From architecture to art and back

By Turan Duda, FAIA
Founding Principal Duda|Paine Architects

Any architectural project that uses stone material, and marble in particular, as at 601 Massachusetts Avenue (Washington DC), is first of all a “voyage of discovery”. Discovery of the specific materiality of each stone and of the strong combination of architecture and art that cannot - and must not - ever be forgotten.

I have been working with stone and utilizing it in my buildings for over forty years. For thirty-two of them, I have worked with Paolo Carli – before and after he began directing Henraux. During this time, I’ve experienced the evolution of my own thinking about stone in architecture and, with every visit to Italy, I’ve made new discoveries. I don’t use the word “discoveries” lightly. Each visit exponentially inspires further evolution in my creative outlook on making art and architecture.

The first, and perhaps most important, discovery is an understanding of the materiality of a particular stone. That understanding begins with a visit to the top of the great Mount Altissimo near Pietrasanta, Italy, and a venture into the quarry it holds. Here, every architect can gain awareness of the magnitude of human effort involved in extracting stone in bringing the material down from the mountain and in shaping their vision for that material into reality. We can also begin to comprehend its limitations, flaws and fundamental beauty. A small stone sample pondered over in the office is revealed in the totality of blocks and slabs. And this often leads to a complete reimagining of how the material will be used.

The second discovery comes from visiting Italy and experiencing first-hand 2000 years of stone in its architecture. The application of marble and granite into architecture throughout history – from antiquity until present time – provides us a lesson in itself. One truism passed down is that stone, shaped over time by each generation, speaks to us. If we listen closely, we see how their voices have changed. A block of marble in Ancient Roman architecture finds modern voice in the hands of a designer like Carlo Scarpa. Whether the transformation happens due to technology or artistic intention, the results are profoundly different.

A third revelation comes from the phenomenon of artists thinking like architects and architects thinking like artists. As the sculptor Isamu Noguchi once stated: «When the time came to work in larger spaces, I conceived them as gardens». With the expansive notion of gardens, the scale of Noguchi’s work grew vaster and often involved multiple pieces arranged in meaningful spatial associations. The same can be said for Mimmo Paladino and his installation at Piazza Santa Croce, “La Croce, 2012”. Paladino states: «Here I decided to create a place, not sculpture, using available features to which I could add new ones...». This notion of place making and improvising within a given context is a natural inclination to architects, who utilize existing, found and invented objects to create a modern adaptation of an established architectural space.

We architects, conversely, either conceive of our buildings as sculptural forms or try to push the limits of enclosure to a new dimension. Here, stone can play a transformational role. When a flat surface of marble is pushed, pulled and shaped to become three dimensional, it invites human interaction and takes on new meaning. The bas-relief created expands the boundaries of simple cladding – it becomes sculptural and emerges as art.
The final discovery comes from the pure experience of seeing art and architecture through the lens of time and movement. The concept is beautifully stated by Noguchi, «My view is that sculpture is the art which can only be appreciated in the raw, relative to man’s motion, to time’s passage, and to its constantly changing situation». This idea – that of movement into and through buildings – intrigues me most. When one enters a room through a framed opening and is then led to an artistic phenomenon meant to be viewed before progressing to the journey’s next episode, the experience becomes cinematic. These artistic moments are only possible when supplemented by an element of surprise. Either that phenomenon is revealed to us unexpectedly, or our conventional expectation of a particular material is altered in a wonderous way.

This idea is well-conveyed in our design for 601 Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC. Stone art serves as a landmark to orient and guide visitors entering and leaving the building’s voluminous lobby. The vertical white marble sculpture by Giovanni Balderi was essential to our conception of the space – it marks a powerful pivot point at the center of two axes aligned with deep elevator banks. The lobby’s three travertine-wrapped walls end unexpectedly, and the stone comes to life as a three dimensional undulating curtain. These moments are perceived as one moves through the lobby space and take on different meaning whether perceived from a distance or up close.

Ultimately it is the process of imagination and invention that makes the use of natural stone a tremendous medium for expression. Over the years I have seen Paolo Carli and Henraux pushing the limits of what stone can achieve through their legacy of knowledge about the material and investment in the latest robotic technology. Paolo produces the elements of architectural expression while residing squarely in the world of working with artists. His ability to push their, and the material’s, capabilities is testimony to the wonderful sense of experimentation in his stone yard. Every year he invites young artists to challenge him by creating conceptual works of art that further expand the possibilities of sculptural stone.
The influence on me has been profound. I am continually inspired to explore new expressions of stone in architecture. In Henraux’s exhibition for Marmomac in 2008, the playfulness of many new artists and the technology required to fulfill their ideas in part inspired a wave-wall of repeating elements. Ultimately, a simple wire sliced through the white marble of Mount Altissimo to yield a plane that warps and skews with life. Multiples of stone were arranged to create a ribboned pattern that presents unimaginable possibilities for the use of marble in architecture.

I now think of the experience of architecture as a performance with an adaptable script and numerous, layered moments of discovery. The performance’s cast includes light, material, scale and movement. If I think of stone as the play’s protagonist, I ask, what does it want to say? What is its personality? What human emotion can it evoke? To imagine an inert stone slab as having personality may be surprising, yet we all have a visceral response to the color, texture and patterning of stone. We recognize it has a history and, even better, shaped by human hands, stone gains a narrative that embodies artistic intention.

Marmo 10, pag 65

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