Book | Ed Carpenter, Breath Of Light

Introduction by Ed Carpenter.
Preface by Michael McCulloch.
Published by l’ARCA EDIZIONE, March 2001, 100 pp.


Breath of Light was part of a series of monographs which originally included only architects. It features a preface by Portland, Oregon architect Michael McCulloch and an introduction by Carpenter, as well as photos and descriptions of twenty-one of his sculptures and glass/light installations from 1983-2000.


International acclaim for Breath of Light

The Architectural Review, London, April 2001: “..more than 20 imaginative schemes lavishly illustrated in Ed Carpenter, Breath of Light…For once, an artist who works with buildings rather than against them.”

Glass Art Society Newsletter, Spring 2001: “This book has given me a much more complete view of how he [Ed Carpenter] has taught himself to see, and how his vision has manifested itself in architectural settings. If you are curious about how art can succeed in architecture, or how cold, hard materials like glass, plastic, stainless steel cables, and hardware can be combined in the most emotional, poetic and humanistic terms, check out this book.” Reviewed by John Leighton, Board Chair Emeritus, Glass Art Society.

This Side Up!, The Netherlands, Summer 2001: “This wonderful book is beyond an artist’s catalogue…In more than 20 commissions the reader…can see the most interesting solutions of glass in architecture, playing with light and optical effects giving space an extra dimension and meaning…This Side Up! recommends this interesting book to every one interested in light, glass and architecture.” Review by Angela van der Burght, Editor.

The Stained Glass Quarterly, Summer 2001: “The book combines splendid photography — including superb details — with concise explanations of each project, often augmented with a plan or section of the architectural setting…A must for the library of both amateurs and experts in the field of stained glass and the entire architectural profession.” Review by Crosby Willet of the Willet Stained Glass Studios, Philadelphia, PA.


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Breath Of Light, Introduction by Ed Carpenter

“A steady state without movement and change is equivalent to pathology, and eventually death. As are movement and change without some form of stable order. This dynamical sort of balance is in many ways the central reality of life as we know it, and perhaps for this reason marks the essential beauty and mystery of everything alive on earth. A standstill or equilibrium is a dead state, while everything in nature is caught up in a hum of flowing rhythms, which range over many frequencies without ever falling into line. It is from this breathlike understanding of life that Daisetz Suzuki can make the startling comment that “to seek tranquility is to kill nature, to stop its pulsation, and to embrace the dead corpse that is left behind,” and that “if nature is to be loved, it must be caught while moving.”

Henry Plummer, Light in Japanese Architecture.

How do we experience sunlight in architecture? Although whole books have been written on this subject, including the one quoted above, I would like to offer a few thoughts from my own experience.

In contemporary buildings we are used to having large windows, even skylights, and we assume the-more-light-the-better. Light is like air: it’s free, and it’s good. Only in churches and museums are we routinely aware of artistic manipulation of natural light.

When we do become conscious of sunlight, in architecture or in nature, what is it we perceive? Think of beams of colored light in a cathedral, sunsets, reflections on water, dappled patterns of shade and sun. All share one condition: the source of their illumination is obscured partially or completely from view. When the sun itself is not visible its effects are most powerful. Superb sunsets occur when the sun is just below the horizon or hidden behind a floating cloud bank. The texture of light through a grape arbor is special only from within, from which position the source of light is itself indistinct. Light has most emotional power when it is filtered, or reflected, or intensified by mediating elements.

Furthermore, the affective qualities of light are accentuated by motion, the motion of the mediating elements, not the light itself. An example is the dance of shadows within the grape arbor, acting on two time scales. First there is the immediate dance caused by the movement of leaves in the wind, and second, there is the slower dance, visible in the slowly changing relationships of the shadows cast onto the ground, and caused by the movement of the earth in relation to the sun.

So it is in being squeezed through small openings, or broken into patterns, or filtered into colors, and coming from a hidden source, that natural light becomes transcendent. Too much light is like too much sound: either can wash away subtle effects. And the more remote the source is from the effect, the more mysterious the experience. When we are forced to wonder how light reached a particular spot, we become especially intrigued. Furthermore, it is not the light itself, but the opaque borders and obstructions through which the light passes, and the shadows they cast, which are most influential. For it is the shadows, not the light, which are seen to dance or slowly move across an illuminated surface. Such movement conveys the sense of universal respiration to which Henry Plummer refers above, especially when modulated by the appearance and disappearance of the sun on a partially cloudy day. Sunlight can be felt to inflate and deflate a room as air would a lung, breathing vitality into it.

Understood in this way, the manipulation of light in architecture becomes a game of layering and texturing, obscuring and revealing, and allowing the movement of shadows and light patterns to animate a room, a wall, or courtyard. A building acts as the stable vessel into which sublime forces may be projected. Good architects all understand this. Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, Aalto’s libraries, and Ando’s pierced structures are obvious examples.

In this general realm, but beyond the concerns of most architecture, are opportunities to heighten our perception of these phenomena and to magnify the emotional power of a building. Through careful sculpting of apertures and placement of luminous and reflective surfaces and objects, manipulations can be achieved in the normal flow of light and of our experience of architectural space. Sunlight may be redirected into otherwise inaccessible zones, providing an awareness of remote solar cycles. Kinetic effects may be transmitted which bring into a building a mysterious living pulse. Enigmatic presences may be created which introduce mystery to otherwise utilitarian structures. Such efforts may be distinguished from “ordinary” architecture by the indelibility of their memory, the extent to which they heighten a sense of expectation or reflection, or focus emotion in some peculiar way. It is the artist’s mission to create such feelings.

Of course, some architecture can do this by itself, and so has no need for the artist’s slight of hand. Even some very successful buildings, though, may lack a sense of the ineffable which, however modestly conveyed, is the highest calling of the architectural arts.

Because of its brilliant expressiveness and its connection to the source of all life in our solar system, sunlight can be employed as a uniquely affective artistic medium. While its fundamental behavior is entirely predictable, its interaction with weather and material can produce surprise, excitement, and unexpected subtleties. This mercurial personality of sunlight is what most encourages artistic experimentation and expression within architectural space, for it has the power to energize and to transform it.

My own work with light has followed an indirect thirty-year progression from the graphic toward the spatial. This book contains selections from commissions completed (and a few not yet completed) during the last twenty years which deal in some way with light. Many early influences shaped this work, but two contrasting youthful memories seem especially significant.

The first is of my grandfather, Dudley Saltonstall Carpenter, in his Santa Barbara, California studio in the early 1950’s when I was about six. The wood beamed, mission style room where he made his living as a painter and sculptor had all the customary paraphernalia of the time: paintings on easels, clay busts in progress, props, brushes, paint tubes, and the fragrance of turpentine. My most distinct image, though, is not of his artwork, but of his handkerchief trick. Sitting in an old rocker, he would beckon me to his side, produce a handkerchief from his coat pocket, and proceed to fold and knot it methodically into a form he called a “rabbit”. Placing the rabbit on his upturned palm and inserting a finger into a fold in its underside, he would stroke the creature and speak softly to it until, suddenly, with an invisible flick of his finger, the rabbit would leap out of his hand to my invariable delight. It was the magical transformation of the inanimate to the animate which thrilled me.

The other significant memory is of my summers as office boy in the architectural office of my step-father, Robert Evans Alexander, during my early teens. I was placed in charge of the blueprint room where I sleepily reproduced a few drawings each day. Once I labored through several weeks of unproductive recalcitrance when asked to darken in all the little rectangles representing houses on an enormous plan drawing for an Air Force housing project. When it became apparent to me that the only purpose of my effort was to make the drawing read a little more boldly when displayed in the office hallway, I was convinced absolutely of the uselessness of architecture. Bob’s partner, Richard Neutra, would occasionally make an appearance, but I saw him as a cross between Scrooge and Rumplestiltskin, and had no notion that his haughty air accompanied his stature as a celebrated Modernist. My overriding memory of the months in that office is of my boredom, clueless as to the secret joys animating the rows of architects hunched over their drawing boards. In fairness I have to credit Bob’s passion for his profession as underlying most of my present interest in the field. His magazines caught my attention at an early age, and our family vacations became architectural pilgrimages, especially when the annual architects’ convention could be combined with fly fishing in Montana. Many years later, in 1974, Bob was responsible for my first public commission, in a courthouse he had designed in California.

Without conscious choice, I now find myself doing something which is a combination of what Bob Alexander and Dudley Carpenter did: a fusion of the fine arts and architecture, but leaning distinctly in the direction of the rabbit. I am drawn to the ambiguity of sculpture and the illusiveness of light, not as objects or decoration, but as living components of architectural organisms. By that I mean that this work hopes to find sites where it can connect to a building’s tissues. It desires an ambivalent relationship to its host—symbiotic but restless, engineered but organic, technological but sentient. It prefers to pose questions rather than answer them, to incite turbulences, complicate views, magnify light, accentuate time. It delights in the the transformation of the handkerchief into the rabbit through artifice, illusion, and surprise.

Such aspirations were the furthest thing from my mind, though, at the outset. I was, in fact, just a hobbyist at first, transfixed by glass, not architecture; material-struck, swooning from color-lust. But in the 1970’s I benefited immeasurably from the generosity of several important architectural artists and writers whom I sought out through some instinct to go directly to the leading lights of the field. They included Robert Sowers, Peter Mollica, Ludwig Schaffrath, and Patrick Reyntiens, who were rethinking the classic relationships between stained glass and architecture and applying the results to their own books and commissions, and who openly shared with me through correspondence, apprenticeship, and conversation. Schaffrath’s work astounded me, and I spent weeks during several trips trekking around Germany seeking out obscure churches and taking thousands of pictures.

The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts was willing to gamble on energy over experience and sent me to Germany to study with Schaffrath, whose intense concern for my artistic salvation elevated me from ignorance to wonder. I returned willing to feign professionalism, and rode his coattails for considerable mileage. He had taught me to listen for the “voice” of a building, and to sense its yearnings.

Thus indoctrinated, I retained (and do to this day) a strong sympathy toward ornament, hierarchy, and the kind of glowing planar expression which only stained glass can achieve. It is, though, inextricably bound to the wall: it fills an aperture or punctuates a curtain wall. However atmospheric it may become as a result of the play of light passing through it, its primary role in a building remains that of graphic membrane. And frequently a building may be asking for a different kind of artistic presence, one which occurs within its volume rather than in its skin. After a decade of commissions which could accurately be characterized as stained glass, I began to discover other ways of engaging architecture.

This change probably started when, in 1981, I first experienced the play of light through my own window for the Portland Justice Center (page 12). I began to see the light itself as being of equal importance with the plane of the window. Once freed from concern solely for what lay within the boundaries of a given window opening, unlimited atmospheric and sculptural possibilities arose. I became bolder about suggesting alternate approaches to a given space, and frequently my architect collaborators and clients assented. Eventually outdoor sites were fair game too, and slowly the pigeonhole of “stained glass artist” dissolved. While never abandoning the idea of artwork which occurs within the plane of the wall, I simply added other options to the list.

Thereafter, the challenge was not automatically to design a response to a window opening and a room and a program, but to ask instead a more complex series of questions. Where does this building or public space want a heightened expression? Why? How strong should it be? What scale should it be? What is its relationship to the way the site is used? Should it engage the heart, the eyes, or the head of the public, and in what proportions? To what extent should the expression be frontal or layered? How can the work introduce some element of mystery? How can light be manipulated to help achieve these goals? And so on. Answering these questions has frequently been a collaborative process involving architects and clients, but all too often we have been responding to buildings already substantially designed. Because of the way that public art is funded (most commissions have been through federal, state, and local art agencies) it is rarely possible to be involved in the conceptual stage of a building’s design. The result, of course, is that a work, no matter how well integrated, is inevitably just that, a Work, an additive part rather than a set of ideas born simultaneously with the building. In this case, the difference between originating from the building’s genetic matter and being adopted is substantial. On those rare occasions when collaboration has been genuine and early, however, a wide range of opportunities has emerged.

Two examples come immediately to mind, both initiated by architects who sensed the benefit of persuading their clients to involve me during, or just after, schematic design. The first is the collaboration with Michael McCulloch (then of SRG Partnership) for an engineering building at Oregon Institute of Technology (page16).

At OIT we had a small budget but proved that light can be a very inexpensive building material, expanding immeasurably the presence and impact of other materials which come into contact with it. There is nothing more compelling than the sun when it is compressed through a few colored slits in a skylight and then set loose again inside a building with receptive walls. Our early start allowed us to make the skylight and its effects part of the comprehensive vision for the entire building, not an unrelated episode.

The second example is St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle (page 36), where schematic design had actually been complete for about seventy years when I got a call from architect Jim Olson. His firm had been selected to design a renovation of the altar end of the building (the west end in this case) including what the congregation was envisioning as a “rose window”. Unlike OIT, though, the problem at St. Mark’s was not how to paint with light, but how to control it. Worshipers were being blinded by the afternoon sun. Our collaboration lasted many months through transformations of various schemes and produced one neither of us could have done alone. Had Jim Olson waited to call me until after preliminary design, St. Mark’s might have ended up with colored glass placed in a round hole in the wall.

Although the two examples above were in a sense opposites, one achieving its power through magnification and other through filtration, neither could have succeeded without rigorous analysis and study in sketches and models. One must discover where and how in a given building to interact with the light. Where is the “sweet spot,” the place where light can be intercepted and redirected and manipulated? In Miami International Airport Concourse “H” (page52) the sweet spot is fifty-five feet above the floor where the clerestory light crosses. In the Carlson School of Management at University of Minnesota (page 60) the sweet spot is created by the architectural focus of the stairwell and by the aim of powerful artificial luminairs, and it is quite low in the overall volume of the space. Each building has zones of susceptibility to intervention or integration.

The Carlson School case brings up the question of artificial light. Always a necessity because we use our buildings after dark, it is also an opportunity to give an installation additional moods and complexity. The question is not, “How can we recreate the effects of daylight?” but, “How can we make this project richer by giving it a strong night-time personality?” In the Carlson School atrium, artificial light is important even in the day because direct natural light does not often penetrate to the level of the sculpture. Large interior surfaces were available to be used as “light canvases,” so it was natural to incorporate microprocessor control and the fading from one light source to another which it enables. This allows kinetic effects (very slow ones in my installations) and changes in coloration. Overlapping dissolves of the resulting imagery can magnify the presence and complexity of an installation enormously. Movement and change then take on as much importance at night as during the day. (Meydenbauer Center, Orlando Tower, and Miami International Airport are additional examples where such an approach was employed.)

Another common thread in the examples here is ambiguity: how to hint without telling as a way of giving a story staying power; how to suggest opposite ideas or images simultaneously to create poetic uncertainty. At Salt Lake City Community College (page 48) the sculpture begs questions of origin and purpose while manipulating the bright Utah light. The installation in the Hokkaido Sports Center (page 76) could be a machine, or it could have an architectural purpose, or it could be a gargantuan seed pod from outer space. The interpretation is left to the viewer, and may well change with each visit.

One plain fact about this type of work is that its accomplishment requires teams of specialists working together. Each project in this book has benefited immeasurably by the wise and skillful contributions of too many individuals to acknowledge properly. However, I would like to make special mention of studio assistants Hanns Haefker, Erin O’Neill, Gino Turner, James Harrison, George Kazakos, and Oanh Tran; of office managers Patty Torchia, Sally Woodward, Priscilla Lightbourne, and Arleen Daugherty; model maker Larry Hoppel; lighting designer Craig Marquart; the engineers at KPFF and Peterson Structural; computer modelers Donald Newlands and Mark Nielsen; and craftsman-technicians at Fabrication Specialties, Pilkington Technical Mirrors, Albina Pipe, and Tim O’Neill Studio. In addition, John Rogers and Michael McCulloch have played important roles in helping conceive and implement some of these projects as well as others not represented. We continue to collaborate on selected commissions learning and developing as we go.

What next? Various new projects are in progress as this book goes to press. Some involve the elements discussed here. Others, such as urban sculptures and bridge design commissions, have radically different parameters. Within each, though, is a chance to create some thing unique in this world, and to discover some breath, some light, which connects us to a larger world.

Ed Carpenter, July, 1999.

Video | “Crocus”

Click here for link to video

Video source: Dimension Endowment Of Art
Running time: 8 minutes


“Crocus” is a dramatic focal point for the City of Taichung, Taiwan.  Rising 41’ above the intersection of two parks on the central axis of Taichung’s new City Center, “Crocus” is visible from the City Hall, the Opera House, and the many residential towers surrounding the site.  Utilizing imagery of the first flower to emerge each spring, “Crocus” symbolizes the emergence of Taichung itself.  The sculpture emerges from two levels of parking below the parks, surrounds a viewing platform, and unfolds upward like an enormous blossom.

During the day, light plays off polished surfaces of stainless steel and laminated glass. Carefully placed LED lighting dramatically illuminates the sculpture at night.  Ed Carpenter’s design was selected as winner in an international competition in November of 2014 and was completed in June of 2016.

Video | Site/Light

Video by Peter Coonradt
Music by James Campbell
Running time: 18 minutes


I hope you enjoy this short documentary conceived and created by award-winning filmmaker Peter Coonradt. It shows how different sites have led me on unexpected sculptural journeys. Video is a great medium for experiencing these projects three-dimensionally, and it shows the play of light that animates them.

“I’ve known Ed Carpenter since grade school. Although it never occurred to me he would become an artist, I always knew whatever he did, he’d be good at it. Forty years later, when I saw his work, it intrigued me, astonished me, but I didn’t get it. That’s why I approached him about making this video; I wanted to understand what was going on.” —Peter Coonradt


Ed Carpenter Studio
1812 NW 24th Avenue
Portland, Oregon USA 97210

Tel: 503 224 6729
Fax: 503 241 3142