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The Designer Bringing Sunlight Back to Manhattan

THE STEEL AND glass towers that have come to define TriBeCa might seem like an ideal landscape for the designer James Carpenter’s studio. After all, he is responsible for some of our era’s most riveting expanses of architectural glass, from the cable-net wall in the atrium of the Time Warner Center to the undulating facade of Nordstrom’s colossal new store on West 57th Street.

But for all his technological ingenuity, in some ways Carpenter remains doggedly old-fashioned: For more than 20 years, he has kept his work space in a former printing plant on Hudson Street that stands as a staunch reminder of the neighborhood’s industrial origins. Though several upper floors of the 16-story building, constructed in 1929, have been refurbished into sumptuously minimal condominiums (Carpenter designed the famed glass cube penthouse addition on the top), his own 5,000-square-foot fourth-floor space retains a craggy analog feel. Carpenter, 70, is the longest remaining commercial tenant in the building, and his studio’s rows of white workstations are punctuated by exposed concrete columns and vast awning windows. On drafting tables sit maquettes of projects in development, like crystal Jenga towers. Leaned up against the walls are tall slices of dichroic glass that change color depending on the angle from which the light hits them, shading from green-indigo to gold and magenta. The overhead lights aren’t turned on until the sun sets. “It’s a remarkable space because you can get both history and the brightness. Usually you have to make a choice between the two,” he says.

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Light, of course, is everything to him, a quixotic obsession in a city that is losing its connection to the sky because of giant edifices that block the sun; the super rich move ever upward, to unobscured views and sunshine, while on the ground, life can be shadowy. But Carpenter’s specialty is maximizing light, amplifying its effect by bouncing it off innovative materials. His often monumental installations have the quality of grand-scale statuary. At the 52-story 7 World Trade Center, he installed blue stainless-steel reflectors that cast an icy glow he calls “volumetric” through clear panes suspended inches from the building’s surface; for a Washington, D.C., law firm in an office building with little sunlight, he mounted a heliostat on the roof and created a 120-foot glass cone, a sort of snorkel, to bring shafts of light into the space, splashing the walls with changing intensity as the day progresses.

IT’S NOT SURPRISING that Carpenter brings the high-concept tactility of a sculptor to what many others see as mere structural cladding. The designer got his degree in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design and, after he began blowing glass on the side, collaborated with Dale Chihuly, the Seattle-based glass artist, on his early conceptual work. In 1971, the two men created a seminal exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Arts and Design), a 500-square-foot blown-glass environment of white opaque tubes with argon and neon gas against a background of black vinyl.

While Chihuly went on to create crowd-pleasing blown-glass fantasias, Carpenter became a consultant for the Corning glass company, where he grew passionate about bringing light into the public sphere — while also considering local history. As such, the facade he created for the 320,000-square-foot Nordstrom, which he calls “waveform,” was inspired by the artists’ bay-windowed studios that lined 57th Street at the beginning of the 20th century. Carpenter’s homage to that era is fashioned from 17-foot-tall sections of glass engineered in Italy, made in Germany and molded into shape in Spain (only a handful of ovens in the world are big enough to hold the parabolic double S-curves that span the height of each of the seven floors). Each wave, lined on the inside with a moving metal mesh curtain, forms an occupiable space within the store. Shoppers can navigate around merchandise to peer out down 57th Street, almost to the East River. “It’s important for the store to maintain a relationship to the outside city, which is completely different from the way department stores are built, as a sealed-off refuge,” he says.

But Carpenter still feels a particular connection to the way his creations are viewed from street level. Conscious that big buildings rob the public of an expanse of sky, he makes sure they return something valuable. The Nordstrom facade asserts itself in the cityscape in daring fashion; arguably as far as possible in spirit from the orangy-brick industrial bulwark where the designer works, it makes no less powerful a statement about cosmopolitan life. From the outside, the sculptured glass seems to change radically as you approach because of the folds, which reflect the sky and the skyscrapers against it. Walking down 57th Street toward the wavy confection is like descending a grand staircase: With each step, the whole comes into focus, the image shifting from abstraction to realistic portrait. Standing at the base in daylight, you look up to see a Cubist mirror rendering a city in flux; in the evening, lights glow soft inside, turning the structure transparent, the ballet of shoppers silhouetted in motion. “Yes, it is a store, of course, you are always cognizant of that,” he says, “but that is only part of the story. Ultimately, it’s the story of the city unfolding.”

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