transforming the whole.

Frampton’s essay outlines Carpenter’s background, development, working process and position at the interface of art, technology, culture, and context. He describes Carpenter as a unique practitioner and master builder whose studio is a highly advanced research lab and who sees environmental design as an essential and collective endeavor. The reciprocal and dynamic collaborative processes described and the thoughtfulness, precision and sheer beauty of the work produced make this a most generous and optimistic paradigm for work and a wonderful book. 

Jerri Smith, senior associate principal with Kohn Pederson Fox, New York, is a member of the Architects' Guide to Glass & Metal Editorial Board.  Ms. Smith's opinions are solely her own and not necessarily those of this magazine.

Architects' Guide to Glass & Metal
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