By Mason Riddle
Not every sculptor receives a personal endorsement from the likes of I. M. Pei. But that was the case with Emanuel Milstein, architect-cum-sculptor, who worked as a young architect in Pei’s office in 1958–59. In a letter dated December 3, 1959, Pei addresses Milstein’s work with exposed concrete as the designer for an apartment house complex. “During these (design) studies he was very instrumental in the development of Fibreglas (sic) forms to obtain desirable plastic characteristics of the concrete structural elements,” Pei wrote. “In addition to Mr. Milstein’s ability to logically analyze and solve difficult technical problems, he is a conscientious and capable designer…our firm would readily find a position for him if he wishes to return.”
In 1958, Milstein developed, with Nick George of Plasti-Skill in Long Island City, a system of concrete formwork constructed from laminated fiberglass that could be used for large-scale, cast-in-place exposed concrete construction. These forms were “plastic” and allowed for almost any shape to be formed, including compound curves. A recognized expert in concrete technology, Milstein wrote in April 1963 in the publication Concrete Era, seemingly with sustainability on his mind, “On large architectural concrete jobs, the great number of re-uses possible with fiberglass forms can make it cost competitive with forming materials,” he stated. “On curved work with even few re-uses fiberglass can still be the most economical form material to use.”
Hooked on the creative possibilities and properties of concrete and fiberglass as an architect, Milstein traded in architecture to be a sculptor. His concrete sculpture is bold and abstract, often large in scale, and conveys a sense of place. His fiberglass pieces are fabricated from very thin, lightweight laminations of fiberglass and resin that are usually translucent, often suspended, and reflect light. “The sculpture receives and transmits light and color in unique ways,” Milstein wrote. “As with brush strokes of some water color paintings, each lamination of fiberglass is allowed to show and each fabrication mark and hole remains to become part of the overall texture and detail of the work.” Milstein also works effectively in metal and glass.
Milstein received his B.A. degree in architecture from Montana State University in 1951. He worked as a naval architect traveling widely before joining the I. M. Pei offices in New York City in 1958. His innovative work in concrete and fiberglass led to a Fulbright Travel Award and French government grant to study in France. In 1980 Milstein was one of the first artists commissioned under New Jersey’s Percent for Art program. He has completed dozens of commissions for religious buildings as well as commercial and residential structures. He is, perhaps, best known for his crosses, gates and menorahs, such as the ark doors for the Temple Har Shalom cast from fiberglass with a bronze finish and elements of glass, a project covered by the New York Times in November of 2000. “I am a sculptor and an architect, but finally an architect, even when I am doing sculpture,” he said in the late 1970s. “My belief is that form is function.” Milstein proves that a perceptive thinker can be both.