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Designer James Carpenter puts Apple’s glass fetish to shame

Six questions for the esteemed designer who has had a 40-year love affair with glass.

Architectural designer and artist James Carpenter knows a thing or two about glass. For over four decades, Carpenter and his firm have sculpted, designed, and engineered a wide-ranging scale of built works–from high-rise facades, to public art installations, and even a street bridge–that apply the transparent material to perceptual and meditative effect, often highlighting the natural world in the process. At a time when glass has become an architectural cliche, Carpenter has continued to mine and explore it in novel ways.

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For his latest project, a newly expanded and renovated visitors’ center at the iconic St. Louis Gateway Arch–part of a massive $380 million public-private redevelopment effort, led by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and Cooper Robertson, in partnership with the Gateway Arch Park Foundation–Carpenter takes to glass yet again to create a symbolic site for the historic U.S. National Park grounds. Ahead of the Gateway’s reopening this July, we spoke with Carpenter to discuss the symbolism and branding of spaces, as he reflected on his decades-long practice devoted to the craft of making, designing, and building with glass.

Museum at the Gateway Arch [Photo: ©JCDA]

CoDesign: Glass has been your firm’s medium of choice for four decades–what inspires your longstanding fascination with the material?

James Carpenter: For me, working with glass has always been about working with light, and trying to engage people with qualities of light that surround us–in a way of either reflecting or refracting, so that glass itself becomes a way of translating information that’s carried by light, the landscape, and sky, and you have a more intimate connection with nature. Even in an urban environment, glass can be this vehicle to sort of unlock these different properties. But yes, we do an enormous amount of work with glass and glass structures. As you point out, glass has been a focus for literally 40 years or so in our firm’s work.

CD: As a material, glass lies at the intersection of so many different disciplines: architecture, materials science, engineering, sculpture–all of which play into your firm’s work. When did you first encounter it as medium?

JC: I started at RISD in architecture, and in my second year I was exposed to a very small glass program that was the heart of the sculpture department. I took a short course on glass and became very fascinated with it, and my interest in architecture gradually became more about making things or working directly with materials–in the machine shop, wood shop, and the foundry. Glass, as a material, captured by intellectual curiosity as much as anything.

Ice Falls [Photo: : ©Andreas Keller]
CD: Prior to starting your firm in 1979, you worked for several years at Corning Glassworks. How did the experience shape your approach to glass–and how do you think its uses have evolved over the years?

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JC: After RISD, I worked with Corning Glassworks for many, many years. There, I was exposed to the fact that we generally think of glass in a very, very limited way. We tend to associate it with windows, or vessels, or different art objects. But glass is a remarkably transformative material, in the sense that it can take on millions and millions of other roles or functions, technically or technologically, all around us: everything from fiber optics to chemically machinable glass, and all sorts of things that glass has the capacity to fulfill but which we don’t tend to acknowledge.

There are other ways you could work with glass, where the information isn’t necessarily “smart,” but actually enhances our sense of belonging within our living environments to enhance our sense of belonging to more of a collective, natural world, rather than a collective synthetic world–the potential of glass as a physical interface, rather than an artificial or virtual interface. Or you can superimpose moments of time within a building, and the quality of light in the building. You can use it, in a way, to double down on reality and make things in the world around us more apparent–because we’ve become very negligent, in terms of observing things in our environment.

CD: How have you decided to implement the material for the Gateway Arch project?

JC: In St. Louis, we used glass to create this arch that has a relationship with the arch itself, and then the image of the sky reflected in it. But we’re also working with stainless steel as a reflective material, and spatially dealing with the design of interior spaces and the architecture itself. It’s a very, very welcoming space, and I think people would be remarkably and hopefully excited for this quality of space when they enter into the building.

CD: The spec notes say you used glass manufactured by Seele–the same that’s famously used in Apple Stores. What are your thoughts on how they’ve used glass so heavily in their retail and spatial branding?

JC: I think it’s been very good, in that it’s made people much more aware of glass, certainly; and it’s obviously advanced a lot of attributes or manufacturing aspects of the glass industry. I don’t know if simply making glass larger and larger for the sake of doing that is an end in itself, or whether those same technologies can be applied in different ways or circumstances. On the one hand, it’s fantastic that they’ve built spaces with the same material that’s allowed products like the iPhone itself to exist–having it both, in its miniaturization, in your pocket, and simultaneously be the material that encloses you physically, I think, is very adept marketing and branding.

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In St. Louis, the Seele glass is used for its beauty, aesthetic and symbolic role, but because it’s a national park, it’s also doubling as a security system for the building entry and the visitors.

Museum at the Gateway Arch [Photo: ©JCDA]
CD: In a culturally fraught era of movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, what responsibilities and sensitivities do you feel come to bear on designing a public space–and who you collaborate with to create them? It seems that the personal myth of the architect is inextricable from the structure, in our public memory.

JC: In terms of our firm’s own work, we often try to respond to a broader, shared experience of a place–to create spaces and experiences that try to connect you with nature, and things that are a wider than our immediate urban environment. From our perspective, every project allows for the opportunity to generate its own program and a sensibility for us to tease out of that particular context or site.

Speaking for myself, I think people are actually looking for things that aren’t trying to be so individualistic today, or tied to one person’s name–to see things that reach beyond the idea of the star architect, beyond the individual character. That’s not to say that it’s not going to continue, because a lot of firms will continue to seek to identify themselves and their persona as a brand. But we’re clearly seeing, among young architects, a higher public conscious for the social as well as environmental implications of their work. There’s a much broader understanding of the impact and power that architecture can have–and its ability to become more of a vehicle for activism and collective identity rather than self-promotion.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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About the author

Aileen Kwun is a writer based in New York City.

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