Page C1.2 . 10 April 2002                     
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    Multiplying Light


    It was the 18th-century innovation of adding lead to glass to make crystal that gave us the resplendent multiplication of light that we now commonly think of as the chandelier. While there have been many variations since, equipped with every imaginable kind of light and all manner of glass, there have been few radical expansions or reinterpretations of the form since.

    Architects' Approach to Glass

    Now, chandeliers produced by some of Portland's most inventive architects prove the form has no end of fertile terrain to be explored and cultivated. Indeed, the Chandelier Project suggests that, as with most genres today, it is a form awaiting reinterpretation if not reinvention. The project also offered a glimpse at the diverse creativity behind the often-regularized facades of the conservative historicism dominating so much of the architecture being built in Portland.

    My selection of architects reflects a bias for Modernist approaches (hopefully philosophical rather than stylistic). True to form, most of the chosen architects initially took a reductivist approach, attempting to distill the fundamentals of the type to essences.

    The glass medium's mutability and sheer numbers, colors, textures, and forms that the Bullseye Glass Company produces left some of the participants seeking refuge in the certainty of geometry and neutral purity.

    But the relentless seductiveness of glass also resulted in projects that dressed up Modernism's often stern proclivities in elegant drag. The beauty of the final projects is frequently in the tension between the will to purity and the yielding to pleasure.

    For most of the architects, the Chandelier Project became an opportunity to let the creativity flow within limits that, for a change, were established by themselves rather than clients. For Bullseye Glass, whose technicians have worked with all manner of artists at all levels of experience with glass, the project offered a lesson in the differences between architects and artists.

    "They stuck with the idea without ever second-guessing themselves," technician Mel George said. "Artists are always reassessing their initial concept. The architects knew what they wanted and kept pushing and pushing. We would tell them we would never try to slump glass in a certain way. But they wouldn't take no for an answer."

    Though numerous delays and missed deadlines resulted in the final project taking over two years to complete, the results suggest we only scratched the surface of a true investigation of the chandelier form. But as interesting as the variety of approaches is the similarity of inspirations.

    Playing with Light

    Economics frequently forces architects to acquiesce to all manner of tectonic camouflage, but nearly all harbor a religious belief in the Modernist dictum first uttered by Russian Constructivist Vladimir Tatlin: "Truth to materials."

    So too with the medium of light. As Northwesterners, our nuanced and often simply dim relationship with the sun has engendered great sensitivity to the nuances of filtered and reflected light.

    Interestingly, compelled to develop, if you will, an architecture of illumination, the designers had one consistency: directly or indirectly, each chandelier became a metaphor for natural light, from an exploding star captured by the Hubble telescope to an imploding abstraction of a cube of cloud.

    Ironically, none chose to make a chandelier solely activated by natural light. Though one suspects that if the project had commenced in the current climate of rising energy prices, that idea would have been a theme if not a demand.

    Similarly, the neo-Gilded Age historic moment of these chandeliers' conception two years ago seems a distant memory to the post-September 11 era of their birth. But we believe their light burns as brightly with optimism as innovation.

    Given carte blanche, architects have a primordial drive toward freedom. But perhaps the towering hubris of The Fountainhead has already begun to find a new, more culturally embracing form in the curves of Bilbao and the transparent dome of governance in the re-imagined Reichstag.

    Randy Gragg has written on art and architecture for the last 20 years for a wide range of publications. He currently writes on architecture and urbanism for The Oregonian in Portland.

    The essay was originally published in a catalog by Bullseye Glass Company on the occasion of the exhibition "Multiplied Light" mounted at the Bullseye Connection Gallery December 6, 2001 to January 12, 2002.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...


    ArchWeek Image

    Thomas Hacker designed his chandelier to explore internal light transmission of structure. Inspired by the refraction of light through ice crystals, it is made of tack-fused, laminated glass.
    Photo: Paul Foster

    ArchWeek Image

    Architects Greg Baldwin and Dale Alberda of the ZGF Partnership designed a lighting fixture of fused, slumped, and blown glass to be manufactured for a bus and train station in Everett, Washington.
    Photo: Paul Foster

    ArchWeek Image

    The ZGF design features a central, blown-glass center, bead-blasted inside and rubbed outside for an opalescence.
    David Image: ZGF Partnership

    ArchWeek Image

    A design team from BOORA led by Stan Boles created the project's most physically ambitious and thematically bombastic chandelier, inspired by an image of an exploding star.
    Photo: Paul Foster

    ArchWeek Image

    Glass colored with praesodymium, a natural dichroic that changes from dark red to light green gives BOORA's piece the organic, mutating, bulbous quality of the exploding star.
    Image: BOORA

    ArchWeek Image

    Junior designers of Holst Architecture Kim Wilson, Kelly Hutzell, Heather Flood, and Ginelle Hustrulid developed a sharply folded forms with one side slumped over sand and the other kept smooth.
    Photo: Paul Foster

    ArchWeek Image

    Richard Potestio began with 2-millimeter thread-like clear glass rods, which he tossed by the handfuls into the kiln. Then he slumped the crystalline fabric into spiraling half cylinders.
    Photo: Paul Foster

    ArchWeek Image

    James Harrison, formerly of the RIGGA Art Architecture Design Studio, wanted to deflate the chandelier's status as luxury by creating "something stinky, gooey, and old-looking, a wad of rotten glass to put on a pike."
    Photo: Paul Foster


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