In the centre of the Sydney CBD, two architectural glass installations occupy diagonally opposite corners of the City's busiest intersection. They represent each end of the spectrum for a medium, method and time line. The bustle of traffic and pedestrians between them is an apt metaphor for the transition from one to the other.
1988 was a busy year in Sydney. A great celebration was in progress and a number of significant artworks were commissioned. One was a pair of windows for the iconic Sydney Town Hall. The brief was to design and construct a matching pair of windows which would blend into the Victorian architecture as if they had always been there, and to visually tell the story of the Bicentenary. I created the imagery and executed the windows in traditional painted and stained leaded glass. Measurement, design, construction and installation were all done essentially single handed, as had become the norm since the advent of the studio glass movement.
Twelve years later, in Sydney's Olympic year, it was an interesting and exciting experience to find myself supported by a diverse and professional team of people committed to install a major art glass feature into a modern commercial building. This pioneering effort has resulted in producing the world's largest, suspended, fused glass curtain wall.
The Galeries Victoria is Sydney's newest retail complex. Situated diagonally opposite the Sydney Town Hall, it sits on the site of the old Walton's Department Store. Comprising three street frontages, it encloses the historic old School of Arts building and provides two covered thoroughfares between George and Pitt Streets. Due to the history of the site, the owners felt that artworks should be a considered part of their development. Sydney based art consultancy, Art Incorporate was engaged to create a program which integrated visual art components into this commercial environment.
Their proposal included artworks of strongly coloured glass to be positioned above the walkway entrances on the Pitt Street side of the building. The architects and client concurred and I was offered the design brief.
I have been making fused glass, alongside leaded stained glass, for nearly twenty years. My range includes small objects which fit into the palm of the hand, through functional art glass and small scale sculptures to larger sculptural pieces. My primary interest and initial training was in Architectural Stained Glass and for many years I have been trying to encourage the use of fused glass on the same scale. It has been a long and difficult journey. The advent of clear, textured architectural glass not only usurped the Stained Glass window, but delayed the possibility of using coloured glass for many years. The clear glass is a product which fits easily into the mindset of the developer with an eye on the bottom line. It is fast to produce, easy to handle, transport and install. It has no soul "but hey….it's cheap", so now it's everywhere. It is difficult to convince a client to spend more, unless their primary objective is to commission a work of art, rather than slap up a section of light cladding.
I have worked with Art Incorporate for many years and have completed a number of fused glass architectural projects for them. The most recent was a series of fifteen fused glass panels comprising a single design. Suspended on stainless steel cables in front of an illuminated wall, they are part of the Qantas Club lounge at Wellington Airport, New Zealand. This commission represented the culmination of many years of experimenting and developing the processes requisite for large scale, coloured, fused art glass installations.
The Galeries Victoria brief was simple enough: design two glass works, one to fill half of each space. Due to the positive response to the New Zealand project, Art Incorporate specifically requested fused glass rather than leaded stained glass. The opportunity had finally arisen to create architectural fused glass on a grand scale.
I found myself drawn into a working relationship quite different in many ways to the norm. Usually I am asked to supply a piece which is placed in an environment, after the architectural work is completed and some visual hole has become evident. It was exciting and something of a roller-coaster ride, to be called into the process early enough to integrate the work into the selected spaces and to have architects, engineers, lighting consultants, specialist glaziers, accountants and marketing consultants all involved.
The designs evolved rapidly, particularly as I had ideas, which had been looking for a place to grow for many years. The first hurdle was the design presentation meeting in which the principals and their diverse entourage of advisers discussed and dissected the designs from every angle. A scaled down glass sample of the smaller of the two proposed installations certainly helped focus everyone on what the end result might be, rather than all the hurdles to be overcome in achieving it. Provisional approval to proceed was given and the fun began.
In order to complete the project on time, just prior to the Olympics, it was necessary to start making the glass panels immediately. The fusing glass has to be imported from Portland in Oregon, costs an arm and a leg and takes at least eight weeks to arrive. Engineering details among other things still had to be resolved. Art Incorporate and I discussed the various scenarios at length and presented them to the client, who decided to move ahead regardless, so orders were placed for the glass.
The first design was inspired by the lyrical calls of the Magpie, heralding the Australian dawn. The colours of the rising Sun progress from seashore to desert, presided over by the spirit of the songster. It is very much a companion piece to the larger installation, being at once a map of the land and its spirits. The larger design is of a serpentine landmass surrounded by ocean, simultaneously viewed from various perspectives and levels of magnification, referring to a range of Australian environments populated by surreal fauna.
Most of my work is intricately detailed, designed for intimate viewing. This composition had to work from 100 metres away. I elected to retain the detail to reward close examination and simultaneously provide texture when viewed from a distance, as does the Australian landscape. Too often it is derided as 'just bush' when there is infinite variation of texture and colour. The work aims to impart the 'feeling' of this ancient and beautiful land of ours; the spirit inherent in the mythology, geo-biology and history. Sustaining that level of detail over such a large area meant an enormous amount of work.
Stage one was to work with the engineers designing the frame to hold the glass. Usually such installations are glazed into the external frame, but it was decided to suspend the art glass about a metre inside that external glass wall. This allowed for exciting design possibilities but created some interesting construction problems, particularly as not even a nail could be driven into the School of Arts building which formed one side of each of the curtain walls.
Once the frame was resolved, it was necessary to hire a hall to prepare the full size cartoons, due to their size. Using a template, the frame outlines were drawn up and then the outlines for the design added in. Standing on the stage, looking at the large drawing, I had my first understanding of just how big this was really going to be. Sixty individual panels comprising some thirty square metres or in layman's terms, about the size of a bus. The smaller of the two was less than half the size, a mere stretch limo by comparison.
There followed many months of very hard work. Preparation of the design elements which comprise my visual vocabulary was continuous. I even went as far as Darwin to utilise a specialised kiln in a colleague's studio, where I could draw long strings of multi-coloured glass. The limiting factor was the turn around time of the kilns and I was firing every 24 hours, necessitating a lot of late night kiln checks. Everything went smoothly and as the panels were completed, they were taken away to a secure storage area. Eventually the frames and lighting rigs were built and installed and the seventy seven panels fitted.
In October 2000 the art works in The Galeries Victoria were officially presented to the City of Sydney. So now contemporary architectural fused glass takes its place opposite the traditional stained glass. Crossing between those two corners of the square took far longer than a change of lights.