Defining The Void

The work of James Carpenter

Text and images by William Warmus

Note: This essay first appeared in Glass Quarterly

Winter 2005-2006 Issue Number 101


Image above: Detail of Seven World Trade Center (right) under construction

Few in the relatively insular studio glass community are familiar with the recent projects of James Carpenter, Dale Chihuly’s outstanding student and early collaborator. As Chihuly’s work in blown glass gained prominence among glass collectors and then found acceptance in the broader art world, Carpenter followed a different route, one that brought him out of the artist’s studio, beyond the homes of private collectors and the pedestals of museums, and into the realms of conceptual art and urban architecture. In choosing this difficult path, Carpenter confronted the thorny problem of projecting a refined and personalized taste into the at times brutal arena of large-scale commercial architecture.

Like Chihuly, Carpenter has roots in the traditions of minimalism and color field painting that took hold in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I have always viewed Chihuly as a leading figure in color field sculpture, and Carpenter has likewise used glass to create an atmosphere of colors and changing forms. The transparent Rondel Door (1973) that Chihuly and Carpenter created in collaboration framed four glass disks of saturated spiral color. This, and later projects, including Chihuly’s “Macchia” series and Carpenter’s work with prisms and dichroic glass, extended the goals put forth by abstract artists like Jules Olitski, who spoke of a desire to spray color into the air and coax it into staying in place.

Although Carpenter, who is president of James Carpenter Design Associates, lives and works in New York City, he is less frenetic than Chihuly, casual in conversation but also probing. He has the intense presence of a seasoned detective, with just a touch of swagger. Carpenter studied with Chihuly at the Rhode Island School of Design where he received his BFA in sculpture in 1972. He was a consultant to Corning Glass Works (now Corning Inc.) from 1972 to 1982, and it was at Corning that Carpenter developed an intense interest in advanced materials, especially interference coatings and photosensitive glasses. This interest led to the development of the innovative materials used in his projects, and during 1980s and 1990s these projects grew to urban scale. In 2002–2005 he designed the façade for the 52-story Seven World Trade Center, in collaboration with Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill. His client is developer Larry Silverstein, who is also a glass collector. One could say that Seven World Trade is the largest glass sculpture in Silverstein’s collection.

Image above: Seven World Trade Center (construction detail)

Light Pure and Refined

In the 1970s Carpenter began to show at John Gibson Gallery in SoHo alongside artists Vito Acconci and Dennis Oppenheim. An article he wrote for New Work (the precursor to GLASS Quarterly) in 1980 titled “Narrative Projection: Stained Glass as Cinema” alluded to his conceptual interests in glass and light. Carpenter observed that “light needs a target” so that its presence may be revealed, and he began to investigate light as a force that animates, activates, and transforms surfaces and creates atmospheres.

Breakthroughs in the decades that followed included the Structural Glass Prisms window created for the Christian Theological Seminary’s chapel in Indianapolis, Indiana, (Edward Larrabee Barnes architect, 1985–1987) and the Dichroic Light Field at Lincoln Square in New York City (1994–1995). In these large-scale projects, Carpenter emphasized the projective and reflective dimensions of glass, creating devices that bring the world of nature down to earth and into the eyes of the inhabitants of a sheltering chapel and the streets of a vibrant metropolis.

In Light Field, consisting of 216 dichroic glass fins that project from (and are perpendicular to) a plane of glass panels laminated to the building’s façade, Carpenter achieved a “diffused surface that reflects the light conditions in the sky: from leaden snow-clouds to the brilliant blue of New York’s brightest days.” In discussing the piece, he speaks of “constantly changing fields of color” because the dichroic fins are green-indigo when seen from the north, and gold-green-magenta when viewed from the south. The Structural Glass Prisms window in the chapel is intended to vividly connect the interior with events occurring in nature beyond the chapel walls. In the process, it also sharpens the separation between secular and religious environments. Dramatically, the prisms rake light and color over and against a large and simple cross that stands against the wall, which is directly behind the altar and clergy’s podium. Carpenter’s shifting fields of color can serve alternately to enhance the spoken words of the celebrants, or provide a pleasing route to meditation for listeners whose mind might be wandering.


Image above:  You are looking at Columbus Circle in Manhattan through the cable and glass wall that James Carpenter designed for the Time-Warner building's atrium. Jazz at Lincoln Center is directly above this space. Scroll down for the opposite view looking at the building from outside.


The pure light that registers inside the chapel or reflects from the glass of Lincoln Square can suggest calm or draw attention to an active atmosphere, but this refined light is distanced from its fiery source: the sun. In other projects Carpenter reminds us of a deep connection that is sometimes forgotten: that light comes from fire, which in our world of high technology seems to have become the least emphasized of the four classical elements. Open fire and flame imply excess of emotion, loss of control, or violence, as in acts of war or terror. So we seek to harness fire and make it suggestive of the coziness of home and hearth. Fire refined through the efforts of technology suggests coolness, calm, dependability. In fireworks and the Olympic torch, fire becomes symbolic of a grand occasion.

Several of Carpenter’s projects utilize heliostats to capture and focus the sun’s fire: a motorized mirror is computer-programmed to track the sun and focus its light onto a target. In Luminous Threshold, a sequence of five 23-meter-tall “misting masts” formed the entryway to the 2000 Olympic Games complex in Sydney, Australia. The masts were positioned on either side of a bridge and across a mangrove-lined stream. A heliostat, mounted atop a sixth mast, focused golden sunlight into the spray of mist emerging from the tops of the masts. At times, the masts appeared to be flaming and smoking, suggesting the Olympic flame but also connecting the Games to the cycles of the sun. The Olympics also offered Sydney an opportunity to reclaim an old industrial landscape and recycle it for public use. One of Carpenter’s goals was to draw attention to ecological systems, and the masts may also be viewed as cloud-making devices, creating their own weather system and heightening awareness of how natural and man-made processes recycle the elements.

In a second project, in collaboration with Davidson Norris, a law office in the Morgan, Lewis building in Washington, D.C. was drowning in darkness. Inner rooms looked out onto a 140-foot-deep, dark, and very narrow (8 feet wide) atrium. Windows faced a blank concrete wall. Carpenter mounted a heliostat on the roof and constructed a 120-foot-tall glass tube sculpture that plumbed the depths of the courtyard. On sunny days, intense light is focused down into this sun snorkel, splashing the walls with light and concentrating the sun into a lobby that had been suffocated by gloom. The Solar Light Pipe is a reminder of the sun’s power, but also a dreamy focal point for lawyers (and their clients) who choose to gaze beyond the windows.

Carpenter’s at times rarefied conceptual ideas succeed aesthetically because they are grounded in a deep respect for materials and engineering. His attention to detail is shown in descriptions of the component parts of projects. At Seven World Trade Center he specified, for the podium base, “cold-formed triangular prismatic wires…welded in a specified pattern” and “glass bead blasted to diffuse and scatter light….the two wire sizes produce complementary light-reflecting properties and reduce the moiré effect.” He created an original “ship-lap” design for the windows of Seven WTC that extends the glass window on each story of the building over the concrete edge of the floor, but leaves a gap between the windows of all the floors. This gap suggests a recessed belt around the waist of the building on each floor, adding texture to the skyscraper but also freeing the glass, ever so slightly, from the building’s skeleton. Carpenter’s sensitivity to materials also led him to adopt a cable net wall system (in collaboration with Schlaich Bergermann) for suspending glass, that has produced some of his most handsome work.

Image above:  You are looking at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. The cable and glass wall that James Carpenter designed for the Time-Warner building's atrium, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, are directly behind the monument. The space between the two towers is precisely the width of 59th Street.

Defining the Void

Before the invention of window glass, the openings for air and light in ancient buildings were simply voids defined by the material that surrounded them, which, in the case of ceremonial buildings might be massive and richly textured stone. In medieval cathedrals, stained-glass windows filled the stone voids with mosaics of sparkling jewels, each small pane preciously “mounted” into leaded frames. It was as if a magic wand had passed over portions of the walls, enriching and dematerializing the stone.

In post-medieval architecture, glass has been valued not for its jewel-like form and rich color, but for its solid void: transparency that lets in light and a view, but mass that seals out the weather. In the 20th century, many attempts were made to build structures that used glass to define a building’s form. The majority of these were, in my opinion, failures: you can’t make forms with clear glass (in studio glass, artists like William Morris have long observed this rule). Clear glass resists: it is the void.

It is also a very weighty void. Glass is heavy like sheetrock and requires substantial support. But while sheetrock can be nailed or screwed into an underlying and invisible frame and then painted to cover the unsightly joints and nail- or screwheads, window glass requires a large exterior frame that is all too visible. In most modern building façades, joints of the glass window frames are poorly executed and the caulking that holds the glass is inevitably sloppy or wears poorly. Moreover, the frames serve little if any structural purpose: they are mostly cosmetic.

Carpenter has accepted the truth that glass in architecture is the void. He has created structures that are wave- or cloudlike, that evoke an atmosphere, that emit mist and condense haze. In several of his most ambitious voids, Carpenter has adopted a cable-net system for suspending, rather than framing, his glass walls. Strong like spider webs, the cables support panes of glass with minimally elegant attachment points, forming a net of glass. These cables suggest a refined and benign power in the tradition of the best American suspension bridges, transcending the weak and fussy stick-like frames that deaden so many glass façades. The cable net structure also makes the entire glass wall a membrane that implies motion, and therefore suggests life, even womblike security. Carpenter elaborates, “Given present-day bomb threats, the cable-net entry wall was developed as a bomb-resistant, energy-absorbing wall, meeting governmental standards. Using proprietary lamination technologies, the cable net is flexible in nature and is an energy absorbing system that allows the wall to deflect and dampen the effect of a blast.”

Carpenter’s most visible cable-net wall is also his most invisible creation. For the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in Manhattan (in collaboration with Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill) in 2001, he designed dual glass walls and a roof for the 150-foot-tall and 85-foot-wide atrium and, above that, the Jazz at Lincoln Center performance space. “The conceptual basis of the project was to reestablish the presence of 59th Street as a transparent void nested between the two towers,” Carpenter writes. “The atrium measures exactly equal to the width of 59th Street.” Above the atrium, one window wall of the jazz space is inclined to capture the headlights and tail lights of the street traffic, which at night appear to move silently and with subtlety up and down the window plane.

Some of the greatest works of art and nature have an aura of secrecy surrounding them. Encounters with these works jolt us with the thrill of exploration and discovery. Each time that I ascend the escalator from the lower level of the Time Warner building, usually enveloped in a throng of people, I look up at Carpenter’s glass cable-net wall, a perfectly transparent mosaic of water-clear glass. Am I in the presence of 59th Street, presented to me as a ghostly void? Is it simply one of the most remarkable products of our high technology culture? Whatever it represents, I know I am glimpsing a vision that few others see, because this gigantic looming spirit is indeed invisible to most of those who pass by and through it each day. But that can change in an instant if, as a pedestrian, you choose to go exploring with your neck and eyes. And then this great work of art, hiding in the light, will thrill you, too.

When Nobel Prize–winning poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “that which contributes to internal clarity and goodness requires no other test,” he could have been commenting on Carpenter’s architectural glass façades. Carpenter is admirable because in his work he moves toward the good and away from the bad, seeking to enrich the void that glass so often represents. Studio glass can claim him, because it was in his training at the furnace that he first learned to control and temper fire, and love materials for their own sake. Architecture now claims him as a magician of the void. And in 2004, the MacArthur Foundation claimed him as a fellow, recognizing his contributions to art and technology.



Image above:  A broader view of Columbus Circle in Manhattan in December, 2005. The cable and glass wall that James Carpenter designed for the Time-Warner building's atrium, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, are directly behind the monument.

William Warmus recently edited Sea Salt, the memoirs of pioneering ocean explorer Stan Waterman, and is at work on a book about the Stroemple collection of art and nature. In 2005, he received the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass award for his contribution to contemporary glass as a critic and curator.