Designing and developing glass facades or any other building structure can only be done in collaboration. These are the collaborations between manufacturers, engineers, designers, clients and the construction industry and their goals typically encompass safety, economy and performance.
Formal ideas about aesthetics might typically be thought of as one collaboration that exists in tension, or maybe even in opposition to the pragmatic scope of the work being produced. When described, these collaborative relationships are usually framed by their complexities, and discussion of collaboration typically focuses on celebrating the cooperation needed to overcome the challenges presented by each discipline’s varying agenda. However, there are other aspects of collaboration that I would briefly like to explore here – aspects that privilege the experience of urban places and spaces in-between, above the formal appearance of buildings.
COLLABORATION – PROFESSIONAL
Collaboration is the founding structure of our studio. Since 1979, my studio has consisted of individuals who have studied fine arts, architecture or engineering and we often describe our studio and our ‘discipline’ or ‘space of practice’ as occupying the area framed by these three disciplines, Architecture/Fine Arts/Engineering, thus leaving us a more flexible and agile role from which to deploy our interests. Similarly, we think of our studio as a collaborative partner with several other firms with shared aspirations within closely interrelated fields, these being Schlaich Bergermann and Partners for structure and Transsolar for environmental engineering and TriPyramid Structures for manufacturing. These longstanding relationships, going back over 35 years, are of primary importance to our approach to projects as all our initial design work tends to be driven by what many creative designers usually see as secondary – that is performance. Rather than form for forms sake, we tend to try and understand the atmospheric, light, and environmental attributes of a site, tightly framing the conditions and opportunities, and from this set of self-imposed limitations, we seek to find points of inspiration and innovation.
Parallel to this collaboration within our related fields, there exists another level of collaboration between ourselves and the materials we choose to explore and deploy. By this I mean that there exists within the field of materials science, a depth of knowledge, the surface of which is rarely scratched by the architectural and construction trades. My own approach to materials was developed through the trajectory of my education, initially through botany, chemistry and physics which led to architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I gradually transitioned to working in the foundry, machine shops, glass program and eventually film. This hands-on investigation of material properties led a few years later to a longstanding relationship with Corning Glass where I worked with Dr. Donald Stookey, probably the foremost glass/ceramic chemist of the last century.
Having many respected partners that bring not only their expertise in their respective fields but their sensibilities and creative energies, expands our studio’s capacity to produce work that reflects a unique sense of place, one with a materiality and relationship to light that connects us to each other and to nature, even in the densest urban environment. Along this line of thinking, we might think of collaboration first as the collaboration we undertake with the materials themselves. Mining a depth of knowledge usually dismissed as unnecessary, we can establish a more essential framework for the design process to become the artistry that defines the best and most lasting civic places. I have often thought of materials as intelligent and glass specifically, as particularly intelligent, in that they carry so much information in their response to the elements (their performance) and that this performance can reveal our profound connection to nature.
It was in 1977, while teaching and overseeing the nature lab at RISD, that I was invited to work for six months at Corning Glass. My time working with Dr. Donald Stookey at Corning exposed me to the remarkable technical potential of glass and gave me the confidence to pursue works that challenged the use of glass as a structural material for large scale glass constructions executed as ‘art’ commissions within larger building projects or as integrated elements within an architectural context (curtain walls, skylights, entries, stairs) This work was the leading edge of the technical and aesthetic advancement of glass as a building material. Many of JCDA’s early completed projects are the primary examples of an exploration demonstrating the compressive strength of glass in complex tensile systems. Much of this work from twenty to twenty-five years ago were the precursors of the work which we now see used in the Apple stores and for numerous exterior applications.
In some respects, Corning did provide the ability to transfer knowledge gained from within their library and from interactions with various researchers there to undertake JCDA’s public projects. Underlying this is a vision I have always had which is how can I create works which explore particular events or characteristics of nature and reframe how we see and experience those events and characteristics within the urban public realm. After establishing my studio, architects would initially work with us for our expertise around glass, its structure and optics, but over time we became partners in design and eventually, the clients came to know us, and we progressively were tasked with playing a more significant role in the larger design process. This may have been because of our desire to simultaneously think of a project at its most detailed, technically specific scale, and its broadest, experiential scale. For example, we think of the highly technical aspects of glass and its properties, hand in hand with the singular focus on how the experience of light might link us to the unique characteristics of a place, particularly to the nature that exists even in the densest urban environment.
COLLABORATION – MATERIAL
In my own experience with glass, I have emphasized an understanding of any material in all of its potential permutations – from its variable composition, its structural behavior, to its optical and phenomenological life. Glass reveals the alchemical nature of materiality in that it is transformative, it can exist in a multitude of forms addressing a multitude of functions, and yet if we look at glass in architecture today, it has been reduced almost entirely to a single product, float glass, whose qualities could be described as historically limited or inferior. You could say that consideration of glass materiality in architecture today is mostly secondary to its treatments – lamination, coatings and so on, but the base knowledge of the material in the building industry is for all intents and purposes lost. A direct collaboration with materials is undervalued and largely forgotten. I would argue that material knowledge is the key to meaningful design – a structure designed with a deep material understanding communicates itself directly through its phenomena.
Resulting in the streamlining of processes in production, fabrication, and installation, today, design and architecture rely on a fractured or fragmented idea of glass. In order to build efficient structures, architects and designers rely on a narrow range of standard practices while outside of this range, experts have to be brought in. There is certainly a challenge in mastering the complexity of materials and their corresponding techniques, but there are few incentives to put material knowledge at its core. Having been invited over the years to teach a workshop with Professors Sidney Nagel and Heinrich Jaeger, physicists at the University of Chicago, I am routinely reminded of the importance of collaboration outside one’s area of expertise and beyond the purview of pragmatic agenda. By delving into others’ expertise, it becomes easier to approach each project as broadly as possible. Our workshops gave greater depth to the investigation of light, first, broadly as it is reflected, transmitted, and absorbed by the materials around us, and second, as a means of probing the physical and chemical properties of matter. Underlying the course was a thorough exploration of light in general and its interaction with the widest range of environments and materials. A critical investigation of light phenomena as they are perceived within various environments was explored as well as the physiological and cultural impact of light.
To have a material’s performance embody the key poetic and aesthetic characteristics of place, collaboration across disciplines is essential. The potential is for design that effortlessly represents the natural world, both the nature that immediately surrounds us but that is hard to register, and the broader sensation of nature extending beyond our view. For example, at every scale of design with glass, there is an opportunity to articulate the presence of light and to unpack and register the dense information stemming from its local and universal interactions. In essence, all materials and their relationships are an opportunity to articulate a more profound collective experience of the world that surrounds us. As designers impacting public space, collaboration with other areas of expertise is one key in harnessing the simultaneously scientific and aesthetic relationships of that opportunity and its contribution to placemaking. The other is an abiding curiosity which might be described as a collaboration with materials themselves.
Migration, gallery film installation
Collaborating with the University of Washington, which managed this small tributary to the Puget Sound as a site to experiment with various strains of migratory salmon, and with the help of a crew of artist friends, we anchored a series of cameras onto scaffolding erected over the river. The synchronized films captured a fractured but accurate record of the surface of a 60-foot segment of the stream. Each of the films was then projected onto the gallery floor at full scale, creating a 60-foot-long installation, reframing the river’s flow across the gallery floor. One could observe the water flow over the gravel bed of the stream and the salmon moving up from one film frame, through a moment of darkness, into the next film frame and so on for a total of six filmed frames. By editing the timing in post-production, the image of the sky became clearly visible on the surface of the river and was periodically distorted by the image of the salmon, making visible the spatial compression created by the combination of transparency and reflection.
Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, Façade Glass Mock-Up, 1983
Film and glass led to both an art career in the 1970s and to consulting for Corning, where, with scientist Dr. Donald Stookey, we worked on FotoForm and other photochromic and polychromatic glasses and their possible architectural applications. Working with Stookey radically expanded my understanding of glass as a material. In 1982, Norman Foster of Foster and Partners, became aware of our work developing a glass with louvers, created within the body of the glass by exposing this glass composition to UV light and heat treating the glass, thereby selectively growing crystalline structures within the glass material. We collaborated with Foster & Partners in using this technology on their Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank Tower in Hong Kong – they asked us to produce enough of the material to create a mock-up. Though in that case, the glass was not used, these collaborations and the shift of the artworld in the 1980s led me to explore further opportunities in working with architects and in the burgeoning world of public art.
Sky Reflector-Net, Fulton Center, New York, NY, 2014
The Sky Reflector-Net is an almost cinematic device that at an urban scale, transposes qualities of nature within the Fulton Center, a transit hub designed by Grimshaw Architects and Arup. Our project here was to develop a primary device that would bring an image of the sky and daylight down into the below ground environment, but this idea was initially founded on how each of the newly linked group of subway lines’ entries might become devices inserting daylight as a wayfinding principle throughout. Our project frames this skylight overhead in an eccentric toroidal cable-net clad with an optical aluminum developed in collaboration with the aluminum manufacturer. The aluminum has a texture which reflects specific levels of color, image and light while the form expands the limited aperture of the skylight. Without the form, your view of the sky would be defined by the skylight aperture and its distance from your eye. The oblique angles of the form’s curvature expand the reflected views of the sky. The typically constrained views of the sky between the tall buildings of Lower Manhattan is folded into the transit and expanded to reveal clouds and sky color over the course of the day.
7 World Trade Center Envelope, New York, NY, 2007
Seven World Trade Center was the third building to collapse on September 11, 2001. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the new building is comprised of 42 floors of office space that begin 125’ above grade due to the Con Edison transformers occupying large concrete vaults at street level. JCDA, was engaged by Silverstein Properties to collaborate closely with Skidmore Owings and Merrill on the design of the exterior envelope, with a particular focus on the transformer vault cladding at the tower’s base which would now be at street level and fronting a new civic space.
For the 80-foot-high podium wall, JCDA worked with an industrial filtration manufacturer, using their technology to create a cladding system comprised of two layers of stainless steel screen with a 7-inch internal cavity meeting the Con Edison airflow and blast requirements for the electrical transformers. The stainless-steel screen panels are made of triangular prismatic wires orientated vertically and welded in a specified pattern and angle rotation. During the day the outer layer of triangular wire reflects light according to the wires’ orientation. At night, LED lighting between the layers of screen is programmed to both respond to passing pedestrians and to mark the transition of dawn and dusk. Day and night the optimized porosity of the wall accentuates a luminous sense of depth. For the curtain wall, JCDA collaborated with SOM to create a unique ‘linear lap’ glazing detail in which the vision glass overlaps with and floats in front of a fire-rated spandrel clad with a pressed specular texture stainless steel spandrel panel.
The sculpted depth of the spandrel panel and floating vision panel creates a volumetric sense of light and a multitude of readings within the building’s façade. The sill of the spandrel consists of a blue stainless steel reflector which bounces ambient blue light from the sky up onto the curved reflector. This continually shifting ephemeral color merging with the sky is captured in the façade and enhances urban dwellers’ experiential perception of light. The tower is highly responsive and dynamic, both within the skyline and in immediate proximity, articulating the presence of the sky within this key civic environment.
Museum at the Gateway Arch West Entry, St. Louis, MO, 2018
The substantial expansion and renovation to the Museum at the Gateway Arch’s existing structure advances the Museum’s integration into the National Park and the surrounding urban environment, resulting in an intuitive visitor experience from the Park, the Courthouse, and from downtown St. Louis. As part of the Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ team, and working with Cooper Robertson, JCDA added 45,000 square feet of new exhibition space, and established accessible visitor circulation throughout. More than 100,000 square feet of existing exhibition space was reconfigured by harnessing the site’s natural light, in turn creating a greater connection to Eero Saarinen’s iconic Gateway Arch. As visitors traverse the new landscape bridge over I-44 and approach the Museum, two paths graciously converge and lightly descend to the entry. The additional length allows the paths to be completely accessible, and the gradual slope in turn creates a gentle descent and transition from the landscape to the museum entry, resulting in a seamless pedestrian experience.
Within the Entry Plaza, strategic landscaping merges views into and out of the Museum with landscaping in the larger environment, connecting the Park and the Museum. The new West Entry Plaza of the Museum embraces the visitor in an arc of sky and the surrounding landscape, reflected by the diffused scrim of stainless-steel screen walls. The tilt of this reflection references the Arch itself, intuitively leading visitors from the Plaza exterior into the Museum’s glassed-in entry volumes, mediating the transition into the below-ground Museum Arrivals Hall with diffused reflective walls that appear to be carved out of the ground itself and creating a sense of discovery for arriving visitors. As visitors enter, the luminous ceiling leads the eye down to the point of transition into the Saarinen-designed Hall, by following exactly the slope of the landscape. With sensitive planning, innovative materiality, and refined details, every aspect of the Museum’s expansion is now animated by a meaningful vocabulary of light, creating a new space of public engagement previously denied from the local downtown communities, now welcoming all visitors to the site.
This article was originally published in IGS Magazine’s Summer 2021 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
James Carpenter has worked at the intersection of architecture, fine art, and engineering for nearly 50 years, advancing a distinctive vision based on the use of natural light as the foundational element of the built environment. Originally studying architecture before concentrating on the fine arts, Carpenter founded the cross-disciplinary design firm James Carpenter Design Associates in 1979 to support the application of these aesthetic principles to large-scale architectural projects. Carpenter’s work is driven by a deep awareness of materiality and craft as a means of enhancing the individual human experience within the built environment.
At the intersection of art, engineering and the built environment the firm is recognized for its luminescent artistic sensibility, leveraging the optical properties of materials to deploy the performative aspects of natural light in the public realm. This approach is evident across its practice, including such major cultural projects as the Israel Museum’s expansion and campus renewal project in Jerusalem (2005-2011) and the recently opened expansion of the Museum at the Gateway Arch (2010-2018). Major private projects, including the NYC Nordstrom Flagship façade and public spaces (2014-2019) create a layered, dynamic experience of the built environment through the spatial articulation of glass and light.
The firm is also noted for its activations of public spaces, including recently completed designs for New York’s Fulton Street Center, the monumental “Sky Reflector-Net” (2004-2014), and the exterior envelope and lobby of Seven World Trade Center Tower (2001-2006) in New York. Projects such as the University of Chicago’s Midway Crossing (2009-2014), which included landscape and infrastructure linking the college’s north and south campuses, and the Ion (2018-2021), defining the envelope and interior spatial experience for Rice University’s repurposed innovation hub, speak to JCDA’s ability to reintegrate and reanimate the built environment within the urban context.
Carpenter has been recognized with numerous national and international awards, including an Academy Award in Architecture from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the Smithsonian National Environment Design Award and The Daylight Award from the Villum and Velux Foundations. He holds a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, and was a Loeb Fellow of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and a Mellon Teaching Fellow at the University of Chicago.