The Engineer Supporting Serra’s Sculptures

When Richard Serra’s monumental sculpture installation The Matter of Time opened in June at the Guggenheim Bilbao, a little-known engineer lurked metaphorically in the shadows, connected to both the art and the celebrated building containing it. Rick Smith, a former aerospace engineer and IBM computer whiz, was responsible in the early 1990s for transforming Frank Gehry’s office into a digital leader. While working there Smith met Serra. At one point during a 1994 visit—Gehry and Serra were friends—the sculptor talked about some difficulties he was having with a new metal piece. “No problem,” Gehry replied, “I’ll lend you Rick.”

Since then Smith has helped Serra with the design of the artist’s work, digitally guiding the process from conception to model to fabrication. The Guggenheim installation—located in the museum’s 430-foot long Arcelor Gallery—consists of eight giant, bent-steel sculptures, all of them between 13 and 14 feet high. The sculptures tilt, they twist, they curve, and the experience of walking through them produces a stomach-turning series of emotions—dread, claustrophobia, release, even exhilaration—all compressed into the time it takes to transverse them.

Smith currently works at Moshe Safdie and Associates, in Somerville, Massachusetts, performing essentially the same digital guru role that he did at Gehry’s office. Recently I spoke to the 50-year old Smith about his collaboration with Serra, the making of those mammoth pieces, and his lengthy involvement with architecture.

What is the process behind making a Serra sculpture?
When I began working with Richard, he’d already developed a method of model making using what he called a wagon wheel—two wooden discs, with identical elliptical shapes. He’d nail a 2×4 between them and rotate them so they were a top and bottom plate of plywood. Then he’d roll a sheet of lead on the ground, and that would define the outline of the metal plate. After that he would wrap the plate around the wagon wheel and that became his model. I would take that model and digitize it, so that it was in the computer. The problem was the metal was warped and bent, and when you digitized it you weren’t getting a pure ellipse. Eventually I said, “Instead of sending these big lead plates”—he’d send them in crates—“just fax me your dimensions: height, radius, angle.”

Do they heat those huge pieces of steel to fabricate them?
No. They’re cold-rolled. The roller used is about 20 feet long. Picture two long steel rolls shaped like logs, about a foot in diameter each—with a larger one about two feet in diameter that comes between the two. You put the plate in between these three rollers and the middle one comes down, bending the plate. It’s done very quickly. They turn on the machine and the plate rolls back and forth three times in three seconds, and you see metal fragments on the top surface crack and pop off like dust.

How do they know when they have the precise bend required?
In my computer model, I will take the curve and flatten it down and put it on a drawing. That shows the curvature they need to have at a certain location on the metal plate. They will make wooden templates from plywood at that exact curvature. When it bends at a certain area, they’ll come in with a wooden template and put it in place as a measurement device. If they miscalculate the curve, they flip it over and reverse bend it.

How did you first get involved with architects?
I went to school to be an architect back in the 1970s. My dad worked for IBM at the time so I knew about all this new CAD stuff. But in architecture school, everything was still pencils and compasses, and I thought: “This is not the future.” So I went to Brigham Young University and learned CAD, but they told me, “We don’t teach architecture; we only teach nuts-and-bolts mechanical.” So instead of becoming an architect, I worked at Lockheed, IBM, and in the aerospace industry for ten years. But I always wanted to be in architecture, so when I got a call from Gehry’s office, I jumped.

Where did they find you?
They called my office at IBM and said, “Do you know how to make a building in the shape of a fish?” I said, “Sure, a fish is like an airplane.” They had just gotten the contract for the Disney Concert Hall and had no way to capture the design.

For example, they had a physical model sitting on a desk with a piece of opaque glass and a light, and they’d cast a shadow onto the glass and then pin their paper and trace the shadow. That was their elevation drawing. I said, “You think you can design a building as complicated as this using this technique?” And they said, “This is how Michelangelo did it!” I said, “You guys have got to come out of the Renaissance.”

Weren’t they using [the software program] CATIA?
I brought them CATIA. But my problem is, I’m not a trained architect—and architecture is a tight club. If you’re not degreed, then you aren’t part of the club. I brought them a great technology, which helped change the industry. Originally, none of the architects wanted to do this. It was a struggle for about five years to get them to accept and believe.

Meanwhile [Gehry partner] Jim Glimph said, “Well, someone has to do the work,” so they had me train the office. That’s how it began. I worked there for about ten years, then after Disney was successful and completed, I came back to the office—I’d been working on the job site—and they said, “We don’t need you anymore. We know how to do it now, thanks.” So I was out of work, and came here to Moshe Safdie’s office.

What’s your job title in the Safdie office?
I don’t have one. That was the big question that the Gehry office always had. I kept saying, “Call me a virtual architect.” But here’s the key thing about the future—this new methodology causes all the disciplines to say: “We need to work with the same model, closer and sooner together.” So there’s got to be a different type of person to drive that. Whoever controls, builds, or manages the model will now become the person that helps coordinate and collaborate. The schools need to start training for that.

I have an MBA and an engineering degree, and at both schools they required us to take organizational behavior classes to learn to work in teams. I talk to all the architects here and they say they aren’t taught to work in teams. They’re taught to work against each other, so they come out with a competitive drive rather than a collaborative one.

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