Synthesis Structures

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Michelle Dean’s wooden form demonstrates her investigation of planar shifts to contrast the smooth surfaces of Alexis Taylor-Butler’s organic clay base. 


The spring semester has ended in the Kansas City Art Institute Foundations program, so I wanted to use this blog post to present images and ideas from my previous workshop titled Collaborative Ceramics.  This workshop focused on architecture and used clay and wood as its primary media because these materials are often used to construct buildings.  Students learned to observe and  understand the parallels between their subject and materials while discovering new approaches for abstract thinking.


An installation view of the final exhibition. The systematic structures by Austen Ortiz and Brandon Kintzer are in the foreground.


We began the workshop by spending two days making drawings of the architecture in surrounding neighborhoods including the Country Club Plaza and Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.  This provided the students with observed accounts of specific architectural features that influenced their subsequent works.  For the final exhibition, students fabricated foam-core shelves that presented their sketchbooks of architectural drawings and thumbnails for each project.  A nice touch to show the workshop’s process and progress.

As it is mentioned in the workshop title, collaboration played a significant role in the curriculum structure, and in this project, two students worked together on each piece.  This project happened in two stages (clay and wood), so each student began by creating a ceramic form (minimum 2′ tall) that had to incorporate an interlocking wooden element made by their partner.  This addition extended the height and responded to the initial features of the base.  Formal movement, repetitive shapes, and spatial interactions were evaluated when determining how to unify the two collaborative parts.  When discussing architectural characteristics, students were asked to consider the roles of building facades and visual transitions in their work.  The history of ceramics influenced discussions about the relationships between the foot and lip, surface, tiles, and craftsmanship.


Foreground works made by Hayley Books and Juanita Martinez. With each collaborative work, students experimented with hanging, tension fit, and woven forms.


Students worked together on all stages of fabrication including the the woodshop (ripping wood) and documentation.  Many students in the class were completely inexperienced with clay building, so my demonstrations focused on basic hand-building methods (coil and slab building).  Each solution had to be adapted to figure out how leather-hard forms would be structural and strong enough to support the wooden elements.  The incorporation of these two materials required that they consider new building methods for wood, so students incorporated woven, zip-tied, bundled, and tension-fit wooden connections.


Kat Krug and Annabell Lee used segmented parts to create a flowing field of wood that physically cut into their clay forms and created a strong contrast between the organic and geometric structures.

Knowing that clay and wood have a drastic learning curve, the outcomes for this project were successful.  Students learned to work within specific parameters, experiment and adapt with new materials quickly, and create works that challenged their notions of scale.  The final works were diverse and each student brought their own interpretations of their surroundings.

Aly King created sprawling “ladders” that were influenced by similar forms in Mariah Randell’s clay base. This piece has a strong interaction with space and also employs a tiled facade.


posted in: Architecture, Blog, Site Visit, Superstruct | 1

This past April (while on a road trip from NJ to KC), I had the opportunity to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s domestic commission, Fallingwater, nestled in the woods of Pennsylvania just outside Pittsburg.

Fallingwater: Initial Approach

What is immediately clear upon approach is that Lloyd knows his architectural history. It would appear that Wright synthesized certain principles of design from across a spectrum of cultures and histories. These principles of balance and grace were clarified, and then combined to achieve a new harmony. Clean lines, flawless integration with its natural surroundings, and modular domestic amenities inside and out are reminiscent of Japanese architecture.  Every square inch of space, overlap and point of contact is considered.

One of the most glaring differences between experiencing this home and contemporary homes are that the proportions of everything- thresholds, to rooms and windows, planters and the pool- each one is so contentious.

Frankly, I was shocked to see Wright use an ochre color of paint applied to concrete shaped into soft round, repeating curves. When I think of Wright’s style, angular bricks in squat midwest prairie iterations spring to mind. In my humble opinion, Falling Water also references Adobe abodes, so characteristic to the American Southwest.

Pueblos de Taos, New Mexico

The ochre body with red window trim made the home both pop and recede into the foliage depending on the strength of the sun through the clouds that day. I overheard a passing guide mention the color was derived from the underside of a fallen, dead leaf.

Falling Water's cantaliever

Paint Colors: Wright’s desire to create a unified and organic composition limited the color palette at Fallingwater. Only two colors were used throughout:  a light ochre for the concrete and his signature Cherokee red for the steel (PPG Pittsburgh Paints). –Fallingwater Facts

Even though this home was built in 1936, its vision and clarity resonates today. I wonder what kind of lives were enriched by existing amidst nature mingling with these walls. Fallingwater is a fantastic specimen of “superstruct,” the original foundation here literally being nature and conceptually being a myriad of architectural histories/principles that are built upon. It is a structure quietly ahead of its time.


Fallingwater is anchored seamlessly into natural rock. (extra points if you spot my mother)
We even admired the patio furniture; the raised center design takes into account the position of lounging legs and feet.


Peter Volkous sculpture signed '58 spotted by the spring-fed pool

The Gold Dome – an Oklahoma City landmark

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Over the past few months I have been participating in an Art Writing and Curatorial Fellowship program based out of Oklahoma City. I have had the opportunity to spend the occasional weekend exploring the city while in town for the fellowship. I have found the architecture of the city to be incredibly diverse and interesting. While driving to breakfast with our host, Julia Kirt, she started to tell us a story about one of the more peculiar looking buildings we passed.

The building, simply referred to as The Gold Dome, was built in 1958. Using the geodesic dome design patented by famous architect, Buckminster Fuller, the dome was constructed on the intersection of North West 23rd Street and North Classen Boulevard, The fifth geodesic dome in the world and the first built with the sole intention to function as a bank.

In 1998, the Oklahoma City Government rezoned the 23rd Street to protect the architecture and commercialization of the developing area. There were new laws in place which meant property owners had to have permission to demolish any building within the established boundaries. In the early 2000’s, the owners of the Gold Dome, Bank One, decided it was time for reconstruction and began seeking permission to demolish the dome.

A handful of citizens stood up to the bank and fought for the preservation of the building; they realized the importance and unique character the Gold Dome brought to their city. The owner of the bank reconsidered his demolition request and offered to sell the building to someone who was willing to put the money into refurbishing it (which was estimated to cost 1.7 million) or he would sell the land to Walgreens. The “Citizens for the Golden Dome”, the organized group whose mission was to save the dome, came together to hold marches and protests in an effort to save the building. Still no one was stepping forward to purchase the building and the bank owner’s patience was running thin. Sonic Drive-In restaurants donated a billboard across the street from the dome for the citizens to inform the public on the importance of saving the historical building. An ownership group was formed to buy the building, and in 2012 the Oklahoma City council voted to take over the responsibility of paying the loan. Now the building operates as a cultural center, a home to several small businesses and an event space.

Our urban environment acts as an archive of what has come before us. It gives our everyday landscape something unique, especially in a time where large corporations are taking over our street corners and turning our cities into an exact replicas of one another. In Kansas City, as well as many other cities around the country, we are lucky to have a society dedicated to preserving these important historical sites. From what I learned from Julia, Oklahoma City might not have that infrastructure in place yet which puts them at risk of losing their architecturally diverse personality.

Eve Aschheim & Agnes Martin

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I first saw Eve Aschheim’s work on Joan Mitchell Foundation’s web site. Aschheim received the foundation’s grant in 2008. Immediately after seeing the images the work of Agnes Martin came to mind. Both artists’ delicate color, uncluttered space and fragile line appear similar at least as visual structures. Aschheim’s paintings seem to be firmly planted in the tangible reality of architecture. The overlaps of line and hints of atmospheric depth at times betray the resilient non-objectiveness of the work. The paintings appear fleeting, yet at the same time stable – a paradox of forces also affecting our built environments. Agnes Martin’s work on the other hand, though using a similar visual language, exudes otherworldliness. While Aschheim’s painted space invites us to enter, and for a time exist within its linear framework, Martin’s grids push back; their mystery – impenetrable, yet somehow within reach.

Eve Aschheim
Eve Aschheim
Eve Aschheim
Eve Aschheim
Eve Aschheim
Agnes Martin
Agnes Martin
Agnes Martin