Fifty-five years after Kent Bloomer and James Romualdi won a competition to grace Rodef Shalom Congregation’s new building addition with sculpture, Bloomer, a former Carnegie Institute of Technology professor, returned to the Shadyside congregation to discuss his work.
The 1956 addition of Freehof Hall to Rodef Shalom Congregation initially presented an architectural challenge. Freehof Hall, with its clean horizontal lines, did not match Rodef Shalom’s original ornate building. So the congregation held a competition for a design to unite the buildings’ aesthetics, resulting in Bloomer and Romualdi’s 32-by-22-foot architectural ornament over the Freehof entrance.
“Coming back here, looking at this project, I have been able to rebuild my memory of my last 50 years of design,” said Bloomer.
In the half-century since completing the Rodef facade, Bloomer founded an eponymous studio, which has completed high-profile, large-scale projects like the roof ornament for the new Federal Court building in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; a foliated trellis for the Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.; and large roof sculptures on the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, Illinois. He’s also taught at Yale since 1966.
The Rodef Shalom commission “changed my life,” said the sculptor and educator during a Sept. 16 event at the Shadyside congregation. “It really established my future.”
Bloomer was just a few years out of graduate school when he and Romualdi entered the competition. For the winning commission, they created sculptural waves that catch the sunlight, noted Martha Berg, Rodef Shalom’s archivist.
The project needed to “enforce a sense of harmony but also had to be a thing unto itself,” said Bloomer. Apart from matching “with the ethos of the 1960s,” there were also structural considerations.
Creating a sculpture out of concrete, and affixing it to the facade, would have required traditional reinforcing bars. So Bloomer, who studied physics and architecture as an undergrad at MIT, worked with Romualdi, a professor of civil engineering at Carnegie Tech, to come up with an innovative solution.
They carved the sculpture out of Styrofoam, Berg explained, and cut it into 35 blocks. Each block was reinforced with Wirand, a steel fiber reinforcement for concrete, and covered with a quartz-silicone aggregate material to create a translucent surface. The use of Wirand eliminated the need for conventional reinforcing bars.The process took two years, but in August 1965, the off-white pre-cast blocks were installed.
Bloomer’s sculpture has a “wonderful play of shadow,” said Doug Cooper, Andrew Mellon Professor of Architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. “In a sense, it’s a 2-D image that when we get underneath it, pulls our view up to the sky.”
Cooper, who studied under Bloomer at Carnegie Tech, told the nearly 70 attendees at Bloomer’s recent Rodef talk to “think of it as a vertical ocean.”
David Lewis, founder of Urban Design Associates, also spoke at the event, calling Bloomer’s sculpture “incredibly moving, marvelous.” But he said people would be remiss to consider it merely a work of art. “We have to learn to look at works with our bodies and with our minds.”
Bloomer’s sculpture is “part of our urban experience,” he continued. Putting aside the technological, cultural and historical aspects of the work, “what matters is your relationship to that sculpture.”
“The progression of the curves brings your focus upwards,” said Lane Liston of Penn Hills, as he admired the piece outside Freehof Hall. “I have been coming here for decades and never really looked at it before.”
Looking at the sculpture after hearing about the way it was made changes one’s understanding of it, said Marilyn Durschi of Fox Chapel. “It’s always good to go into depth about something you take for granted,” she said.
“I think that the opportunity to reflect on the architectural elements and the aesthetic elements that made our congregational building so distinctive is a privilege for us,” echoed Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom Congregation.
Carolyn Terner of Wilkinsburg, agreed and called Bloomer, Cooper and Lewis “three wonderful geniuses who graced our synagogue with a lovely appreciation of thought and wisdom about design, sculpture and public art.”
As attendees gathered inside for a reception with Bloomer, Raymond Kaskey, a celebrated American sculptor and former student of Bloomer’s, remarked on his involvement in the project from nearly 60 years ago.
“We put the Styrofoam blocks together and that was just sort of donkey work, gluing these things together,” he said. When it came time to “carve the Styrofoam in the configuration that you see here, that was the interesting work. And I was kind of scared that I would make a mistake or carve into the surface too far and he was going to get mad, but I was extremely careful.”
Seeing the early sketches and hearing his former teacher’s ideas on “light coming from a source way up” was interesting, Kaskey added. “I mean, he never explained that to me. I was just there to provide the hand labor, so 60 years later I understand it better.”
Kaskey said he appreciated the opportunity to reconnect with Bloomer and others, but was saddened by the sculpture’s condition.
“The dark indentations are mold,” said Bloomer. “It’s the same problem as at the Jefferson Memorial. It’s kind of a plague throughout the industry.”
Apart from the mold, there is water infiltration and issues of structural integrity to consider, explained Teresa Duff, architectural conservator at Lineage Historic Preservation Services, who is working on the architectural sculpture’s conservation. “There’s a few different layers to the project, but they’re all interesting and fun.” The congregation is accepting donations from those interested in supporting the restoration efforts.
The sculpture is unnamed, and subject to personal ways of seeing.
“I think everybody is going to have their own kind of interpretation of what this really means to them,” said Rabbi Walter Jacob, Rodef Shalom’s rabbi emeritus and senior scholar. “I think if one needs to explain it, especially to a bunch of kids, it’s the Exodus from Egypt after the Jews have left and the Egyptians are either behind or have died.”
In that way, the sculpture becomes “graphic and interesting and is not just a technical-based explanation.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.