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Perfectly blending art, architecture and engineering

The elaborate grid is slowly cranked into place, thrusting more than 12 feet above the ground at its highest point.

A patch of lawn outside Chandler-Ullmann Hall was slowly transformed into a work of organic art that was created through a collaborative effort among Lehigh’s art and architecture department, civil and environmental engineering department, the ATLSS Research Center, and a world-renowned visiting artist.

Rising above the grassy slope on the university’s Asa Packer campus was a 30 by 40-foot wide woven grid created from a cross-section of rebar, or the steel rods typically found in concrete to add tensile strength. The shell-like shape of the piece was created when post-tensioning rods that were added to the grid were slowly cranked, thrusting the entire grid more than 12 feet above the ground at its highest point.

The project is an outgrowth of the work by the department of art and architecture’s first Visiting Artist and Architect Frank Fantauzzi, currently an associate professor at the University of Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. Fantauzzi’s critically acclaimed work focuses on site-specific urban interventions that aim to disclose the parallels between social and tectonic structures.

"This has been a great experience," said Fantauzzi as he watched the installation rise into position. "Architects are used to making things that are permanent, and since I've been teaching, I've missed that aspect. I'm getting to the point in my life and in my career where I want things to be more permanent."

Anthony Viscardi, professor and chair of the department of art and architecture, oversaw the project from start to finish, including the final phases of the installation.

“We wanted to use this project to demonstrate the relationship between art and architecture and engineering, so this provided an ideal opportunity to collaborate,” Viscardi says. "I think it's a great bridge between architecture and engineering, and it was a terrific way for the students involved to understand the role that the process played in this. This isn't like a piece of sculpture you just dropped into place. They could literally see it come alive, with the ribs breathing and cracking."

Initially, Viscardi considered a project for Fantauzzi that was spurred by a visually intriguing image he saw of an abandoned room at the Bethlehem Steel site. In it, the heavy steel baskets that were used to hold the personal items of the employees stood empty, poised in mid-air at staggered heights.

“We started to think, ‘How do you memorialize that? How do we translate that as an architect?’ These baskets were like chalices that represented the soul of each worker, and they presented a very appealing challenge. My initial thought was that Frank and I could work on that.”

But, Viscardi notes, this project emerged after Fantauzzi and his partners, James Cathcart and Anthony Dong, became “fascinated with the muscle of the steel-testing machines up at ATLSS,” referring to Lehigh’s ATLSS Research Center, one of the largest facilities in the U.S. dedicated to the development and testing of new construction systems and materials for bridges, ships and other large-scale structures.

Fantauzzi has been collaborating with former schoolmate Cathcart for several years, who is now an architect and artist who is perhaps best known for his work on the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

Engineering professors who worked with Viscardi and Fantauzzi included Stephen Pessiki, professor and chair of the civil and environmental engineering department; Richard Sause, professor of civil and environmental engineering and the director of the ATLSS Center. John Hoffner, laboratory foreman at the ATLSS Center, and his technician staff of Dave Altemus, Todd Anthony, Joe Cheszar, and Roger Moyer as well as Fritz Lab engineer Carl Siegrist also made significant contributions to the construction of the project.

Viscardi and Sause shared conversations about collaborative teaching opportunities, and Fantauzzi’s work on campus provided an ideal option, says Sause, who engineered the support structure for the rebar grid, directed installation of the support structure, and engineered the system for raising the rebar grid.

“When Frank was first on campus, he came by ATLSS with Tony, and afterwards they conceived this installation as the kind of project we could do together that would combine elements of engineering with art and architecture,” Sause says.

Although the process of creating and installing the rebar sculpture has been intriguing for the students involved, the real learning will come at the end.

“Right now, it’s almost abstract—just numbers on paper—but the real educational benefit will come at the end, when it’s raised into position and the students can see and appreciate the forces at play,” says Sause.

Success requires both disciplines

“In this particular project, art and engineering are inextricably linked,” says Pessiki, who contributed to the design of the project’s foundation elements, and provided hands-on training to the students in the fabrication of the foundation’s reinforcing steel cages. “Success requires both disciplines.”

Pessiki adds that his department is continuing to pursue stronger interactions with the art and architecture department, and that this project is but one example.

“We share many outstanding students with that department, such as students who are concentrating their studies in structural engineering and architecture,” Pessiki says. “In the future, I expect to see many similar projects—projects that challenge our students in both the art and engineering aspects of constructing the built environment.”

Adds Viscardi: “It’s a great thing to have students see the boundaries between art and architecture and to blur it.”

Fantauzzi’s visit to Lehigh was made possible through the contribution of an anonymous donor, who is supporting a visit to Lehigh’s department of art and architecture for an artist or architect each year.

“When they told me that I could select a person for the first year, Frank was at the top of the list,” says Viscardi. “He has a great deal of credibility with this type of work, and I thought it would be a great experience for the students to work alongside someone of his stature to create this installation.”

The team constructs the 30 by 40-foot wide woven grid.

“Labor is what pulls you together”

Viscardi said that he put together a class of 13 students to work with Fantauzzi, who visited the Lehigh campus for about two or three days every other week of the spring semester. Although the majority of the students came from with an architectural background, the opportunity to work alongside engineering experts broadened their academic perspective, Viscardi says.

“Labor is what pulls you together,” he says. “You get to know each other, and the conflicts simply don’t exist. You start to create truly integrated learning.”

One of the students, Geoff Brock ’05, said the interdisciplinary project filled a long-standing urge to “leave my footprint” somewhere on the Lehigh campus.

“Not only did this give me that opportunity, but it truly represents a marriage a civil engineering and architecture,” Brock says. “The two departments are joined to form a connection that I believe has been ‘under-celebrated’ in the past, and one that is now not only convenient, but essential.”

Brock said he was inspired by seeing civil engineering students assisting the architectural students, who were discovering the power of reinforced concrete.

“I felt that I was constantly learning, teaching and working at the same time,” he says.

Art and architecture major Sam Kirk ’06, said that he appreciated the rare opportunity to work alongside both engineers and artists to “create a technically advanced piece of professional art.

“Since I aspire to be a professional artist, exposure to these types of situations will be invaluable to me,” Kirk says.

Adds Viscardi: “What’s great about this is that architecture students are realizing that there is art in engineering, and engineering students are realizing that architects just don’t dream – they know how to make things, too.”

Maintaining the art within

Although the project is officially completed, it is not fully evolved, Viscardi notes.

“Unlike a piece of sculpture, the installation will activate the site,” he says. “As the rebar rusts, it will start to blend in with the ground. In 10 years time or so, it will have grass growing up on it and it will almost look like a phenomena you happen upon, with the earth rising up.”

Viscardi has chronicled the project from its inception, videotaping and photographing the phases. Hopefully, he says, he and his students could produce a booklet or DVD that shows the progression of the project and could inspire future collaborations.

“In this case,” he says, “we truly took the mundane and made it extraordinary. When the students leave here, they’ll find out soon enough that architecture is a very demanding profession, and hopefully this experience taught them that it’s important to retain the sense of art within it.”

For more information on this project, please call (610) 758-3610.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Wednesday, May 17, 2006

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