February 23, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

                                                                  GLASS TOWER ON THE HORIZON

Last weekend Fran and I spent a couple of days in Tacoma, Washington. We stayed in a nice neighborhood that resembled our own, if you added a part of the Puget Sound a few blocks away. We enjoyed two nice meals with some old friends. And we got to spend most of a day visiting Tacoma's Museum of Glass, which I would heartily recommend to anyone anywhere near the Pacific Northwest. It is one of the few contemporary buildings which makes me proud to have been an architect.

The Museum of Glass was built as part of an urban renewal project at the turn of the century. Tacoma, long in a blue collar shadow of Seattle, endeavored to cover up yet another ill-conceived and uncompleted highway by lining it with so many civic institutions and new hotels and apartment houses as to try to render it invisible. An entire new regional campus for the University of Washington joined about a half a dozen new museums whose collections ranged from State History to Vintage Automobiles to Art - clearly something for everyone in an effort to boost civic pride and the local economy. The Museum of Glass was the crown jewel of the entire assemblage, with its glass kiln tower an instant landmark. Arthur Erickson, the Canadian architect, was in charge, and provided the drama required for a new civic landmark in a very strange site. Erickson clearly wanted to create a very opaque sculptural plinth that would be its own world, one with incredible distant views of both the water and Mt. Rainier, while ignoring its immediate surroundings. The museum is surrounded in part by a host of new condos, despite, in Fran's words, "Who wouldn't want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for an apartment not only next to a highway but also next to three mainline train tracks?" The series of roofs, stairs, and ramps that surround and surmount the museum resemble a similar arrangement at Seattle's new Sculpture Garden which also tries to literally ignore surrounding highways and railroad tracks by offering sculptures with views of the distant Olympic Mountains.

I visited the museum when it was almost brand new, surrounded by hundreds of architects and hosted by Erickson himself at an architectural conference many years ago, but I had always wanted to show it off to Fran. We finally went together after driving by Tacoma innumerable times while being stuck in traffic on the way to Seattle. It was another shock of "older age" to realize that it might have been almost twenty years since my first visit, but the building's design holds up. While the roofs were certainly livelier with hundreds of fellow visitors, and most of the art seemed to have moved inside, the pilgrimage around the tower still captured our attention despite being alone on a typically gloomy Northwest day.

The chimney Tower for the demonstration Glass Blowing arena is of course the highlight of both the exterior and the interior of the museum. It is composed of 2800 stainless steel panels on a computer-designed structural grid. It is absolutely compelling as a photographic subject, but it is hard to capture the entirety of the sculpture without including some of its dreary, even unsightly surroundings. While I am sure that native photographers have discovered some great viewpoints from some surrounding buildings, I adopted my usual strategy of trying to isolate the tower from its surroundings while allowing myself to not include the entire sculpture.

                                                                  THE ORIGINAL SNAPSHOT

                                                                  A CONSIDERED IMAGE

This was one of my more successful snapshots. There is nice collection of angles, and a subtle glow on the aluminum panels. I left the composition alone, but used Lightroom's masking tools to individually adjust the three different ares of the image - the sky, the tower, and those foreground sheds - so that I could both raise the overall exposure while manipulating the different areas on their own. The sky was first darkened, then lightened, with out affecting the other parts. The Tower was lightened and then had its contrast ratcheted up to bring out the subtle shading of the different tiles. Each row of these diamond-shaped panels gets slightly smaller as it rises up the cone, which was designed to recall the beehive wood burners that formerly lined the waterfront. The lower sheds were also lightened, but only to reveal a little shadow detail without really drawing any attention from the tower. Lightroom's new AI selection tools were made for an image like this, for any algorithm worthy of its creation can certainly pick out the sky and the subject of a graphic image like this. For the foreground sheds, a new selection tool that allows for a selection based on a chosen luminosity range differentiated between the lighter tower and the darker sheds very well.

                                                                  A ROOFTOP JUXTAPOSITION

As I walked around the roof, I tried to find new ways to capture the tower. It was interesting to me that as an architect I was fully capable of "suspending my disbelief" at so arbitrary an object as the tower but just couldn't accept a winged roof over the elevator to the roof. I decided to include it as a speeding bullet impaling the tower.

                                                                  AN ARROW TO THE HEART

I left most of my visual pun alone, restricting my manipulations to subtly darkening the sky and lightening the tower. My major annoyance was the perfectly natural blue tinge on the tower, so I reduced it by lowering the tower's saturation almost to black and white.


The museum's actual collections try to encompass the entire range of artwork that uses glass in an almost encyclopedic range of means and intents. These include items that are traditional "craft" pieces to conceptual art that happens to be made of glass, and everything in between. The problem a photographer faces is that the combination of natural and artificial light renders a snapshot that usually bears no relation to what ou human eyes saw and our brains adjusted for. Post processing is the only way to get back to anywhere close to what we saw when we snapped the shutter.


Results like this are as shocking as they are typical. Once again the camera is either just plain stupid or merely too realistic in its depiction of color casts that our brain rejects on site. Most snapshots taken in conditions like this only reveal how complex the magic of our visual perception really is - how our brain interprets what our eyes see.


Some of the exhibits use commissioned art pieces to illustrate the various unique properties of glass as a material. This series of colored rings showed how glass's transparency did not preclude it from creating  a play of shadows as well.

                                      LIGHT AND COLOR AND SHADOW

I cropped the image, and the sculpture, to eliminate the ordinary interior environment of the ceiling and corners so as to concentrate on my own collection of the rings. As usual cropping eliminates problems like light fall-off by just getting rid of the offending parts of the image. After once again correcting the horrendous white balance I concentrated my efforts on enhancing each of the colors by individually manipulating their luminosity and saturation. to achieve the results I was looking for. By increasing both the overall exposure and deepening the shadows I could highlight the shadows the artist was interested in.

                A SCHOOL OF GLASS SALMON

Some of the art was merely breathtaking, and pretty hard to render in one photograph. This school of glass salmon numbered in the hundreds and filled up a gallery almost as big as my bungalow. The fish both reflected the room and allowed you to see through them and appreciate the entire school. Even the fishing lines that tied them to the ceiling became a work of art. My black and white rendition here avoids the color changes that occurred continuously because of reflections from a movie of a real salmon stream projected on an adjoining large wall on one side of the room. A color photograph rendered these multi-colored stripes as an additional layer of confusion that a viewer could never be expected to understand.

                                              THE TOWER'S INTERIOR REVEALED

A lot of the museum's collection, and most of the items available for purchase in the museum shop, are actually created in the museum itself. The "Hot Shop" is the museum's center of creation, an amphitheater that is analogous to a giant outdoor exhibit at an aquarium. Here a team of glass blowers perform the artistic ballet required to create these glass sculptures, ranging from trinkets to sophisticated chandeliers. Narration of their efforts, accompanied by diagrams and explanations, illustrate the processes that lead to either artistic success or to a pile of shattered glass that needs to be swept away. The Tower is really an enormous chimney, 90' tall, needed to exhaust the gasses and heat from the enormous gates to Hell that heat the raw supplies of glass to 2400 degrees and allow the artisans to melt and manipulate the glass into the finished pieces. The chimney allows the heat in the amphitheater to hover at about 90 degrees. The engineering of the tower revealed here in its interior is almost as breathtaking as the sound of the fans and the heat rising to the skylights above. This near-black and white rendition was achieved by lowering the saturation of the blues, which glowed from the skylight and provided the only real color in the interior of the tower. Drastic exposure manipulation was required to balance the overall darkness with the burnt-out highlights in the skylights.


We once again return to the roof for one final take on the Tower. As an architect I was often asked both in school and then later by clients "what the hell I was doing" which of course was a pretty existential question of what an architect was worth as a member, if not a leader, of a team of builders. I only had to hope that the results of my efforts would justify my vision of the project which I hoped exceeded my client's dreams without breaking their budget. I feel that it is a building like the Museum of Glass that answers the question without saying a word. The sense of wonder that accompanies a visit has absolutely nothing to do with program, or function, or cost - this is art, plain and simple. Even if my training allows me to have a fuller understanding of both the difficulties and the triumphs of such a work, you have got to be an absolute Philistine in every sense of the word not to be moved in some way by this piece of art designed to exhibit and shout the virtues of other pieces of art. Of course it is willfully arbitrary, and "unnecessary", and that is what makes it human.

I hope that these small two-dimensional images of mine, which fall far short of documenting the three-dimensional reality of a large building in Tacoma, might actually encourage you to visit and see for yourself. The Art of Photography is in revealing one's individual feelings on a subject as an artist, even if the subject is a work of art in itself.