KINGSTON, R.I. — Engineering can bring feats of marvel, new ideas, unique devices and even creative designs that transport the thoughts of someone across time and place. It’s happening at the University of Rhode Island.
At URI’s the Fascitelli Center for Advanced Engineering, a $540,000 piece of art is taking shape with lots of light and even more imagination.
“The artwork, which will stretch most of the length of a hallway, is meant to conjure the feeling of a jet flying at transonic speeds,” said Neil Nachbar, spokesman for the URI College of Engineering.
“Because the entire piece is made out of glass, it will appear much different during the day than it will at night, when 2,000 LEDs will illuminate it,” explained Nachbar.
Called “Light Pressure and Droplets,” said Jen Figg, creator, along with Matthew McCormack, both of whom were selected from among 262 applicants vying for the chance in 2017 to undertake this project now underway.
“The glass for this was created in the summer of 2019 after a year and a half of planning,” she recalled.
“More work was done to create all the various elements of this 25,000-piece puzzle, but it all had to be put in storage because of the pandemic. More than 3.5 years later we are finally here, realizing the vision,” said Figg about the project.
Raymond M. Wright, URI’s engineering dean, said, “We were all just amazed by Jen and Matt’s presentation when they proposed, along with many internationally-renowned artists, these glass works.”
“The committee was impressed with the original idea of forming and lighting glass in organic shapes that make an artistic reminder that engineering is creative,” he added.
Where It Starts
Ideas, energy, and space were the main creative elements to consider, she said. “We were so excited to learn about the engineering work here at URI, the shared vision for the future of engineering research in Rhode Island, and about how the new facility came about after years of planning.”
These influences ideas led to drawing and sketching designs, presenting thoughts, talking about what was most profound about engineering, the geography of the site, and the building itself, she said.
“We are concerned with energy as a conceptual force in contemporary cultural narrative, exploring our use and creation of energy to understand contemporary landscape and ecology,” she said.
Figg added, “Within the context of climate change, energy is a charged subject. We explore its transformation from one form to another through our work, complicating the interconnections between ecology, science, and industry.”
From these ideas evolved “Light Pressure” in the gallery of the south corridor and “Droplet 1, 2, & 3” in the second floor Lounges, west and east Wings and Bliss Hall.
Their designs get a bit complicated, but that is what engineering is all about. It takes the complicated and makes it possible.
“Light Pressure” is a visual narrative that conflates mechanical, electrical, and optical phenomena, specifically blending pressure and fluid dynamics with the visuality of collimated light and force fields,” Figg explained.
In even further detail — that engineering brings to large and small elements - she noted that in a left-to-right movement “a large gesture of a flattened vortex gives way to a linear flow of light encircled with curving glass and planar sheets, referencing both magnetic fields and turbine blades.”
“In this way, the work draws on the lasers and electron beams used in the synthesis of spiky hydrophobic nanostructures, while conjuring that feeling of a jet flying at transonic speeds,” she said.
In more simple terms, she said that “Light Pressure” is created with individually suspended glass rods in two main forms, including straight rods and curved cane. The rhythmic layers of glass create varying areas of density and sparsity to form an energetic, gently curving beam as the lens-like ends catch and bend light.
On the other hand, “Droplet 1, 2 & 3” offer a different presentation.
“This work is made of both mold blown and cast glass. The overall shape is a compressed sphere, to maximize the double height ceiling in the lounges. The center of the sphere is comprised of mold blown lensed diamond shapes, while the outermost rings are made of cast glass trusses,” she said.
It makes use of custom molds with the aid of 3D printing and traditional processes. In this hybrid process, the form and techniques relate to the material engineering of nanostructures, where traditional truss structures are employed in increasingly complex ways.
The visible texture of the glass can bring an eye-catching glimpse its molding with that surface enhancing refraction of light. In other words, during the day, the glass is translucent, catching light, while at night, the sculpture comes alive “with dynamic light inspired by quantum entanglement and electron spin.,” she said.
Tapping into Artistry
She tapped into the artistic element so much part of it.
“With each piece of glass being its own light node, the cast trusses will seem as if they are spinning around the core of diamond lanterns. We envision the two lounge sculptures and the Bliss Hall sculpture being connected together through the void of space, with the multithreaded lighting program creating visual dialog among the three spaces,” she said.
Helping with the project and providing support has been the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, the URI College of Engineering and Capital Projects; an installation team of URI alumni and current students, she said.
“These sculptures have been in development for so many years that it has changed us as thinkers and creators. We have expanded our reach and the challenge of realizing the complex forms is exhilarating,” Figg said.
“This is taking our work to new levels. This project in particular is demonstrating just how much thought, planning, designing, making, and engineering go into our work, and that effort is recognized,” she added.