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INSIGHT: Art in Architecture: Ancient Simpatico By Gordon Huether

An artist partners his art with architecture - to the extent that he even has a patent for a glass art technique that meets stringent requirements of contemporary building codes.

by Gordon Huether
August 21, 2002

Art and architecture partnered together have the ability to transcend our experience of place in both public and private settings by bringing a new level of relevancy, spiritual as well as material, into our daily lives. Art plays a crucial role in the architecture of a building by enriching the human experience, while enhancing the architecture. When art is incorporated into a building, a structure becomes more accessible to the viewer, both physically and emotionally.


The collaboration between art and architecture is an ancient and universal tradition. Art served a sacred function when first used in buildings or dwellings. Today, art continues to fulfill a spiritual need. In a diverse, fast-moving society that doesn’t have a single unifying view of the sacred, art in the environment can provide a channel for the contemplation of life’s mysteries.


Within my own work, I explore the use of transmitted light through such materials as metal and glass. Whether creating art glass panels, mounted autonomous artwork, freestanding or suspended sculpture, I try to bring something new into the space while complementing the surrounding architecture.


One of the earliest examples of art being incorporated into its environment is the Paleolithic cave paintings discovered at such sites as Altamira and Lascaux. They are thought to have a ritual significance related to hunting. The caves were sacred places or sanctuaries where early man exploited the natural architecture of the caves, painting animals on curved walls and domed ceilings to suggest the movement of a herd. No attempt was made to alter the rock, but the art actually complements the pre-existing qualities of the spaces.


Another early example where art played an integral role in the overall architecture of a building was the ancient Egyptian pyramids and temples. The pyramid complex at Giza is an architectural, as well as artistic and sacred, monument. Built 4,000 years ago, the pyramids protect and preserve the bodies of the Pharaohs Khufu, Khefre, and Menkaure. The hieroglyphic writing artfully applied to the temple walls is a means of communicating each king’s accomplishments and feats. Art objects also fill the tombs with those things that a spirit would need for an eternity.


Greek, Roman, and Byzantine architecture included art as an essential part of the building. Two examples in Greece are the Temple of Apollo and the Parthenon. The Temple of Apollo contains the statue of Apollo and has a marble frieze sculpted over the columns. The Parthenon was built to contain the gold and ivory sculpture of Athena sculpted by Phidias. These early examples of public art displayed a city’s prosperity and glory while paying homage to the gods.


Often architecture emulates the trends and styles popular in the art world. This simultaneous development of important ideas and considerations often leads to major movements. Architects such as Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Aalto, and Wright built on the design foundation established by art movements such as Art Noveau, Expressionism, Futurism, and the International movement, to create a major revolution which resulted in modern architecture. Naum Gabo, a Russian constructivist, was making transparent tower-shaped sculptures in 1920, while in Germany Mies was making a model for a glass skyscraper. Conversely, one of the major art movements of the 20th Century, Post-Modernism, originated not in the realms of painting or sculpture but in the world of architecture. Many visual artists use the term “Post-Modern” to refer to a break from the modern era.


With the secularization of art and its spread into the private home, fewer public spaces were designed to contain art. The designs of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses included everything from lighting fixtures and rugs to wall hangings—he thought that a home which contained furnishings of the client’s choice disrupted the harmony of the design. Modernists concentrated on the simplicity and function of a building, whether it was an office tower or a private home, without using excessive ornament. Only recently has art been integrated back into the structure of a building.


Successfully integrating art into architecture presents many challenges for an artist. When contemplating the type of artistic installation best suited for a building or the space within, I often form the basis of my concepts by gaining a solid understanding of the aesthetic established by the architecture. Relating to this aesthetic, I detect and respond to the visual dialogue created by the buildings’ designers. By creating site-specific works of art for each project, I am thereby integrating each piece into the existing architecture.


In 1993, in response to the stringent requirements of contemporary building codes, I developed a new glass art technique. Now patented, this process allows artistically altered glass to be fully installed into a commercial glazing system.


When creating an installation for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system’s new San Bruno transit center, I designed the work to be in perfect harmony with the proportions and colors of the building. The work is not placed or attached onto the building, but rather it is integrated into its skin. The installation is made of two 15-by-15-foot glass murals, one integrated into each elevation of the terminal, connected by a ribbon of red glass that complements the color of the building.


The art must relate to the users of the space by appropriately responding to the needs of the occupants. For example, I recently did a series of installations for the University of California-San Francisco Comprehensive Cancer Center’s meditation room. I worked closely with Cynthia Perlis, the hospital’s Art for Recovery Director, to create the intended feeling for the space. The artwork adds elements of light and color, while drawing imagery and themes from nature to create a comforting and meditative atmosphere.


Often, by investigating the unique qualities of each project, I find an inspiring focal point that drives the rest of the design. For the Museum of Art in Tendo, Japan, my primary challenge was to pay tribute to the legendary artist Hiroshige, while responding in my own artistic voice with an original work that would create a visual dialogue with the building. In a glass mural I emulated the intensely rich gradation of blue that was a consistent element in many of Hiroshige’s prints. In the final piece, bold color, abstracted form, and strong composition simultaneously pay tribute to the art, the artist, and the architecture of the museum.


My philosophy regarding art is that the work should communicate something relevant to the viewer. Content that is telling a story, directly or indirectly, is a cornerstone of my work. Historic images of old town Sacramento, California, are incorporated into a glass collage for a parking garage in that city. A series of undulating light sculptures pick up the visual rhythm of train tracks as they speed by at a transit station for South Eastern Pennsylvania’s Transit Authority. An installation for the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute utilizes agates, fossils, trilobites, and other raw natural resources: these are just a few examples of how I feel it’s necessary to create concepts relative to the overall project in a literal or symbolic manner.


My last guideline for creating artwork for an existing building is that it must reflect my artistic soul and spirit, or otherwise run the risk of lacking life. Without this component, art is reduced to decoration. It is absent of inspiration, commentary, meaning, reflection, and original expression.


Gordon Huether was born in Rochester, NY in 1959 to German immigrant parents. He moved to the San Francisco bay area in 1963 where he has remained. Having dual citizenship in Germany and the U.S., Huether has spent much time traveling between both places. He learned art composition and appreciation at an early age from his father. In the course of his initial artistic explorations, Huether resolved to create a lasting impact on the world around him through the creation of large-scale works of art. In 1987, he founded his studio in a converted tannery building in Napa, California, with a mission to create site-specific art installations. It is modeled partly after an architectural firm and partly as a collaborative art studio. Huether was awarded his first public art project in 1989 for the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute. Since then, he has completed public and private projects in the U.S., Mexico, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Philippines, Fiji, and Korea. Commissions include corporate, hospitality, health care, educational, transportation/airports, and ecclesiastic projects. Huether is constantly pursuing the realization of his dream to have a lasting and positive influence through the creation of large-scale projects all over the world.


(click on pictures to enlarge)

(Misha Bruk)
Detail: Charles Schwab Building, San Francisco; Public Art Award 2001. Etched, fused, and enameled glass, each panel 45"x33". Architect: HOK San Francisco

(Misha Bruk)
Charles Schwab Building

(Israel Valencia)
San Bruno BART Station, California; Public Art Award 2001. One of two glass murals, fused, etched, and enameled glass, laminated optical and colored glass, 15'x15'. Architect: Greg Roja & Associates

(Israel Valencia)
San Bruno BART Station, second mural.

(Gordon Huether)
Hiroshige Museum of Art, Tendo, Japan. Private commission, 1995. Mouthblown, etched, and laminated glass. Architect: Kumagai Gumi Ltd.

(Misha Bruk)
UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center at Mount Zion, San Francisco, 2001. Etched and enameled glass, steel 60"-diamter medallion. Architect: SmithGroup

(Misha Bruk)
Detail: medallion detail

(Misha Bruk)
UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center at Mount Zion, San Francisco, 2001. Dichroic glass, silk-screened enamel on glass triptych; each panel: 22"x48"x3"

(Ethan Kaplan)
Heyman Residence, Carmel, California, 2001. Etched and laminated glass with sculpted bronze door pull

(Ethan Kaplan)
Heyman Residence door detail

(Dona Bonick)
Gordon Huether

© 2002