Keith Van de Riet with the students' terra-cotta models.
Courtesy Rick Hellman Keith Van de Riet with the students' terra-cotta models.

Last fall, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Kansas Keith Van de Riet administered and led “Craft in the Digital Age,” a class in which students developed and created terra-cotta models of the ornamentation from the landmark Wainwright Building in St. Louis, designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. The group utilized technologies ranging from 3D modeling to clay kilns to develop full- and half-scale models of the detailing from the building’s cornice and molding. ARCHITECT spoke with Van de Riet about his inspiration for the class and the project's success.

What was your inspiration for this project?
It felt like it just dawned on me one day, actually.

Louis Sullivan was [designing] at a bifurcation point of this unique American architecture emerging. You have the use of natural systems—motifs that had some symbolism of human and natural relationships—as they relate to that formal expression of the high-rise within this emerging economy of the U.S [in the late 20th century]. The natural systems adorn these buildings in an ornamental way, but underneath there’s a lot of parametric qualities. And even in Sullivan’s manifesto, he expressed this desire to use natural systems to a much greater degree, and [argued] that designers need to be aware of them. A lot of this came from his childhood and [being] immersed in natural landscape. I’m also inspired similarly and seeing this parallel of one of our great architects in America inspired me to connect the dots on my own research, the natural systems, and what Sullivan was doing in his time and in his era.

Also, I’m married to a historic preservationist and she has provided inspiration, and often informal feedback, on the project.

Why the Wainwright building?
It’s arguably considered the first skyscraper, not because it was the first structure of its type, but because it was the first one that expressed a new type of design for the skyscraper. It [helped create] the new American architecture around the idea of a high-rise. [With] natural systems just crawling all over it—I mean, the thing looks like it’s alive.

The skin of it is pulsing with dynamic forms, like we’ve caught it in the stage of growth. It’s such a powerful analogy of what the high-rise was doing at the time, what architecture was trying to express with its verticality and movement upward. It’s not unlike what the great Gothic cathedrals were trying to do, to kind of transcend space, in a way, to try to reach for the heavens. And so it’s a really powerful building.

Courtesy Keith Van de Riet

How did your students approach the project?
The studio was run as a collaborative practice environment where I tried to plant seeds and give them an introduction to the technologies, the basic assembly skills, or the things they needed to get grounded and oriented, and then they ran with it from there. This is the type of project that we had a lot of repetition and a lot of mundane activities like casting plaster casts over and over. And often we failed and something would crack, and it was fairly disheartening. Opening the kiln for the project was often like Christmas, you’re not really sure what’s going to come out.

Thankfully, the group was super positive.

Can you walk us through the process of creating the models?
We undertook the challenge without any formal documentation of the building other than photography. And without the drawings or any sort of models in existence, we had to figure out a way to extract the basic geometry, and then build on that basic geometry and elaborate the floral characteristics.

We started just by sketching over photographs, what was the guiding geometry of each detail that they were looking at. And everyone in the class had to produce these drawings so that everyone would get familiar and understand the parametric geometry that was controlling all the other growth. From the sketches, I then introduced them to Rhino, by McNeel and Associates. With Rhino, we were able to take those 2D drawings, generate them digitally as a simple 2D line drawings, and then start to elevate those lines into 3D forms and create surfaces around that. It was a fairly slow, tedious process that involved scrutinizing multiple photographs from multiple angles so you could get the approximate depth. We were dealing with shadows. The cornice is covered in pigeon poop, so you had to account for that and the discoloration.

It really made an interesting process of [figuring out how to] document something so remotely. We were treating it as if the building wasn’t even there anymore. And in case of Sullivan, we’ve lost many of his works, so we can now apply our technique, perhaps, in rediscovering some of his old work. On the 3D model, it’s fairly conventional, going from model to computer numeric control, and then from that to a plaster mold into the terra-cotta material. Each step really had a learning curve for the students, because they had never done it.

Wainwright building cornice plans.
Courtesy Keith Van de Riet Wainwright building cornice plans.

What building do you want to model next?
The Guaranty Building, [in Buffalo, N.Y.], has even more complexity to its terra-cotta tiles; in some areas, you get incredible 3D forms coming out that had to require [some sort of] post-processing—being carved further—after they were removed from their plaster molds. And so I’m curious how this technique could apply to something that might require some moments where you have to process things further.

Beyond that, I think the technique could [be applied] globally. Are there other regional or indigenous architecture or other styles or religious architecture that we want to try to capture with this technique? That’s where the studio was really somewhat of a pilot study or an exploratory studio to see what can be done within the semester and with our tools.

Student participants include: Kelechi Akwazie, David Brookman, Alex Delekta, Cassandra Hall, Jacob Hansen, Joseph Herdler, Andrew Hutchens, Maxwell Irby, Mark Kaufman, Grace Kennedy, Joseph Libeer, Benjamin Marquardt, Andrew Marquette, Andy Martinez Renteria, Jacob Peterson, and Dana Ritter.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.