James Carpenter: Following the Thread
By Ash Hoden
I was impressed with James Carpenter from the beginning. Not merely because of his body of work or that he brought great ideas to our project. Quality speaks for itself. It was because he was open and approachable. That he was free of the need to impress is what impressed me the most. At the time I was living in Qatar, working on a fancy urban redevelopment scheme with teams of accomplished architects, engineers, planners, and construction-related consultants of every stripe. Among this esteemed, designerly crowd Jamie’s approachability was a rare trait, which made it all the more notable. We only met briefly but this impression stuck with me. When we fortuitously crossed paths a few years later in a TriBeCa coffee shop I had no reservations about re-introducing myself. And when I pitched him on it, the fact that he agreed to take part in this new Deviation thing was testament to his openness.
Being in nature, observing and interacting with its rhythms or fluctuations, is integral to Jamie’s life and his work. He was raised near the coast in Maine, sufficiently removed from the city and its urbanity. Inland from the coast was mountains and forests. “It’s pretty wild. The Appalachian trail goes right up through there. There’s great fishing. Trout fishing, land-locked Salmon fishing… We used to do a lot of fishing; all of the time as a kid. I grew up around boats — wooden boats and boat-building and a lot of those types of things.” At one point during his childhood Jamie even built his own canoe. Working with one’s hands was essential. “If you’re living out in the country like that, you’re fixing the house or you’re fixing little chores or tasks your father would send you off to do, like shingle the wall or fix the window or shingle the roof. You’re just sort of helping, right.”
When we met for our conversation Jamie was about to take a fly fishing trip in northern Canada with his daughter. I mention that fly fishing is something of an art.
“Yeah, it’s an art. It really makes you focus on a particular ecology or environment, and then you really get into it. I mean you are in it. You’re literally in it. You’re trying to figure out the currents of the river, the temperature of the river, the weather conditions, where are the fish going to be, what are they feeding on, what’s the right time of year, time of day, and all of that sort of thing. It’s very much about understanding that ecology, and more so, even just experiencing that particular ecology. In Labrador you’re way up north — like 1000 miles north of Montreal. We fly into an Inuit community called Kuujjuaq. Then we fly again on a small plane to a river and we actually land on the river. There’s a little camp on an island and there’s only six of us. So you’re on this island and there’s literally no-one for 150 miles in one direction. In the other direction it’s like 500 miles. Every year on this one river there’s probably only 25 people that fish it; the whole river system — like a 400 mile-long river, very big river — and there’s nobody there.”
When he was thirteen Jaime left Maine for boarding school in Connecticut, much as his grandfather, father, and older brother had done. “It’s an idea about quality of education, first and foremost. It’s also a way that people begin to understand what their personal strengths and interests are, much more quickly. As opposed to being influenced by a home situation and a local social milieu that you might have. So in that regard I think it was very good for me to do that. Academically you have access to a whole different level of opportunities. Also, you make a whole new group of friends. I think independence is a huge thing. You become independent very early. Quite young. My daughter’s school is interesting. That was actually the school I wish I had gone to. All of their classes are conversational. There’s only like twelve students in a class. They sit at a table like this, it’s sort of an oval table, and then every class is just a conversation. All the walls are blackboards. Everybody has to get up and talk and demonstrate. It’s all about engaging everybody as opposed to hierarchical teaching. So they come out of there totally capable of holding their own in any conversation or discussion.”
Despite it being the type of education that groomed students for conventional pursuits at renowned universities, Jamie took advantage of the boarding school’s art and preliminary architecture programs, doing whatever he could to enroll in the courses offered by each. This enabled him to put together a portfolio of creative work that got him into the Rhode Island School of Design. It was the late 1960’s and nobody had gone to an art school from that high school before.
Did you always have a creative, artistic pursuit in mind?
“I don’t know. My mother was actually quite artistic. She did painting and sculpture and things. But I guess I always liked building things; making things and sort of figuring things out.
How was it when you got into RISD?
“It was great. I got in there in 1968 so it was a very interesting time to be in school anywhere. Yeah, it was a great school; an industrial design school, art school, architecture school, all in a fairly compact campus. So you met and befriended people who were doing all sorts of things. Painting or printmaking or sculpture… You made friends in all these disciplines and then you learned from them or were exposed to what they were doing at the same time as what you were doing in your field.
“I went there thinking, ‘Ok I want to be an architect.’ The first 2 ½ years I spent doing architecture and during that latter part of those 2 ½ years my eyes sort of opened up because they had incredible machine shops and an industrial scale textile operation; huge power looms, and four or five full-time guys that just ran the looms. All that stuff. I got interested in the machine shop and doing work in metal fabrication, and then glass was a very new program in the sculpture department. I don’t know how, I just took a real interest in glass and took a short course that they offered in the middle of the winter. … I took this short glass program and became very fascinated with the material. After that I switched into the sculpture department and began working in glass. I worked with this guy named Dale Chihuly who lives out in Seattle and does very, quite amazing glass. He was actually the teacher. He had just come back from a Fulbright Fellowship and I was an undergraduate. We just hit it off. We began doing lots of very interesting work with glass, because glass from our perspective hadn’t really been explored very much. It was in the factories, doing blown glass, but it really never had come out of a big factory. And we had access to it in a small studio or shop.”
Do you still feel that way — that you were going in a new direction with it?
“Yeah, totally. There were a lot of things we came up with in terms of process that hadn’t ever been done before.”
What were some of the things that you were doing?
“Using steam to inflate forms, different ways of combining material and inflating them, and filling pieces with neon, and really big scale blown glass pieces we were doing… I think the reason I was interested in glass is actually, in the architectural projects I was working, they all had to do with light. Retrospectively I realized that every one of these projects had to do with how we are bringing light into the building. I think that was the same attraction I had to glass. ‘Well, okay, here’s this material that can let you explore or manifest or innovate relative to how you work with light, or manage light.’ I got into that. We just started doing all sorts of interesting projects, like freezing neon in big blocks of ice and doing larger scale installations with those things. Toward the latter part of that period I began working with photography on glass, and stuff like that. Then I taught at Berkeley for a year and I was asked to come back to the School of Design to teach.”
As an undergraduate at RISD Jamie had been actively involved in the school’s nature laboratory, which was something of a natural history museum that was founded in the 1930s by Edna Lawrence. Largely due to Jamie’s interest in travel, time he spent in the Amazon, and the contributions he made to the nature lab through those experiences, she asked him to return to RISD to oversee what she had built over four decades.
“Expanding my interest as a student, I think, was always about traveling. I went to a school in Austria for a year during high school. And then during the summers when I was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design I worked for two years down in South America, in the Amazon — for a guy there. It was a small town called Leticia, Colombia. He’d been there for about thirty years and he primarily was collecting animals and plants that would be taken, either to zoological parks around the world, or there was a small group from the federal Food and Drug Administration that would work with him and collect plants and synthesize plant chemistry. And then he actually raised monkeys, fairly large numbers that were brought back to the United States for laboratories and stuff like that. Now, you know, a lot of those things aren’t quite so… This is like 50 years ago.”
Yeah, it’s a different time. You were helping him with science—
“I had been doing botanical drawings for professors for textbooks, just to make some money. One of them wrote me a letter of introduction to him. So I sent a letter to him and he said, ‘Absolutely. Come down here. I can pay you, you know, not much, but I can get you transportation down, transportation back.’ I went down the first year and worked with him. It was a very interesting, very small town. It had been an older rubber town, like turn of the 19th century. And then it shrank considerably. It was a little piece of land that Colombia owned on the river, and Brazil and Peru were literally in walking distance. So my job was really to help him locally in that town. But then these people would come down from different universities to do research. They’d be studying bats or they’d be studying plants or fish in the river, and I got assigned to help them. Through the first month or so I got to know the area around this town. Within a 40, 50 mile radius of this town I could find my way around.”
You were hiking?
“Yeah, hiking. I learned from one of his main guys who was a local Legian Indian. So I took on the responsibility of these people; helping them collect bats sometimes, or collect electric eels is one job I had. The point of this whole story is that I used to bring things back to this woman who ran this nature laboratory at RISD. I’d collect butterflies or insects or something, and I’d mount them and I would bring her back all these different things from different trips I would take. It was my favorite place in the school in many ways and I was probably her favorite student because I helped her all the time.”
Jamie makes note of the fact that these experiences in nature and in working with glass as an artistic medium interlink with his design career. But prior to founding James Carpenter Design Associates he taught at RISD while also working as a conceptual artist — primarily showing in galleries in New York and Germany. Much the way he does through design, Jamie’s art drew attention to the shifting qualities of nature and light. He describes a film project he did in the 1970s in which he suspended nine cameras over a tidal stream in Puget Sound, Washington, shooting a disjointed but sequential series of frames during the salmon run:
“The cameras run simultaneously, looking down into the surface of the river, and you end up with this sequence of images. The fish are actually moving one film frame to the next. So then you take that whole film sequence and you project it on the floor of a gallery or museum. The idea is that you are standing next to the river. You actually see the migration of the fish. It was about 80 feet long and you’ve got groups of people standing and watching it. But taking the original films, you just slightly change the timing. You slow it down a little bit. It’s not slow motion per se, but holding the frame a little bit longer. What your eye starts to realize — because you obviously look at it at first and say, ‘Ok, I see the fish moving.’ You see the bottom of the river and the reflections of the surface of the water. But if you start to look at it a little bit longer, all of a sudden you realize that there is this whole perfect image of the sky floating on top of the stream. Your eye wouldn’t let you really see that in reality because there’s so much else going on. Your eye tends to focus on things that are demanding your attention. These other elements of the image are actually there but you don’t see them. Just by changing the film slightly you end up with this other sort of reality.
“I use this project as a way to talk about how I think about glass. You have information on one surface, you have information within the surface, and then you have information on the other side of it. So you actually have a transparent material, but if you flip that over and imagine it as a piece of glass, you have reflected image, you have information that’s happening within the material, and then you have the information that’s happening beyond the material. So something that’s transparent, which is normally abstractly nothing, in fact is loaded with all of this information. And we don’t really pay attention to it. But it’s there.”
That’s a really cool project.
“It’s still meaningful for me. This is what I’m trying to get back to, is how you look at nature. We’re linking this all together, with fly-fishing and these films that deal with augmented reality and stuff. It’s all about nature and observing nature — what we learn from that. How are people oblivious to a lot of these things that are around us, and how do you heighten the presence of a lot of events — phenomenology and events — so that people do become aware of them and they perhaps become more, let’s call them signatory elements or significant elements in a person’s daily life in the city? In cities you tend to make this by-rote assumption that nature doesn’t exist in the cities. We’re disconnecting ourselves from nature and we look at a lot of our work as being, ‘How do you find a way to reveal a collective experience of things that we all appreciate?’ Like, World Trade Center Tower 7. It’s got this whole daylighting reflector system built into the facade and people call us all of the time and say, ‘I was running yesterday morning at sunrise and I saw something…’ The building actually did something that was significant enough in their daily routine to be noteworthy, and noteworthy enough for them to track us down and call us. This happens quite a lot actually.”
“And that’s really, in a lot of ways, what we’re after. We’re all engaged with nature in some way, shape, or form, and we find ourselves disconnected from it in terms of the way that we live our lives. But there needs to be, I believe, some way that you establish these touchstones where nature can re-enter your life in a meaningful way.”
Was that part of what drew you to glass?
“Well the whole thing about light has always fascinated me. Light and water and glass. They’re all very tightly inter-related in terms of optics and how light interacts with materials. Light is information. A lot of times you just think of light as a source that illuminates an object. But, I’m looking at you: my eye is actually constructing the light that’s hitting you and creating your image, and I’m able to interpret it. Your face is basically embedded in all of the surfaces of this room simultaneously. That same light information that I’m interpreting is right here,” motioning over his shoulder. “And it’s actually partially on that column. All these materials are carrying fragments of that same presence that you have in this room. We have one connection but you’re actually within all of these other things. Just through light. Your image is being projected in multiple directions simultaneously.”
And that’s something that you can work with?
“Light is information. Even though light is passing by us, it has to have a target to hit. But the light that’s actually hitting that target already has a reservoir of information, or a memory of information. The surfaces of objects it’s reflected off of, partially absorbed by… Light is basically moving all of the time and even though it gets that diminishing presence, that information is within that photon. That field of photons is being constantly changed.
“I mean, we don’t really know how old the universe is, simply because the light hasn’t gotten here yet. We’re constantly extending the life of our universe, our solar systems, as light is revealing objects further and further in space. And that light is obviously a fragment of light that’s billions of years old. In a poetic sense you’re actually looking at history. You’re looking at light that’s two billion years old. And these concepts are not formal physics by any means, but a different way of thinking about it. I mean you have a photon which is naturally generated, from a star let’s say, and that photon is carrying information relative to where it was sourced and what has happened to it in its own history until it’s finally expended in terms of total absorption somewhere. That’s the end of the life of that particular photon. What I refer to are two different types of photon. One is an embodied photon, which is a source of light that comes from a natural source, say a star. And then there’s a synthetic photon, which is more of an artificial source. I distinguish between the two. This is just a way to think about something. It may be physics, but it’s not the way they speak about it in terms of physics.”
It’s how you express it in the built environment—
“I think there is a way where you can have that wealth of information that light bears within it, which is natural light, and then overlay on it a means by which you can accentuate it or somehow call more attention to it; any way that you might heighten one’s awareness of a natural event of light. I think you can hybridize the two things.”
And this way of perceiving light as the bearer of information and distinguishing between sources, between the natural in the greater world and what we control internally, is a means for—
“It’s probably a construct to think about it. It’s more of that for me. They’re ideas that I have always felt are there, but it’s not expressed that way in terms of physics.”
It sounds really similar to this book I read called Architectures of Time by Sanford Kwinter. He was speaking about a snowflake and how it carries that whole history. As it falls it changes shape, picks up particles—
“It ends up having a unique character. It’s the same as I’m talking about with the photon. Each one is different from the other because it has a different history.”
In 1977, while Jamie was teaching and overseeing the nature lab at RISD, he was invited to work for six months at Corning Glass. “I ended up working with a really fantastic guy who is probably one of the most famous glass chemists or engineers of the twentieth century. His name is Donald Stookey. He basically invented something called glass ceramics, which is a material that transitions the boundary between these two materials.” Jamie slides over a water glass and a coffee mug as examples of each. “You can actually have a crystalline material and a non-crystalline material interconnect with each other. One of the materials he developed was a photosensitive glass, and this is how I got engaged with Corning. He developed a glass that you could actually produce full photographic images in. So the photograph is almost three-dimensional in the material. I got interested and he took an interest in my interest and spent quite a bit of time with me. I got very involved in glass in a fairly deep way through Corning.”
I step back by asking about the resources he had at RISD’s glass studio. His answer begins with the history of how university programs began to include such studios:
“It followed the whole thing about ceramics in university programs in the 50s — mostly spurred on by a fellow named Bernard Leach from England and a couple other people who had gone to Japan, studied with master ceramists, and relearned the wood firing techniques. American artists or professors who had studied with Bernard Leach came back to the country and a lot of university programs in the 50s started ceramics programs. The glass industry was always a little bit off-limits relative to accessibility. Furnaces are generally huge and they’re melting tons of glass and they’re feeding machines… In Venice you had a different thing where there was smaller furnaces and men were actually blowing glass and all of that. That was certainly a tradition in this country in the 18th century, 19th century, but sort of dissipated as the industrial revolution came, and was not really prevalent in the 20th century. So in a way glass got rediscovered by artists or by craftspeople — building these smaller furnaces and they maybe melt a hundred pounds, two hundred pounds, three hundred pounds, something like that. You can mix your own raw materials and melt them, and then you can learn how to blow the glass or cast the glass. It just expanded what the material opportunities were, say, within a sculpture program or an industrial design program. They all came under slightly different academic hierarchies but they were everywhere. RISD had a very little one. I was fortunate to be there in the first couple years of that. Fortunate in the sense that, because nobody really knew very much about it, you had to figure it out on your own; to learn how to make your own batch, build the furnaces, build the kneeling ovens… What’s the skill to actually make something with this material?”
Were there a lot of failed attempts?
“Oh yeah. It’s just the antithesis of — say in Italy you’re going through a whole 30-year apprentice program from the age of ten before you become a junior master or something, and then maybe when you’re 50 you are a master. There’s this huge trajectory of learning and understanding that would have been the historic norm. And then all of a sudden expecting somebody within a two-year program to become a master? It’s just not happening. Anyway, it caught on and it’s a fascinating material and these glass programs proliferated all over the world. The point being that nobody really knew a lot about it. Learning to blow glass is not easy. But on the other hand you have this molten material and you begin to realize, ‘Well, maybe we could ladle it out? Or pour it? Or maybe there’s another way you can work with the material?’ When I was working with Dale Chihuly we just started doing things that wouldn’t be considered kosher if you were in an apprentice program. But you learned a lot about the material, the behavior of the material and all these things. This touches on our earlier discussion about being brought up around making things and being curious about how materials behave. I think to really be a master of your material you have to know what it can do in all of its permutations. Not just glass blowing, which is one skill set and the glass behaves a certain way. But what does the glass want to do in some other context?
“That’s where this relationship with Corning, which was somewhat, as I look at many things in my career, just very fortuitous. Opportunities that I took advantage of — and you have no idea where your career is going. I mean, it’s not a career actually. You’re moving from one interesting opportunity to another and somehow they sort of interconnect, or you’re trying to keep them somehow interconnected on occasion. And then other times they’re going off in totally different directions. But I think in terms of glass at a university program, I was there at the right time, and with the right people — or with the right person. Dale is a very very famous character today in that world. We just had a lot of energy. We would get up every day at four o’clock and we’d have all our work done for the day by eight in the morning. We really took advantage of having all these facilities at the school, using them as best we could to just do different things at the time.
“And then coming down here [to NYC] was sort of like this… There was this background in architecture, in glass, in materials and making, and then this opportunity to work with Corning and work with somebody who was very very influential to me relative to looking at a material and realizing that the material has limitless potential. It’s a weird material, glass. We very much just categorize it. We just think it’s this,” holding up a drinking glass, “or that window glass. But it’s actually a material that you can change its properties — from computer chips to optical wave guides, fiber optics, you name it. Silica can go anywhere almost. It’s unlike other materials. It’s not like you’re working with wood. Or steel, it has a lot of alloy potential to it as well. But glass and ceramics are very, very interesting materials. The basic lesson I learned from Donald Stookey is that it’s a material that can literally, whatever idea you have, it can actually be modified to realize that idea. Whatever it is. Glass has this incredible all-encompassing ability to actually define things; actually explore things.”
You realized that in working with Stookey?
“I sort of knew it just from doing the hands-on thing, but within a more limited scope. And then he’s talking about it on another level. You are really taking it down to the molecular level. The main glass that we worked with was something called fotoform and then he developed another glass called polychromatic. With polychromatic you can produce a full color photograph in the glass. It goes through the thickness of the glass. You could actually produce a color photograph and you could put it away and it’s never changing. You could leave it out there in the sunlight for 1000 years and it’s going to be the same thing 1000 years later. Unless it’s melted. Anyway, just being part of that made me think a lot more about what glass is.”
In the late 1970s the art world began to shift, heading in a direction Jamie wasn’t as excited about. “Those types of things, where the film is based on a conceptual idea of light and engaging people with nature through cinema, requires them to go to a particular environment to see it; a museum or a gallery. I guess what I was wrestling with a little bit — because I did those types of things for about ten years, and this is not a negative comment, it’s just that you’re addressing a particular audience that’s going to a gallery or something. And the art world when I first got involved in it, in the late-60s, early-70s, was a very exciting place. A lot of great people, who I’m still friends with, were very interested in more conceptual ideas; ideas about social or environmental issues. And then toward the latter part of the 70s the whole art world went in a very different direction; towards more expressionist painting and people like Schnabel and all that. It dissipated for me a lot of energy; what the art world could be — putting forward transformative ideas that would engage people with one another in a different way, or with society or with more collective issues — as opposed to the production of products or objects that are acquired and displayed.
“My trajectory at that time was, ‘Okay, well the art world is shifting, you’re spending an enormous amount of energy to set up one of these things that only lasts for like four weeks. Is there a way that you can hold onto these ideas conceptually, but bring them to life where they can be operative indefinitely? And maybe experienced by people who are not necessarily the preconditioned audience that you would have in a gallery, just somebody who is enjoying birdwatching, or something, and they come across one of these things?’ In a city you’re talking about trying to do something for people to discover within their own daily lives, rather than all of a sudden setting it on some sort of pedestal which has an audience. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that but it’s a somewhat exclusionary audience. There’s a whole other group of people out there that would never participate in that. How do you reach out and try to do things that have some meaning for a broader group of people?”
The whole spectrum of the urban audience.
“Yeah. Who is that? Whether you are a kid or you’re working on the subway or you’re working in the bank, somehow there’s a blending of ideas that are maybe interpreted differently but nonetheless make an impression or an impact of some kind.”
It was time to focus again on architecture, Jamie’s original motivation for going to an art and design school. “I realized I had ideas for my own projects but I also knew that I could go to architects whose work I admired or thought I had some sympathy with, and I could bring a knowledge of the material that’s definitely not available through a normal architectural education. The first project was with Norman Foster on the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank. They wanted to use glass for the curtain wall of that building. It was like 1979 and I was working with Corning. Because they knew my background included architecture I got pushed up to the front of the line to help manage it. That’s when I came to New York, realizing that I could probably set up my own design practice and do this work and do some of my own commissions and hopefully make a living doing some consulting with architects on how to use glass. Ultimately I started to get smaller commissions through architects. One of the first architectural projects I got was this chapel.”
Cummins, Inc. is headquartered in Columbus, Indiana and Irwin Miller, the company’s long-time president and chairman, established a foundation to bring exceptional modern architecture to the small city. “The town would have a budget for a particular building and he would say, ‘Okay, I will pay the fees of these architects but they have to build the building on your budget.’ So he just brought in the best architects.” Jamie was hired to help with one of these Miller-supported projects, although it was in Indianapolis. “Edward Larrabee Barnes had been commissioned to do this little theological seminary, and this chapel was part of it. One thing the client wanted in this beautiful site — this beautiful valley with no buildings around it — he said, ‘I just want to be able to sit inside and see nature outside.’ So it’s sort of like, ‘Well, you’re saying you want a clear window, so what are we supposed to do?’ We came up with this structure using interference coated glass. Basically it just separates the light. A portion of the light is reflected and a portion of the light is transmitted. And what happens inside, it’s very beautiful to look at…”
He opens a copy of the book, James Carpenter: Environmental Refractions to show me interior photos of the chapel. Striated bands of light pass through the window and drape across the wall behind the pulpit — a bright series of bands angle upward toward the ceiling and a striped blanket of lavender and white bands angle downward toward the floor. “You walk into the chapel and sometimes there’s nothing there, or there’s fragments of that image, or all of a sudden it appears and then disappears as clouds move overhead. So it comes back to that whole temporal idea that the information is there and you’re constructing a device which allows that information to reveal itself. So if you’re sitting here you actually see the clouds in the sky pass over this. You sort of see them moving here. And then these trees in the summer and fall when there’s a movement and wind, you get the vibration of the leaves in here. It’s linked to film in the sense that you’re trying to take that real-time information and sort of abstract it and bring it into space. And you have the time to observe it, right. It is what’s happening outside but you actually are seeing it in a very different way.”
Did you go back and get a masters?
“I did not, no. Obviously today you probably can’t get a teaching job without an MFA or a masters of some sort. But back then, if you’re doing interesting things somebody might take a chance and hire you. So, yeah, I have a bachelor of fine arts. I always thought, ‘Well should I get the architecture degree or not?’ You’re so busy doing all this stuff you just don’t do it.”
That’s great. I like that.
“In a way I wonder if that’s a plus or a minus. I think it’s maybe at the end a plus.”
I think so.
“Right. You’re sort of skirting around all of these things. I’m very passionate about engineering and understand it very well, and generally architecture and materials and building. We’ve always thought of the studio as exploring the intersection of engineering, architecture, and fine arts. I actually want to shuttle back a little bit more towards the art world, in a way. Maybe not go into the art world formally, but have some projects that are much more conceptually based and not so linked to the integration of buildings, as we typically do on most of our projects.”
With a project like the Fulton station where you have a set parameter or scope within a structure, do you feel that those tend to lean more heavily toward art over architecture and engineering?
“They can, but a lot of the times… Even like the Hearst fountain. Both Hearst and Fulton definitely have an aesthetic role to play, which is probably 90% of the goal. You’re really trying to transform how people experience the place and space but they’re very tightly integrated, just physically, in the structure of the building. And they also have performative requirements. Hearst were actually collecting rainwater from the roof of the building. The rainwater is collected on the roof, it’s brought down, it’s then filtered and chilled and run over the glass. So the water that’s activating that glass surface is the cooling system for the main lobby space. Then it also creates that sound, so it’s like white noise. You have 4500 people in there everyday, going in and out. And it has this whole other role to play in terms of the function of the building and the way it refracts light out into the street. In and of itself it’s very beautiful to look at, and very intriguingly constructed out of these huge glass castings, but it also has this other level of contributing to the building and it’s actual pragmatic functions in a very unique way; sort of an innovative way.
“And the same thing’s true with Fulton Center where you have that net. The net is actually made of this optical aluminum which we’ve developed with a company in Germany. Behind it is the smoke evacuation system for the whole building; for the whole subway system. The idea is that the smoke comes up into this reservoir — that whole space is a smoke reservoir — and it’s exhausted right through the net to the outside of the building. It’s camouflaging the really robust fan systems that have pipes that are 6 feet in diameter and all of that mechanical stuff. What I think is actually very important about that project is how the optics… It’s sort of an unusual shape, a toroidal shape, and when you look at it — because the shape is curved like that — it’s actually bringing you the image of the sky beyond the skylight. The skylight is one view of the sky but when you look up at it you’re actually looking way beyond the actual skylight aperture. The image of the sky is actually visible in this whole surface. You’re seeing the sky and the clouds moving in the building. It’s almost like you take that image of the sky and you just fold it into the space. For me the interest in that comes from the whole history of theaters and oculuses and domes, you know, originally being outdoors and then eventually indoors with painted ideas about the sky or the heavens or whatever. So you’re not artificially creating something to enhance the visual interest of the space but you’re taking this outside and bringing it inside, and it’s there.”
And enhancing the perception of that.
“Exactly, exactly. What’s interesting, you would walk out onto the street and look up at the sky and you see it, but you’re not paying attention to it because it’s what you see every day. But when you go into a building all of a sudden there’s this sky and the clouds are moving around and it’s sort of like, ‘What the hell is this?’”
What would you say is one of the best lessons that you’ve learned about life?
“I think on the one hand making sure you stay connected to those things which are the point of your inspiration. This is coming back to fishing and the traveling in Labrador and that sort of thing. Even though you might never have known what that inspiration may have originally led to, it’s a thread that you want to keep connection with. And on the other hand, how do you just move through whatever opportunities that may arise and apply to those opportunities the source of that inspiration? I never really had any idea of what I’d be doing but it has all morphed into tracking that interest and inspiration and applying it to these — from some people’s point of view are unlikely opportunities, but from my perspective are a very coherent collection of opportunities. Or we’ve made the opportunities that were maybe disparate more coherent. I don’t know if that’s a life lesson, but I think it’s hard to hold on to things that are very powerful to your — I want to say spiritual, or conceptual, intellectual… They’re all sort of linking in as points of inspiration.”
And it’s hard to hold on to that just generally in life — making it through the world.
“Yeah, I think it’s very hard. And in a way you’re using the projects as a way of understanding that inspiration a little bit better. Or understanding what is it about that inspiration that has some interest.”
It seems that your office functions that way as well. You’re not necessarily tied to specific clients or types of buildings.
“In terms of project types anything goes pretty much. It can be a curtain wall or a building or planning or bridges… There’s no real type that we’re known for and we don’t really have a style, per se. It’s all about what we can do in this thread of inspiration that could be drawn out of that context or drawn out of that site. What’s an idea that’s inherent in that context? And we can sort of pull it out and make it real. Each job, in a way, has its own source.”
And you get hired based on people hearing about your work and saying we need something like that?
“I guess so. Yeah, you never know.”
You don’t know where it’s coming from next?
“Not really, no. I mean certainly people see something and they say, ‘Can we do something like that?’ We don’t normally do that. We normally try to figure out what you have, where you are, what the particular site and context is, and what can we bring out of that that’s inherently part of it.”
Rather than replicating some other thing that’s similar?
“Exactly. And it may have some associations with another project but hopefully it’s something new. That’s a little bit of the difference of the structure of this office. Everybody here is interested in working on ideas at the beginning of a project and we’re not particularly hierarchical. We try to keep everybody engaged in the conversations — the teams. We definitely initiate conversations. We have a long gestation period, letting ideas sort of bubble up and finding some level of manifesto.”
This manner of operating — staying close to your inspiration without necessarily knowing where it will lead — is also testament to Jamie’s openness; his freedom of mind.