If you know about contemporary design and building, you might be thinking that James Carpenter is the architect or sculptor (which is it?) who works inventively with glass and sometimes with metal. He’s our glass guy, right? Well, not exactly. He’s really our light guy. He practices a kind of fusion with stuff we can barely describe, let alone hold in our hands. I’ve come to see him as an observer, artist, architect, mechanic, environmentalist, phenomenologist, and dreamer.
What I’ve learned from working with Carpenter is that his medium is even more ephemeral than mine. In the landscape, we work with tangible matter: water and earth and plants that are always moving and alive; along with space, which is immaterial and indeterminate. Carpenter’s world is yet more abstract and fugitive because he works with matter in service of energy: light, heat, gravity. Everything he makes is meant to reverberate and refract the sensory information of the life that surrounds us.
If you’re lucky enough to get close, you can barely turn away. A few years ago, Carpenter showed me a digital re-creation of Migration, his 1975 film installation. The piece begins with six projected rectangles that depict salmon moving swiftly through shallow rushing water. Simple enough— though, in fact, the film’s timing is slightly altered with a kind of time-lapse effect by repeating each frame three times. In about 30 seconds, another set of projections appears, showing clouds reflecting off the glimmering surface of the stream, superimposed over running fish. A third set follows, recording shimmers on the stream’s gravelly bottom. It’s an exploded dissection of an activated space in time.
Perhaps you have experienced these transitory qualities in one of his many works, but all this is amplified in a visit to James Carpenter Design Associates’ studio in Manhattan. It’s a Candyland full of materials you’ve never even seen — pickled stainless steel, abraded and corrugated sheets of perforated bronze, toggling hardware and customized fasteners, glass with embedded metal reflectors or prisms, and, of course, full-size mock-ups and experiments in progress. You’re in a wizard shop of applied materials science. Every project invents something the world hasn’t seen before.
I’ve watched his calm demeanor and persuasive voice bring forward deeper curiosity among clients and collaborators — myself included. He routinely conceives and executes the work with other designers, engineers, scientists, researchers, testing labs, fabricators, and specialty contractors who transport and build with precision and care. The humanist in him draws out in others a greater desire to make people aware of where they are and what it can be like. About working with the medium of light to do this, he says: “So many things in this world today are accelerating beyond the speed of our physical body. Physiology is being superseded by technology. So we need to find ways of slowing things down and allowing people to see things. To see light, see movement, see them-selves, really see the world around them.”
I enjoyed this way of working with Carpenter on the Massachusetts Fallen Heroes Memorial, in South Boston’s Seaport Commons. The 50-foot-tall beacon, perfectly executed in bronzed stainless steel and animated with refracted light and wondrous nighttime luminosity, literally reflects the atmosphere and weather of the Seaport. And it asks us to consider the solemn sacrifice of the Commonwealth’s Gold Star families, who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tower, like the artist, defies the usual categories; it’s a refined alchemy of materiality, atmosphere, memory, and awareness of one’s place in the world.