Crystal helps contemporary artists create inspiring work with water in the public realm

By Doug Duff, Founding Partner of Crystal, and Rob Mikula, a Senior Designer at Crystal

Water is a powerful tool. As an essential primal element, water tends to resonate with human beings who are often naturally drawn to it, especially when it is presented in a spectacular form. For artists, it is sculptural and highly versatile, and can create different movement, sounds, shapes and colours. For centuries artists have used water in their work to express themselves, and many examples of this can be found in the public realm. This is no different today, with contemporary artists using water as an expressive tool and taking advantage of the latest technology to create inspiring work.

Crystal, a world leader in water design and technology, has been collaborating with artists and helping them realise their visions since the company’s inception in 1967. It acts as a bridge between artists, architects and engineers, believing that fountains are a place where art, architecture and engineering graciously meet. Many of Crystal’s staff are artists themselves, and thrive on being able to converse with other artists and help bring their ideas to life.

Mark di Suvero

One artist that Crystal works with is Mark di Suvero. Born Marco Polo Levi-Schiff di Suvero in Shanghai, China in 1933 to Italian expatriates, he moved to San Francisco, California in 1941 with his family. From 1953 – 1957 di Suvero studied philosophy at the University of California, before moving to New York where surrounded by Abstract Expressionism, he focused all his attention on sculpture. Di Suvero is considered to be one of the most important sculptors of his generation, and his distinctive, large bold pieces can be found worldwide.

He was a founding member of the Park Place Gallery in New York, continues to be the subject of multiple exhibitions, and received the Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award from the International Sculpture Center. Crystal collaborated with Di Suvero in 2005 at the headquarters of Calpers (California Public Employees’ Retirement System), the US government organisation in Sacramento, California.

“It was interesting working with Di Suvero at Calpers headquarters in Sacramento.  He’d never worked with water before, so when conceiving the sculpture, named ‘Serendipity’, he came to Crystal with his initial design. We became heavily involved with crafting the sculpture, with Suvero’s idea being to create a kinetic piece involving water,” Duff explains.

Having never worked with water, Suvero was very open to ideas. This created room for in-depth consultation with the artist, including materials to be used, the part water would play and how the kinetic element of the sculpture could be made interactive with its viewers.

“Being an artist and musician myself, I suggested a stainless steel keyboard, with eight keys linked to eight water jets, with their water pressure creating movement when the public press the keys – the idea was refined with Suvero and can be seen on the finished piece. It’s a great example of how Crystal collaborates with artists, rather than an artist simply asking us to create what they are imagining,” says Duff.

Jaume Plensa

Catalan artist Jaume Plensa had his first exhibition in Barcelona in 1980. A significant part of Plensa’s production is set in the context of public sculpture, with works installed in USA, Spain, France, Japan, UK, Korea, and Canada. His sculptural work has gone through several stages developed largely with recuperation materials such as iron, bronze, and copper, and more recently constituents such as synthetic resin, glass, plastic, light, video and sound.

Crystal was selected by Emaar and architects SOM to work with Plensa on the development of ‘World Voices’. For the prestigious residential lobby of the Burj Khalifa, the artist created installation befitting the world’s tallest building.

To this end, Plensa created 196 reed-like sculptures with golden leaves. Cast in bronze and brass and plated with 18-carat gold, the ‘leaves’ are actually cymbals suspended on flexible stainless steel rods anchored in two triangular reflecting pools at ground level. There are 196 cymbals in total representing the 196 countries of the world.

Crystal developed custom technology that creates the right size, volume, and control of the droplets that fall approximately 60ft (18.2m) from the atrium’s gold-leaf ceiling onto 18 of the gold cymbals. The droplets fall through 1inch / 25mm diameter openings in the lobby’s atrium ceiling, and create a natural rhythm as they make contact with the cymbals below. The cymbals create a distinct timbre as they are struck by the falling water droplets, which the artist compares to the sound of water falling on leaves.

Crystal developed the gravity-fed water controls that create bigger, natural droplets.  Part of the test workshop run in Toronto studied the size and formation of water droplets as they hit cymbals below, from a height of approximately 60ft. “It sounds like a simple idea, and in fact it looks simple, but to generate the right sound at the time intervals dictated by Plensa, was challenging,” says Mikula.

Jo Schneider

Jo Schneider creates sculpture, public art and architecture. She is renowned for creating environments that are striking, engaging and memorable. She has a Masters of Architecture degree from UCLA Graduate School of Architecture, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from SUNY College of Ceramics, Alfred University.

Duff worked closely with Jo Schneider on Macy’s Court in Plaza Las Americas, Puerto Rico, where a giant kinetic sculpture slowly revolves as if buffeted by winds, evoking the historic sails of the galleons in which Christopher Columbus navigated. The project was part of a renovation and expansion of Plaza Las Americas, with artistic elements aiming to recreate the island as it was in 1493 when Christopher Columbus discovered it.

In front of Macy’s Court, on the first level, the fountain is filled with Schneider’s sculptures of the Island’s marine life. A manatee, a turtle and various fish, share the waters in an artistic vision of the wonders of the sea. Even though some of these depicted species are endangered, the idea is they will swim forever here.

Duff says he and Schneider created the concept together, with Crystal providing the water effects to compliment the sculptures, and a motor to operate the manatee’s flippers. “Crystal was present for all crucial parts of the project’s installation, ready to make any necessary adjustments,” he explains.

So what for the future? Both Duff and Mikula agree that technology such as submersible LED Lights, new water jets with endless choreographed possibilities will drive the work artists create with water. Duff cites Digital Rain Curtains, which fashion specially created shapes, colours and pictures with water and LED Lights, as well as jets and lights that enable water to dance to music. These effects can now even be created on a ‘smart’ level with the public being able to control fountains with devices such as Apple’s iPad.

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