SEEING WITH NEW EYES

James Balmond for Art & Living on the conceptualization to construction of the public commission, The Lotus (WTC, Colombo)

I find the Art and Living concept extremely fascinating.  The existential and the abstract collide with infinite consequence. I could never unravel this intricate tapestry of engagement. But I can examine the importance art plays in my own life. And through my own experience, share some thoughts on art’s position and role within the everyday.

Before members of the subfamily Coronavirinae paralysed conventional existence, I would often go to the World Trade Center to visit Lotus – our public sculpture.  While most people were engaging with visible aesthetic, I quickly realised that I was seeing something different.

The creator, in my opinion, observes a picture born from the totality of experiences inherent within the artistic project. Gazing at those ascending stainless steel frames I see an abstract sketch, computer code, the behavior of load bearing columns, tax increases on metal imports, lateral suspension mechanics, axial forces, late night debates on artistic integrity versus practicality…I could go on.

Lotus was an extremely challenging project. Yet looking at the piece, one cannot see the processes behind it. I want to discuss this hidden world. More specifically how conceptual thinking determined executional outcome.

From the start, the WTC tower cast an omnipresent shadow over conceptual development. We were confronted with an 8 x 8 m floor area and a massive 5 level void rising to a height of 22.5m in total. Looking up into that cavernous space, my instinct was clear: we must fill the entire void. Anything else and the sculpture would be mere externality - an insertion that would, if anything, only re-emphasis the vast expanse of the atrium above.

We had to do more. We had to escape gravity. So to fill the void, in this instance, was about a sequence of structural moves in space. We couldn’t have a fixed creative singularity - an omnipotent point from which the piece would radiate and yet always return. This ruled out a bottom-fixed or top-hung approach. Ideas flew back and forth. Lateral suspension emerged as a means to an unknown end.

The brief was simple: to bridge the cultural gap between past and present. We decided on a contemporary interpretation of a traditional Sri Lankan symbol – the Lotus flower. This choice ticked a lot of our predetermined parameters.

A mathematical principle determines the arrangement of a Lotus flower’s petals. So we had our autonomous design system. But we had to simplify things to make it work. Basically we reduced down to the abstract – a repeating algorithm of a freely moving point running from a ½ to a ⅓ distance along the adjacent lines of a square. Repeating the algorithm, and connecting these points, produced an ever more detailed set of fractures. These areas became the folding petals of a Lotus flower in plan.

Next we had to break free from the inertia of two dimensions. So we ‘pulled’ each algorithmic layer into three-dimensional space.  Animate geometry was at work - a series of virtual ‘frameworks’ emerged one on top of the other. We would fill the void with 7 individually orientated structural frames to form our Lotus petal arrangement. Each frame would be supported with customised lateral suspension mechanisms.

At this juncture, things become philosophically and technically intriguing. The full integration of large-scale sculptural structures into the building introduced a new set of data variables within pre-existing and interdependent design systems. In this realm, the laws of physics, rather than aesthetics, ruled supreme. Artistry and structural engineering were on a collision course.

Firstly, every artistic decision had a consequence for the building. The sculpture’s mass, thickness, material composition, lateral suspension points and frame positioning could alter the existing balance of forces, stresses and pressures at work within the tower structure. This in turn would drastically alter the performance of each engineering solution. And we all know what that implies - warping, buckling, bowing…even collapse. Essentially art could never trump structural integrity.

Secondly, the building’s ‘active’ behaviour and characteristics were affecting artistic decisions.  For example, we had to consider how the natural movement of the tower structure would affect our suspension system and adapt it accordingly. On a smaller scale, even something as simple as atrium temperature fluctuation would determine material and material finish.

Thirdly, when one removes artistic intention from Lotus, we are left with pure structure. Structure, in this instance, meaning an arrangement of interrelated functional elements. To put it differently a bolt is just a bolt - a mechanical fastener with a threaded shaft designed to keep things in place. It has no aesthetic purpose in the artistic sense. Rather it is specifically designed for optimum functionality. How could we safeguard artistic outcome while simultaneously using structural components designed for function?

Art, engineering and architecture were in a constant fight for dominance. Therefore fluidity of thought was vital. With every action, I had to create a new hierarchy of intention based on the existing causational relationships between these interactive entities. This process repeated lead to an accumulation of executional outputs for Lotus.

Each structural frame is supported with four stainless steel tensioned rods. And each rod is anchored to the four circular columns of the main building structure. Going deeper, every hanging rod possesses two pin-head movement joints. These joints allow for both the vertical and horizontal shifts of the sculpture, as well as the absorbing of jerks and movements from the principal tower structure.

Transitioning into the aesthetic, the uniformity of the lateral suspension mechanisms was vital.  This was problematic as the lower frames weighed more than the upper frames. Our solution lay in varying the tension rod sizes in proportion to material mass.

We also had to hand-finish the fastening elements at the tension nodes.  Reflection was an experiential necessity. In order to create this effect, whilst simultaneously withstanding the atrium’s environmental conditions, Lotus is made from durable Stainless Steel 316L with a high gloss mirror finish. We wanted to further explore reflection with artificial light sources. So at night, a high power and fully programmable WRGB colour-changing LED floodlight system creates a vibrant visual display of colour, structure and situational context.

What conclusions can one draw from this rhetorical journey?  Art possesses an inherent duality. Process and end manifestation co-exist, yet the former is predominantly hidden from the public.  For Lotus, it is the interaction between the architectural, engineering and artistic paradigms that makes the piece (and process) unique. And this is just one example. Every piece of art, on any scale, has a rich and engaging subtext, demonstrating both the pleasure and pain of the artistic process. So the next time you are looking at a sculpture, installation or painting, you will be seeing with new eyes, appreciating the invisible endeavor beyond the surface.     

10th September, 2021 Applied Art | Architecture

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