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Architectural Art

November 1, 1997

Mark Miester

Students in the Newcomb art department's graduate seminar in art and the School of Architecture's fourth- and fifth-year design platform teamed up for some fun by the river in October, but they weren't there just to make friends. They were there to make art.

"I think artists and architects have stereotypes about each other," notes Sandra Chism, assistant professor of art. "Artists probably feel that architects are more corporate than artistic. Architects probably think artists are flaky. This project dispelled a lot of those stereotypes."

The project brought architecture and art students together on a sandy bank of the Mississippi River at Freret Street, united to build architectural art (or artful architecture) that was sometimes rustic, sometimes abstruse and often incendiary. While art students have been creating environmental art at this site since assistant professor of art Barry Bailey conceived the project a decade ago, this was the first time that art students collaborated with students from architecture.

The collaboration was the brainchild of architecture professor Stephen Jacobs. Jacobs called Elizabeth Boone, art department chair, seeking opportunities to pair art and architecture students this semester. Boone put him in touch with Chism, who arranged to have some of her graduate students meet with Jacobs' students.

"More important to me than the project was the process," says Jacobs. "The fact that two supposedly diverse groups were working together and cooperating. As people got together and started discussing what was near and dear to them, they began to realize that we're operating in the same world from very similar values and with very similar concerns. The differences have to do with a social role or patronage--how it comes about that the works are produced and the scale of the works."

The newfound dialogue between the disciplines may seem novel, Chism says, but it's also natural. "Historically, architecture has just been a shelter for art and art has just been decoration for architecture," Chism says. "But a lot of recent architecture resembles sculpture and a lot of recent art resembles architecture."

Another facet of the project, Chism notes, is teaching students to respond to place rather than site--a sensitivity necessary in both artists and architects.

"Site is more of the formal parameters--the lay of the land, what the zoning restrictions are," she explains. "Place involves more community-based issues. It's more political, social and psychological issues. Things that are identities. There is a move in both art and architecture to be responsible to place."

Part of the responsibility of the students was to ensure that their works did not litter the site. Students either removed their objects or designed objects that used materials natural to the site, such as a sculpture composed of driftwood. Responsiveness to place almost necessarily involves responding to the river.

"One piece, because of its horizontality and its placement against the edge of the small bank of the river, enhanced one's awareness of the river," Jacobs says. "It wasn't so much about itself, it was more about the place where it was. I think, to some degree, that is an architect's response."

Another work that caught Jacobs' attention was a self-firing kiln that students built into an enormous hill of sand on the site.

"The students built a tube to collect air, which would then act as a kiln so that it itself was baked. I thought that was fascinating," Jacobs says. "The idea of making something that makes itself was quite remarkable. "Later that night, some pieces were torched," continues Jacobs. "Other pieces were surrounded by candles or other sources of light. With the use of fire in these pieces, there was an experience of their qualities as they were made, as they were exhibited and as they were destroyed. There was a real experience of time and change that seemed to be very much a part of the students."

Chism adds, "There has been sort of a tendency to set things on fire." Jacobs hopes to continue the dialogue with the art department and other departments on campus. "I would like to find other ways of working with the artists who are students at Tulane," he says. "There's a natural affinity."

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