James Carpenter: Exploring Light

James Carpenter (photo ©Brian Gulick, , Courtesy of James Carpenter Design Associates)

James Carpenter (photo ©Brian Gulick)

James Carpenter studied architecture and sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 1972. He actively exhibited light-based art works, while working from 1972 through 1982 as a consultant at Corning Glass Works, developing new glass materials. These research projects were aimed at potential architectural applications. Since establishing James Carpenter Design Associates in 1978, Carpenter has been integrating a synthesis of light into building structures. The studio is a collaborative environment, encouraging an exchange of ideas between architects, material and structural engineers, environmental engineers, and fabricators.

Carpenter is the recipient of numerous awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Architecture Award, the American Institute of Architects Honor Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. During the 45th Annual GAS Conference in June, Carpenter will be presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Exceptional Achievement in the Field of Glass. We recently sat down to ask him a few questions.

How did training as a studio artist prepare you for such a diverse career? I didn’t start with the idea of being a studio artist. In fact, when I entered RISD it was the culmination of my plan to study architecture. The school’s industrial scale facilities shifted my interest toward working with materials, particularly glass. These explorations with glass eventually led me to a realization that I was following a fundamental interest in light. This interest was explored through film projections on glass, then film installations in galleries. By 1979, I had been consulting at Corning for several years developing new glass compositions for architectural applications. I was also exploring glass and its structural properties and had founded my design firm, James Carpenter Design Associates. The impulse was to extend what I had developed in the gallery into a more public and permanent space—in effect articulating an experience of light in the public realm.

Where did your interest in using glass to manipulate light originate? My interest in using glass to manipulate light essentially originated in the observation of nature. My interest in light was at the source of my desire to pursue architecture and to explore light in a systematic way that I had maybe only intuited before. Glass is very malleable and can be endlessly manipulated to simultaneously embody and reveal a multitude of qualities of light that connect us to nature at both a local and universal scale.

How does working collaboratively inform your process? Collaboration is essential to my studio’s process. Our goals require us to look beyond any one area of knowledge, especially since our interventions need to be responsive to the specific qualities of a site. We have some consistent collaborators that provide daylighting analysis and structural engineering, but we have a very wide network of people and firms that we work with to tackle the wide variety, scope and scale of projects in our practice.

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem photo credit: ©Timothy Hursley, Courtesy of James Carpenter Design Associates

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem photo credit: ©Timothy Hursley, Courtesy of James Carpenter Design Associates

What innovation in glass has most influenced your work? It is really the history of glass that is inspiring, from its presence in nature, to the earliest developments of glass. Glass and its cutting edge development throughout history and across civilizations is a testament to its intrinsic power, and even as extraordinary developments in glass technology and manufacture continue, it is still the seemingly endless possibilities, and its potential, that keeps me fully engaged.

You are receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at GAS. Congratulations! What does this recognition mean to you? It is deeply gratifying for myself, my studio and the broad array of collaborators who have worked tirelessly over these many years. I hope this award will further contribute to the studio’s expanding opportunities to unfold the experience of light in the public realm.

Learn more about the Glass Art Society Conference and public events at The Corning Museum of Glass.

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