The Illuminator

The Illuminator

James Carpenter Sky Reflector-Net

Sky Reflector-Net, Fulton Center, New York City, 2014; At this bustling transit complex, Carpenter brings the sky to commuters via a reflective cable-net structure. “We’re operating between architecture and engineering and fine art,” he says. Photo: © Patrick J. Cashin 

James Carpenter marries his expertise in glass with the talents of architects, engineers, and builders to create radiant structures.

When he’s not in his New York City studio or on a building site creating extraordinary manifestations of light, James Carpenter can often be found far to the north, in Labrador or British Columbia. He goes for the great fly fishing, but also finds in these untouched natural environments a deep well of inspiration.

“The qualities of light are stunning. There is an interface between being close to water and at high northerly latitudes. It’s something that impacts you and imprints itself,” Carpenter says of these remote spots. 

“One thing about fishing, of course,” he adds in the tone of one who loves the sport, “is that it is really about immersing yourself in a particular ecology and then understanding that ecology as deeply as possible.”

As a building designer and sculptor working primarily in glass for close to four decades, Carpenter has made a distinguished career of being exceptionally attuned to environments. What he does, masterfully, is integrate sculptural expressions of light into architecture. In ways unique to each context, his installations capture the magical effects of light in nature – radiance, reflection, refraction, shadow – as striking visual and visceral experiences. His artistry and innovation have earned him the highest accolades, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Architecture, the American Institute of Architects Honor Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (often called the “genius grant”). In June, the Glass Art Society will recognize his roots in that medium, honoring him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

“A collective sense of wonder and engagement with our shared world” – this, Carpenter says, is what his work aims to summon, by bringing a feeling of nature into man-made settings through the universal and elemental power of light. Monumental in scale and complexity, his high-profile projects take a variety of forms – wall, façade, ceiling, bridge, passageway, waterfall – on public and private sites ranging from skyscrapers to museums to parks. While glass is his main material, he also uses metal, fabric – anything that absorbs or reflects light. Underlying it all is a bold, transcendent vision. “We try to not define what it is we do,” he explains, speaking as principal of his eponymous firm. “We’re operating between architecture and engineering and fine art. What is bounded within that triangle is our field.”

Beyond their aesthetic dynamism, Carpenter’s artworks serve practical functions to enhance the experience of a space. Sky Reflector-Net, a massive sculptural dome of glass, lightweight cable-net, and optical aluminum, draws light down into New York’s Fulton Street Transit Center, while also helping to vent smoke in case of a subway fire. At Stanford University’s Frost Amphitheater, a retractable canopy of translucent fabric provides options for shade, shelter, cooling, and warmth. For the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the firm’s design of 95,000 square feet of new construction, including four all-glass pavilions, tempers the region’s high, harsh light, bringing it down to soft, cool levels for visitor comfort. At Hearst Tower in midtown Manhattan, the dramatic Ice Falls, a 30-foot cascade of glass blocks, is animated by a continuous water flow, bringing brightness, temperature control, and soothing white noise to a busy atrium.

For 7 World Trade Center, a 42-story structure built to replace the original destroyed on 9/11, Carpenter created an all-over glass-and-metal envelope (the interface between a building’s interior and the outdoor environment) that reflects constantly changing images of the sky – inviting us, in a poignant way, to contemplate the sublime when we look up at it from the street. “We get people calling us about that building all the time,” he says, “saying they have seen unusual phenomena happening on the surface.”

The intersection of art, nature, and built things is an idea that has intrigued Carpenter from an early age. Born in 1949, he grew up in New England, where he spent a great deal of time sailing and around water, boats, and boatbuilding. His godfather, an architecture enthusiast, lived in a house designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, and Carpenter remembers being taken with the imaginative flow of the layout: rooms opening into gardens, stepping down into intimate entry thresholds, opening up again to double-height rooms with expansive views to the outdoors. “It was very much a house that was containing nature and celebrating the nature around it.”

In high school, he pursued his creative interests in earnest, delving into pre-architecture studies, along with painting and drawing, in particular botanical illustration. Enrolling at Rhode Island School of Design in 1968, he focused on architecture at first, but soon took advantage of the school’s reputation for fostering creative opportunities across disciplines. He enjoyed its nature laboratory, and spent summers in South America collecting and studying botanical specimens. He experimented with photography and film, projecting images of natural phenomena onto transparent and translucent surfaces.

Eventually drawn to glassblowing, he studied under Dale Chihuly – the two would collaborate on pieces for several years in the 1970s – and honed his skills during his senior year working at the Venini factory in Murano, near Venice.

After graduating in 1972 with a BFA in sculpture, Carpenter became a consultant at Corning Glass Works, where he focused on the development of new materials, becoming particularly interested in photo-sensitive glass. During that time he also created light-based sculptures exhibited in galleries. Circling back to architecture, he started James Carpenter Design Associates in 1979.

“I realized I could bring the knowledge I had about glass to architectural opportunities and develop things that were quite unique within that world.”

Dealing with glass from various perspectives – art, craft, science, technology – has given him what he describes as “a deep understanding of what you can do with the material – not just as blown glass, but how it can be manufactured in many different ways. Much of my work today takes advantage of that, where for specific projects we create specific glasses or develop a process.”

At the JCDA studio in Tribeca, most of the 18 or so employees are architects, but there are also people with backgrounds in fine arts and art history. There is a small shop on-site where architectural models are built, along with full-scale sections in the intended materials – a piece of a curtain wall, say – so that clients can get a true sense of a proposed design. For actual construction, Carpenter relies on a trusted list of local fabricators – he’s used the same glass company for 35 years. Each project takes a minimum of two to four years from concept to realization and involves many creative partners, including architects (Carpenter has worked with such luminaries as Richard Meier and Norman Foster), mechanical and structural engineers, the site developer, the owner, and installation specialists. “Collaboration is a constant function of building things, complex things,” Carpenter says. “Within that, there needs to be a foundational, conceptual idea, a clear direction.”

One of his occasional collaborators is his wife, Toshiko Mori, an architect with her own successful practice, with whom he has teamed up on projects such as a glass ceiling for a large courtyard in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Married since 1980, they have a modern residence in New York that they designed together. Their second home, up in Maine, was built in 1794 – a charmingly counterintuitive fact, given that their architectural styles both look so contemporary, almost futuristic.

“Everybody finds that funny, that we live in a very, very old house,” Carpenter says.

After decades at the top of his field, he is as busy as ever taking on a variety of ambitious projects, from a museum expansion in Denmark to a mixed-use office and retail complex adjacent to Manhattan’s High Line. Asked if he has any new directions in mind, Carpenter considers for a moment, then reflects that every commission brings different opportunities for exploration.

“You never really know what the trajectory of the work is. You take on a project and try to make it into something exceptional. I always emphasize that even the smallest project can become something quite extraordinary.”

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.