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Artist/architect James Carpenter in front of his installation Light Cascade in the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, June 25 2013. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Artist/architect James Carpenter in front of his installation Light Cascade in the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, June 25 2013. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Meet the ‘Genius of Light’ who transformed Harbourfront’s parking garage Add to ...

Close your eyes and think of a place that is dark, boring and purely utilitarian – do you see a parking garage? As part of a $45-million revitalization, Canada’s largest centre for contemporary arts has built an underground parking garage. Normally, this would not be a topic of conversation. But the revitalization of Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre has meant visitors can experience art from the moment they arrive, in a way that – no pun intended here – rewards reflection.

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James Carpenter, the MacArthur “genius”-grant-winning light artist and architect who has won acclaim for recent projects including 7 World Trade Center and an extension of the Israel Museum, has created a brilliant installation at Harbourfront’s new garage and public square.

Called Light Cascade , the piece is a wall of glass three-storeys tall and 15-metres wide that refracts and channels light down into the underground parking garage through a large opening and, thanks to lights at the bottom, will illuminate Ontario Square, the new public space on the waterfront.

“It’s a way of transforming this sense of arrival,” Carpenter says.

“We want[ed] an art work to be a really important component of the underground garage,” says Harbourfront Centre CEO William Boyle, who has nothing but praise for Carpenter. “This guy is amazing. He’s called the Genius of Light.”

With his slicked-back silver hair, laid-back baritone and unassuming manner, Carpenter is flattered by such praise, although you get the sense he doesn’t take it seriously. Asked about winning the MacArthur, he laughed that it added “some credibility” to his work.

At the same time, though, he can talk about the “phenomenologies of light” and make it sound like the most natural, unpretentious way of describing the way light is perceived. Most of us probably don’t spend much time thinking about the light that surrounds us and how it can make us stop and reconsider a space, but Carpenter has made a career of it.

The panels of Light Cascade feature hundreds of small circles made of a metallic printing on film that are sandwiched between two layers of glass. The circles are composed of various shades of silver and grey dispersed to concentrate reflectivity.

The sun’s rays bounce off the top portion of the wall to the textured stainless-steel panel, and from there are sent to the bottom of the garage.

“The whole thing is just about how you channel light,” Carpenter says. Like so much of his work, it will make you pause and appreciate the quality of light all around you.

The installation is meant to let visitors experience art from the moment they arrive at Harbourfront Centre, not just when they walk through the front doors, Boyle says.

As the head of his eponymous design studio in New York, Carpenter has worked on projects around the world, all of them deeply rooted in ideas of space and a notion of light as architecture.

The lucid façades of glass he designed for the exterior of Manhattan’s 7 World Trade Center, for example, were a response to the idea that when new buildings are being put up, the only considerations of how they will use light are in terms of the people inside, thus privatizing what Carpenter sees as a public resource. The highly reflective glass instead prioritizes people on the street.

“Tower 7 is an example of how you can make a building be more responsive and vibrant in terms of giving back qualities of light to its surroundings,” he says.

Although every project is different, one common thread that runs through Carpenter’s work is the idea of how people in cities experience light. Often, that means channelling natural light to places where it rarely goes. For the current renovation of the Fulton Street Transit Center, in New York, Carpenter helped Arup and Grimshaw Architects design a reflector made of aluminum panels that redirect daylight into the underground passageways.

“When you start getting denser and denser built environments you oftentimes forget that there are these phenomenal qualities of light that surround us. So we try to actually do work that re-engages you with sort of the wonderment of light, the beauty of light, or qualities of light, that we often ignore,” he says.

Although Carpenter originally planned on studying architecture, his fascination with light led him to study sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he graduated with a degree in sculpture in 1972. That led to a decade as a consultant for Corning Glass and collaborations with glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.

In 2004, Carpenter, who is now in his early 60s, won a MacArthur Foundation “genius award,” which comes with $500,000 (U.S.), in recognition of his work expanding the technical and artistic potential of glass.

One of the things that draws him to work with light is the fact that it is constantly changing over the course of the day or depending on the weather, which means that his pieces, too, can be experienced differently at different times.

Light Cascade is Carpenter’s second public-art piece in Toronto.

Last year, he unveiled Lake Light Threshold, a pedestrian bridge just a short distance from Harbourfront Centre. The prisms of the walkway interact with both light and the people passing along in a way that is meant to suggest light coming off the Lake Ontario ice in winter.

Both Toronto projects, like so much of Carpenter’s other work, shift and transform through the day, depending on things like weather or the angle of sunlight.

It’s this quality of architecture that is constantly changing, and thus always asking us to pause and reconsider it, that Carpenter is drawn to.

“I’m just constantly fascinated by the variability and animation of light,” he says.

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

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