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Artists and architects

Continuing Education | May 1, 2008 | By:

Launching a working relationship.

Recently, I was one of 63 artists invited to submit credentials to design the portico for the Pines Dining Hall at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. The Blue Ridge Mountains are a backdrop for the school and I imagined the undulating sculptural form of a tensile fabric canopy playing off the surrounding landscape, so I asked Elizabeth and William Murrell of Fabric Structures Inc. to join me. We were selected as one of three finalist teams to prepare a more detailed proposal. The project’s committee—composed of director Jean McLaughlin, artists, and staff, as well as architect Abie Harris and landscape architect Sam Reynolds, who are planners for the campus—sought teams composed of artists and designers to offer innovative approaches and articulate this outdoor public space.

Through the end of the 19th century, artists and architects routinely worked together. Representational and narrative public art, including statues and ornamentation, were an important part of American architecture. Monuments and memorials from this period define our civic landscape and remind us of our history. During the Depression of the 1930s, artists were employed through the Works Progress Administration to create murals and sculpture for federal buildings, and through the auspices of the Farm Security Administration, photographers documented the changing economic and social landscape.

The mid-20th century Modernist Movement stripped buildings of ornament and the creation of art became a studio activity with artwork presented in galleries and museums. But in the late 1960s, contemporary art began to move from these venues into outdoor public places. Sculptures sited in plazas like The Chicago Picasso (1967) and La Grande Vitesse (1969) by Alexander Calder in Grand Rapids, Mich., became icons for those cities. Subsequently, many cities and states legislated “percent for art” programs funding public art and today there are over 350 programs nationwide. Private corporations and institutions also have collections of public sculpture and often commission unique work for their buildings and grounds.

Over the past 30 years, the practice of public art has evolved from citing existing sculptures or integrating artwork into the construction of a building or outdoor space, to having artists on design teams, sometimes even leading the teams that impact the form, function and character of public and private places. Now, many neighborhood, municipal and state building and infrastructure projects, particularly master planning phase projects, call for design teams that include artists. Community members and local arts organizations frequently advocate that artwork be part of these projects because they understand public art’s potential not only to visualize and reflect the community’s history, but to be thoughtful and stimulating and portray its aspirations for the future. While artists and architects are often asked to work together by communities and matched up by public art programs, many are choosing to work with each other through alliances formed on the basis of shared interests.

Two approaches presently shape public art practice and the working relationship between artists and architects: the Overall approach and Integrated elements.

Overall approach

Artists are part of the design team and collaborate with architects, landscape architects and/or engineers, the local community and others, to impact the layout and design of the entire project or substantial parts of it. An artist may be a member of or lead the design team; or may head up a group of artists with varying perspectives and skills in specific media who will work with each other and with the design professionals.

In this scenario, artists are the peers of design professionals, adding their unique viewpoint to the project. Artists with advanced credentials and substantial experience in public art may work on early conceptual design continuing through the construction process. Occasionally, artists also design and produce unique integrated elements. Alternately, rather than create the artwork themselves, artists may produce construction documents for the artwork to be fabricated by other individuals, or as part of the building or the site’s overall construction.

Artist James Carpenter, of James Carpenter Design Associates in New York City, always thinks structurally when he designs something; he says that all of his interests converge on tensile structure engineering. Carpenter and his studio’s primary focus is the exploration of the natural phenomena of light in transmission, reflection and refraction, and the influence of light on architecture and one’s experience of place. An innovative and award winning designer and a MacArthur Fellow in 2004, most of Carpenter’s work has incorporated glass, but several recent works use industrial textiles.

Fabric tensile structures often take on forms defined by mathematical forces and need massive foundations and structural members to anchor and support their lightweight forms. Solving this contradiction drives Carpenter’s and senior designer Richard Kress’s recent design to cover a soccer field in Brooklyn Bridge Park. For the past 15 years, Carpenter has worked with Schlaich Bergermann + Partners, civil and structural engineers based in Stuttgart, Germany, while executing his ideas for tensile structures. Together, they have designed a membrane of ETFE pillows in a series of 60 parallel inflated ribs each 45.7m long by 4m wide to cover the width of the field. Looking down on the site from Brooklyn Heights in the evening, the roof will glow and appear to emulate the waves in the harbor.

Carpenter used fabric as a projection surface to amplify and redirect light in Luminous Threshold 1998–2000 created for the Olympics in Sydney, Australia. He designed a series of five 23m-high light masts that emit mist and heliostats or fabric shapes measuring from 0.9–1.2m in diameter up to 4.6m square. The heliostats act like motorized mirrors, projecting light back through the mist. In the humid atmosphere of Sydney, the water droplets act like a lens and magnify the light, creating a delightful experience.

Another work utilizing tensile fabric is Sculptural Light Reflectors 1994–2000 suspended in the central bay of the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport. Sculptural lenticular forms gather and reflect natural light, controlling both the level of illumination in the space and the temperature at the skylight level. The work was produced with Skidmore, Owings, Merrill LLC with whom Carpenter has collaborated for over 25 years.

Carpenter says that the best working relationships happen when he and his studio are part of the development of the concept; he wants to be more comprehensively involved and affect the overall definition of the project. This kind of working relationship can only be built over many years and multiple projects. It is too difficult to work together on a single project according to Carpenter; it takes time to discover shared fields of interest and develop an affinity for each other’s work and process in order to share a broader agenda.

Integrated elements

Artists are commissioned to create specific elements within the overall design such as fencing/railings, banners, flags, signage, awnings, pavement insets, freestanding sculpture, benches and other seating and/or lighting. They work with an arts administrator or project manager who coordinates their contributions. Ideally, artists are involved during conceptual design so their medium can be technically integrated with the overall design, but they may also join the team later during design development as subconsultants or subcontractors to design and produce specific elements.

Tensile architecture projects present opportunities for artists to design the component parts of the site and the structure. Special paving designs or insets and ornamental railings could become part of an ensemble with the tensile structure. Seatwalls, benches and planters detailed by artists could double as footings for masts and anchor points for tie-downs. Beams or other support members could become sculptural forms that interact with the organic shape of the tensile structure.

Minneapolis artist Andrew Leicester designs entire settings including integrated elements. Through meticulous research into the history, and the material and social culture of a place, he develops artwork that has a unique relevance to its location. His recent design for a downtown light rail transit station features an arcade covered with patterned brick that refers to textiles from the many cultural groups who have settled in Minnesota including recent immigrants. Leicester has also designed patterning for terracotta paving.

While in some cases artists may function like other project subconsultants or subcontractors, the commission of a work of art is not typically a “work for hire” arrangement. Artwork is legally different from the other physical portions of a building or site because it is a unique intellectual property created by an artist and is subject to copyright. Artists have rights and protections for their work granted under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA). This law covers works in traditional media such as painting, sculpture and drawing and artwork editions in printmaking and photography under 200 copies. Through VARA, artists may claim damages for a) any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of the artist’s work that would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation; and b) any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of a work of recognized stature. An artist develops his or her reputation and career through the works of art themselves, so that any compromise to the work, or public perception of it, directly impacts the artist’s future livelihood. While VARA does not cover works of art incorporated into the structure of a building and that cannot be removed without being destroyed, it does grant artists 90 days to remove the work or to pay for its removal.

What was I looking for when I sought a tensile fabric architect? Technical competence was critical, but like James Carpenter I was also seeking a designer open to a particular type of working relationship. I needed a collaborator who was flexible and exhibited creativity not only in problem solving, but who could think outside the box and synthesize and translate ideas. It is my impression that most architects are brought into a project after the site has been laid out and they must fit the tensile structure into an already dimensioned space with a specific set of conditions and constraints. The Penland project challenged us to set out together to develop our ideas.

First, it was important that the tensile structure architect engage with me in considering the space from a social perspective, imagining the kinds of new uses and relationships its design might accommodate and facilitate. I had taught at the school and was familiar with the campus and its intensely creative atmosphere, so I had some ideas about how artists might need or want to use the space.

When I talked with Bruce Wright, editor of Fabric Architecture magazine about my ideas, he suggested that Elizabeth and William Murrell might be a good match for my project. I had seen their work for the Chancery of Finland in this magazine and found it particularly beautiful and I felt the canvas and wood beam structure of Elizabeth’s Pine Island Boathouse had a character that would complement the Pines Dining Hall’s architecture.

While personal referrals and networking remain the primary way that most architects and artists connect, there are many resources to help you find artists for your projects. Private galleries and state and local arts organizations that sponsor public art programs often maintain slide registries that are open to the public by appointment, and it is worthwhile to spend an hour or two examining the slides, résumés and artist’s statements on file to identify potential artists.

Arts organizations that administer ongoing public art programs are always seeking volunteers to serve on selection committees. Architects can learn more about the nationwide pool of artists and gain experience evaluating artwork by participating on committees. Some public art programs also develop lists of pre-qualified artists for their projects that you can reference.

Artists who work in craft media may be contacted through their professional networking groups such as the Artist Blacksmith Association; Glass Arts Society; the Furniture Society of America; and the Surface Design Association which all have Web sites featuring commissioned artwork by their members. The nation’s craft schools like Pilchuck Glass School, Seattle; Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, R. I.; the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Southwest School of Art and Craft, San Antonio, Texas; and Rochester Institute of Technology College of Imaging and Sciences, Rochester, N.Y., among others, are also willing to refer artists. Artists also should be invited to be speakers and present their work at conferences and professional trade shows where fabric architects network.

What should you consider when examining an artist’s work and interviewing them for a project? An artist’s past work reveals the quality of their ideas. The work should show a consistent forward progress and evolution over time. While an artist may work in a variety of media to express their ideas, there should be a connecting conceptual thread between the works. If the style and subject matter jump around, you may viably question the artist’s real interests and the type of work they might produce for your project. Consistency of vision is more important than versatility.

Bear in mind that artists whose work is shown in museums and galleries may not have worked outside a studio setting. Look at their résumé for evidence of commissioned work or installations by the artist at museums, or in sculpture gardens or parks. If the artist’s résumé identifies work installed in public places, go see it. Observe its setting and how well it responds and relates to its context. Inquire whether and how the artist influenced the work’s siting, and/or the design of the context. Carefully examine the work’s construction techniques and determine how well it has weathered environmental conditions.

When interviewing the artist, ask about their experience with urban design issues and orchestrating public space to determine if they are interested in and capable of working on a project during conceptual or schematic design. Inquire about the artist’s working methods including whether they can read scaled blueprints and have drafted construction documents; or if they convey their ideas through scaled drawings, models and/or mock ups that must be translated to construction documents by others; or if they will prepare sketches or models and then produce the work themselves.

Ask artists for references, especially clients and other designers. Have a candid conversation with the references about the artist’s capabilities and working methods. Ask about the artist’s role; at what point did they join the project, and did they influence and improve the project. If their work was integrated with the construction project, was it delivered on time and ready for installation? The answers to these queries will enable you to shape the scope of work with the artist and begin your working relationship.

If representational and narrative work and architectural ornament was a hallmark of the integration of art and architecture in the 19th century, and large-scale abstract sculpture in public plazas was the emblem of 20th century art and Modernist architecture, then the public art of the late 20th and early 21st century may be identified by the innovative forms it takes because of the working relationships that it fosters across the professions. While an architect or engineer sees potential for generating new forms in a fabric tensile structure, artist James Carpenter perceives fabric as a projection surface for light that can activate space; combining these two inclinations will result in remarkable new work.

Regina M. Flanagan is an artist and writer from St. Paul, Minnesota and works as a landscape designer at HNTB Corp., Minneapolis. She formerly directed public art programs in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Her essay, “The Millennium Park Effect: A Tale of Two Cities” appears in The Practice of Public Art, published by Routledge.


Books, articles

ArtAbstracts, Bibliography of the History of Art

ARTbibliographies Modern

Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals

Web sites

Americans for the Arts /Public Art Planning Tools

Artist Blacksmith Association of America

Furniture Society of America

Glass Arts Society

Surface Design Association

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