Monday, April 16, 2012

Stonecutters Provide the Human Touch

The design of a stone tabernacle for a Portland, Oregon, church was completed with a partnership of design and craftsmanshipby Joseph Conrad
Joseph Conrad Stonecutter
Portland, Oregon

(First published in Stone World magazine, April 1996)

The design of the tabernacle of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Portland, Oregon, was influenced by Venetian churches.

My association with the restoration of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Portland, Oregon, began when Father Anthony asked if I could restore and reduce the size of an historic marble altar for the church's 100-year celebration. The altar, having come from St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, had been moved several times, and its size did not fit the space well.

After studying the way the altar was built, I knew this could be done tastefully without damaging the original design. However, I was somewhat intimidated by his request that I propose a design for a tabernacle to stand behind the altar. I eventually proposed that a marble tabernacle could be built utilizing an existing insert in the altar. The new tabernacle would reflect the design elements of the altar.

As a second-generation stonecutter with 35 years in the stone industry, I admit to a prejudice favoring local stone fabrication in spite of economic and social realities favoring foreign manufacturing of stone products. However, I am convinced that many experienced craftsmen intuitively view three-dimensional forms from a practical perspective which I call "Inside-Out Design," which was utilized for this project.

Inside-Out Design is the perception of physical forms as a series of processes that generate form. The architectural designer looks at the physical, social and economic needs of the client and proceeds to define a physical form to fulfill those needs. The craftsman looks at the same needs of the clients, asks how much money he has to spend, surveys the tools and supplies he has to work with, and proceeds to define the form.

In Practice

As we dissembled the altar to bring it to our fabrication shop for refurbishing, Father Anthony gave me some 1940 photos of the original tabernacle. He reminded me that tabernacles and church statuary and furniture are typically purchased in Italy, but there was a change in Church policy directing the use of local craftsmen whenever possible.

While this was refreshing news, I assume this proclamation is more typically interpreted to buy materials in Italy as usual and have local labor move it in. However, Father Anthony was determined to employ local craftsmen and artisans for the entire process.

He contacted Michael Dante, a professor of sculpture at the University of Oregon, to design and build the ornate sculptured doors for the tabernacle. Two separate sets of doors were required to house and show the monstrance at different elevations for religious ceremonies. Consequently, sizes were roughly established in human scale. The metal container and interior lighting were to be enclosed by a marble structure.

Father Anthony then hired DiBenedetto/Thomson Architects of Portland to design the structure. The architectural design team studied Venetian churches and developed drawings for a stone tabernacle.
A meeting to review the plans was held, including members of the architectural design team, the sculptor, Father Anthony, the church historian, myself and others. Each of us provided input as to the feasibility of construction and design concepts. It was decided that while the tabernacle should be the center of focus for the church, it should not overwhelm the space only with size. We wanted it to function on a human scale while also relating to the altar in front of it. As a sculptor, Dante was also concerned with door function, texture and relief.

Father Anthony requested that the architectural firm develop a full-size mock-up and set it in the space to check for scale, introduce and get input from congregational members, the donor and fellow church clergy.

After assembling the Styrofoam mock-up, it was decided to downsize the structure. Certain modifications were made, working drawings were given to me, and Dante was instructed to start on the doors.

Father Anthony and I then went to a local stone supply yard, Oregon Tile & Marble, to select material for the project. We set aside three slabs of Carrara White and chose accent and column stones later as the colors of the church decor evolved.

The construction procedure

Any complex stone project must start the same way, with full size drawings that include: plan, front, left, right, rear and critical sections through. Full-size drawings ensure that all parts work together. For example, if the doors swing into the column base, modifications would be required to make it work. It is useful to make drawings on pattern board. If kept clean and dry, they can then act as templates to build from as the project takes shape.

The stone craftsman must turn a single dimension drawing (flat plane) into a three-dimensional form. Often, changes in design occur during the process. As few people are capable of truly perceiving three-dimensional objects from shop drawings, patterns help.

The tabernacle was viewed as separate understandable stone components.

The tabernacle was viewed a separate understandable stone components, and shop tickets were made describing each element. At this point, shop experience is critical to create three-dimensional forms with little seam appearance. Understanding of shop machinery and practices are critical, as well as having strong knowledge of the stone's characteristics.

For some of the features, the various elements were cut-to-size, the edges detailed and the pieces were then assembled and glued to form a whole component. The components were then dry set in our shop and viewed by Father Anthony and the designer. Following the procedure, minor adjustments to the lighting were made.

Once approved, the assembly of the tabernacle at the church took less than six hours.

Once approved, the assembly of the tabernacle at the church took less than six hours. The local fabrication in this case allowed the customer/builder to interact with the artisans involved in the project. Sophisticated customers often require the stamp of craftsmen, which provides some of the soul that can be lost in day-to-day life.

1 comment:

  1. What a great site you have! I didn't know how much work and dedication goes into stone cutting. I love all of the pictures you posted. Keep up the good work :)