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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Art and the Wind

posted by on October 18 at 18:50 PM

Just days after the scaffolding came off of a four-story abstract sculpture outside the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, its top was blown off in a windstorm at about 2:35 pm today.

“It was a big gust that came along and blew off a portion of the top of it,” said center spokeswoman Christi Loso.

No one was hurt, she said. A broad area has been cordoned off around the sculpture, and a shuttle bus rerouted to protect people should any more of the sculpture collapse.

Here’s a rendering by the artist, Portland-based Ed Carpenter, of the lattice of aluminum, glass, and steel, called Vessel:


Carpenter has been notified about the incident, but no decisions have been made about the future of the sculpture, Loso said. The structure was completed, but the installation had about a month’s worth of work left on it, she said, mostly in finishing the base and landscaping.

A scientist who formerly worked at the center, and who is remaining anonymous, is paying for the artwork. Loso said the center’s official figure to describe the sculpture’s worth is $500,000, but she couldn’t say for sure whether that referred to an estimated value or the budget of the commission.

Obviously, the sculpture, which was selected in a competition process last year, will have to be reengineered and maybe, redesigned.

It reminds me of one of the works by a star of Documenta 12 this summer in Kassel, Germany. It was a piece by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, a massive majestic assemblage of antique doors formed together to create an architectural scale arch that people could stand under.


But when I was there, two-and-a-half months after the opening, I didn’t see that. I saw this:


Organizers of the exhibition passed it off as a fortuitous accident, adding meaning to the piece. Buh. This photograph was taken from the one good remaining angle, the one dramatic viewpoint where chaos still looks meaningfully formed. From every other perspective around the sculpture, the ugly, jagged edges of beautiful doors forever destroyed stuck out of a sorry trash pile. The artist’s monument to the life of old culture in rapidly developing China instead joined in the killing, because of sloppy engineering.

I’m not necessarily opposed to the potential of destruction in art. Several years ago, I advocated that Seattle artist Iole Alessandrini’s gorgeous, several-block-long installation of light in the dark heart of downtown Tacoma shouldn’t be restored after it was damaged in a windstorm weeks before it was supposed to come down.

That piece, called Season of Light, was intended to be temporary, and the ruthless instead of planned ending seemed perfect in the context of an urban block that had become blighted because of the cruel whims—we’re interested, tear the historic buildings down, no, nevermind—of a couple of Seattle developers (one of whom, Paul Schell, later became Seattle’s mayor).


Art and people are never safe in windstorms.

(Thanks for the tip, Anne S.)

RSS icon Comments


Didn't one Christo's umbrellas kill a person? What the hell people? If you can't be fairly certain of the mechanics of large pieces like this, then build smaller ones for chrissake.

Posted by Dougsf | October 18, 2007 7:06 PM

I don't know, I mean, the ruined version of the antique doors sculpture is amusingly reminiscent of the EMP. Take that as you will.

Posted by Anne | October 18, 2007 7:32 PM

I am not sure what your definition of "fairly certain" is, but I think by any reasonable definition, Carpenter's work would pass.
He does 2 or 3 projects of this scale a year, and has for at least a decade.
He probably has as much experience making structures like this work as anybody on the planet.
All of his work is engineered by licenced structural engineers in the state it will be installed in. All of the work is built by professional fabricators who do this kind of work every day.
I dont know for sure, but I would guess he uses the two main art fabricators on the West Coast, Carlson in LA, and Fabrication Specialties in Seattle, both of whom have built literally hundreds of demanding, experimental art and architecture pieces.

So, from a professionalism standpoint, this piece was built as well as it could be.

A structural failure postmortem will be required to see why it failed. (yes, there are engineers who do nothing but this- read "Why Buildings Fall Down" by Levy, or "Why Buildings Fail" by Karper, for interesting anecdotes on all the things that can go wrong on very straightforward building construction. Then multiply that by the wierdness factor of artwork, and you have lots of possibilities for error.

In point of fact, very few sculptures fall apart- but the few spectacular ones get press. Most public artists work very hard to make sure they dont kill people, just like most architects or engineers do.

Posted by Ries Niemi | October 19, 2007 6:29 AM

I think that the artists, and not just the engineers they hand off their golden design tablets to, need to think very carefully about how their works are going to stay up. Particularly pieces with lots of surface area being put up in a place where winds gust up to 60-70 mph every winter.

Posted by Greg | October 19, 2007 8:48 AM

I like it crumpled.

Posted by heywhatsit | October 19, 2007 8:55 AM

I am not defending failure- for some reason, somebody screwed up, or it wouldnt have blown over.
But as I tried to say earlier, Ed Carpenter is a professional, not some diletannte with a "golden tablet" whatever the heck that is. (My tablet says Wacom on it, and its blue).
He has more experience in building these type of tensegrity structures than any but two or three other people in the world- and those people, like Kenneth Snelson, are artists too.
Carpenter has worked a lot with some of the best engineers in the world at this as well. I know that an engineer I often use, Mike Ishler, has worked with Carpenter in the past, although he didnt do this one, and Ishler used to work with Ove Arup, the acknowledged best engineering firm globally for tensile and cable structures.

The problem was not amateur artists in over their head. Carpenter has thought very seriously, for 10 or 15 years, more about how this stuff works than virtually anybody else.
Artists who do this kind of work usually have to explain to the average structural engineer what is going on structurally, as they have had to invent so much of the process and construction techniques.
They are way out in front of most fabricators and builders.

It will be interesting to find out what happened and why, but I guarantee you it wont be because Carpenter and his team went off half cocked.

There are indeed artists who have huge sculptures built from a sketch on a bar napkin, and who have no idea how the physical world works- but Carpenter aint one of em.

Posted by Ries Niemi | October 19, 2007 9:51 AM

This sculpture on the Hutchinson Campus was amazing - the simple structure was lined with dual-colored glass that offered dancing light both reflected and passed through on to the driveway. I was so sad to see it damaged in the storm - and so relieved nobody was hurt. I hope it will be re-engineered and replaced - the crumpled state is not it's destiny. More images of the "after":

Posted by Jim | October 19, 2007 11:08 AM

Ooops. Sorry about that.

Posted by The Wind | October 19, 2007 11:25 AM

I spent New Years Day in 1992 at Federal Way's Redondo Beach Park when a heavy wind and high tide gutted the earth under John Young stone sculpture.

Today I work in Florida where every artwork is engineered to 140 MPH wind. No delicacy permitted.

Posted by Glenn Weiss | October 19, 2007 11:26 AM

Having just now walked past the wreckage, I have to say that I prefer it as it is now. That it's blocking the traffic circle is unfortunate, but otherwise, it's a much more compelling work.

Posted by Chris B | October 19, 2007 12:27 PM

#3, while I don't think it's acceptable for any structure like this to fail, I was actually harping on Ai Weiwei's doors piece.

Now that I think of it, didn't SAM's Hammering Man fall down once, too? Doubly come to think of it, so did goddamn Husky Stadium!

Posted by Dougsf | October 19, 2007 2:05 PM

The illustrations on Ed Carpenter's website show bracing wires and the text mentions "Employing aluminum, slender strips of glass, and cable tensioning".

The scaffolding was removed, and the glass installed, and it appeared that construction was over, but no tensioning wires had been installed within the sculpture.

Given our local history of October/November windstorms, the collapse may have not been too much of a surprise, if the sculpture was in a fragile, unfinished, state.

Posted by Andrew Taylor | October 20, 2007 12:57 PM

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