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There are a lot of things you can say about lower Manhattan: It's the capital of global finance, the cradle of New York City, or the site of the September 11th terrorist attacks. But James Carpenter prefers to talk about the quality of its light. "That's the thing about downtown," he explained recently, sitting at a conference table in his sunny Tribeca studio. "The light down here is amazing, because there's all this atmospheric moisture."
It's an unusual and quiet observation, characteristic of a man who's made a career out of making visible the invisible. He is an artist who shares an office with engineers, an architect who works like a sculptor, and a glass craftsman who often uses steel. When the MacArthur Foundation awarded him one of their "genius" grants in 2004, it termed him a "glass technologist." He may be hard to pin down -- even his collaborators never seem sure of how to describe his role -- but this spring, Carpenter's work is defining the character of two of the most anticipated new office buildings opening in Manhattan.
COLLABORATIVE CREATION. At 7 World Trade Center, the first tower to rise again at Ground Zero, Carpenter collaborated with its architect, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, on the façade and lobby, including a work by the text artist Jenny Holzer. And at the Hearst Building in Midtown, designed by Norman Foster, Carpenter devised a system of cast-glass prisms to make the three-story high fountain in the lobby glitter with reflected natural light.
In these commercial projects and in others in museums, courthouses, airports, sports facilities, and private homes, Carpenter brings an inherently collaborative approach to design, helping architects capture and refract light in order to enhance the sensory experience of a building. In an age when architectural trends are increasingly dictated by image -- by things that show up well in photographs -- Carpenter's work emphasizes sensory experience.
"Our eye tends to edit information, so we see what we chose to see, and dismiss all the so-called 'random' information," Carpenter says. "[My work] takes what you might not otherwise pay attention to, and then gives it back in a way that you do pay attention."
CHALLENGES AND COMPROMISES. Often that information might be something as modest as the particular color of the sky or the sweep of the sun over the course of the day. But in the context of an office building lobby, museum, or even a courthouse, it becomes a metaphor for approaching problems in new ways.
Seven World Trade Center had no shortage of those. In addition to the political hypersensitivity of rebuilding a wholly commercial office tower at Ground Zero, the base of the structure needed to contain enormous electrical transformers, replacing machinery destroyed in the attacks. But a six-story-tall bunker does not make the best neighbor, particularly when it abuts the planned site of the September 11th memorial; nor does it meld gracefully with the 40-story glass tower above.
The architects at SOM had collaborated with Carpenter before -- including on the dramatic glass façade at the entrance to the Time Warner building at Columbus Circle in New York, and on light reflectors in the roof of the international departures hall at San Francisco International Airport -- and invited him to develop an artistic solution for the building's base.
The pressure to make the building architecturally compelling was heightened by the ongoing battle over Freedom Tower. As SOM architect David Childs repeatedly reminded Larry Silverstein, the building's developer, 7 World Trade Center was Silverstein's "tryout" -- a demonstration that the developer and his architects, known for their corporate competence, could also dazzle.
A GLOW WITHIN. With SOM, Carpenter developed two layers of stainless steel louvers that allow adequate ventilation for the electrical transformers while shielding them from view. During the day, their prismatic surfaces capture light from different vantage points, bringing light from down the street to pedestrians' eyes.
At night, the illusion is reversed, and the bunker seems to glow from within. A programmable LED lighting system, not yet completed, will actively respond to passersby, representing their movements with 80-foot bars of colored light.
"For me, James has become much more than an artist doing a piece," says Childs, who is also the lead architect of the current design for Freedom Tower. "He's the kind of guy who when you hire him to do an artistic piece like that wall system, you do it together, but then he's hanging around the office, so you ask his opinion on everything."
Carpenter has cultivated his expertise -- in materials, glass engineering, and the poetics of light -- over 30 years. As a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, he switched from the architecture program to sculpture in order to work more with glass. He later conducted materials research with Corning (GLW) and worked as a fine artist, creating video installations.
SCROLLING TEXT. But Carpenter steadily gravitated back towards architecture. For him, it is a means of engaging with a broader audience -- particularly away from what he terms the "pre-conditioned" environment of an art gallery. "Artists coming out of the art world generate a product that may find its place in architecture somehow, but it's not necessarily changing or adapting to the architecture," Carpenter says. "Hopefully the component of the building we're working on is activating or animating one's experience."
At 7 World Trade Center, the architects looked to light as the overall organizing principle of the building. Carpenter and SOM conceived of a "locking block" -- a cube of light that appears submerged within the building, visually joining the podium and tower of the building. He collaborated with the artist Jenny Holzer to design a translucent LED signage wall in the lobby, upon which texts she selected about New York will scroll. And for the glass façade of the building itself, Carpenter suggested inserting a blue stainless steel reflector between each floor to bounce sky light up onto the windows.
The effect is that the façade emanates light -- sometimes blending seamlessly into a blue sky, at other times perhaps reflecting a dark patch of clouds. "The desire was to move away from the monolithic character of the building and introduce a component of activation and depth to its surface," Carpenter explains.
SHINING LIGHT. In his work at the Hearst building, the sense of depth was more literal. Working with fountain expert Jim Garland -- who previously worked on the Bellagio's theatrical water show in Las Vegas -- Carpenter designed the sloping river that dominates the lobby.
The water feature -- which Brian Schwagerl, director of real estate and facilities planning at Hearst Corp., terms the "largest sustainable artwork in the world" -- is designed to draw moisture from the air, helping to cool the lobby and reducing energy costs. Carpenter designed cast glass planks, shaped like corrugated speed bumps, to slow the water's descent. Their prismatic shape refracts light, while a reflective base directs it out towards the street.
Even though the planks are less than a foot thick, the combination creates the illusion of depth. And by reflecting the sky brightness indoors, it allows pedestrians on the street to see clearly into the building, inviting the sense that Foster's diamond-patterned tower is floating on water.
As of late March, workers are just completing installation of the planks, and the water has yet to be turned on, so the final illusion exists only in the mind of the artist...or architect...or glass technologist. He says it will be "mesmerizing" -- but the rest of us will have to wait until summer for Carpenter to make the invisible visible.