Charting a Future for Nakashima’s “Experimental Field”
Update: On May 7, 2017, Professor Frank Matero and team will present their research at the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Nakashima Arts Building. The day’s program includes a private tour of the Conoid Studio led by William Whitaker, Curator and Collections Manager, Penn Architectural Archives. RSVP on NakashimaFoundation.org.
Three years ago, George Nakashima Woodworkers (GNW)—the Bucks County complex where the famed Japanese-American furniture maker and architect lived and worked—approached The Architectural Conservation Laboratory (ACL) at PennDesign for help. The result was a five-year partnership beginning with the documentation and analysis of one of Nakashima’s most iconic structures, his Arts Building.
“Our work together clearly establishes why such relationships are so important for PennDesign,” says Frank Matero, ACL’s Faculty Director and Professor in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation. “Not only do they extend our reach in terms of contemporary practice, but they bring contemporary problems into the academy.” Matero started the ACL in 1990, he explains, “precisely to give students the opportunity to work in the real world.”
To get the Nakashima project under way, two Penn PhD students dug into the mountain of drawings, correspondence, and other archival materials stored in Nakashima’s home, workshop and studio. They began to understand just how innovative an architect Nakashima—who is most celebrated for his distinct, organic wood furniture—was.
After he graduated from MIT with a master’s in architecture, Nakashima practiced briefly during the early 1930s in Japan with Antonin Raymond, an American architect who had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. Upon his return to the States, though, Nakashima’s budding architectural career was cut short when he was interred at Camp Minidoka. There, under the tutelage of a fellow camp mate, he learned traditional Japanese joinery techniques.
When Raymond successfully petitioned for his release, Nakashima and his family made their way to Bucks County, where the Czech architect had set up his American shop in 1939. It was not far from here that Nakashima built his own arts and crafts campus—21 buildings in all—starting in the late 1940s. (The site is now both a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Nakashima had a great interest in resolving form through his roofs,” Matero says. “In creating innovative shapes such as the hyperbolic paraboloid, he offered his solution to the problem of spanning large spaces unencumbered by columns.” It was for this reason that architect and preservation student César Bargues Ballester, working on the ACL project, homed in on the Arts Building and Cloister, built between 1964-67, as worthy of his thesis and the research team’s focus.
The project earned a 2015 grant from the Getty Foundation’s initiative Keeping It Modern, which recognizes the significance of protecting the recent past. “We argued that while a lot of attention has been paid to orthodox modernism from the likes of Le Corbusier, Mies, and the mainstream modernists, the more craft-oriented traditions of which Nakashima was a leader in this country, had not been as well-recognized or studied,” Matero says.
Along with Matero and Bargues Ballester, now a Research Associate with the ACL, the team working through PennPraxis also includes co-project director William Whitaker, Curator and Collections Manager at Penn’s Architectural Archives, Adjunct Professor in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation Michael Henry, and Landscape Architecture Lecturer Nicholas Pevzner.
The ACL’s overall analysis has led to the preparation of a conservation management plan that incorporates four phases. The first two—understanding the complex and its significance and putting Nakashima as an architect and the great American craft tradition of this area back into Modernism—have been accomplished. The next two steps comprise Phase II: developing policies to sustain and protect that significance in accordance with the vision of its stewards and, naturally, implementing those policies.
“Nakashima crafted a remarkable building, an American hybrid of industrial and hand-crafted materials and methods that has survived quite nicely,” says Matero. “We hope what we've done will enable the organization to move forward to eventually develop a vibrant yet respectful use and interpretive program for the whole campus. This first grant was for his signature building, but Nakashima used the entire property as an experimental field and we’re hoping to move forward to other buildings, probably tackling the Conoid Studio next. His genius was in creating a place for making and living art—every building, tree, and rock—is carefully considered as an expression of balance, function, and serenity, much like his furniture.”