Interview: Darrell Petit
January 1, 2005
As an architect and sculptor, Darrell Petit's search for natural stone has literally taken him around the world, including stops in Europe, Asia, India and Egypt, among other locales. These travels have not only been sourcing trips, however, as Petit has taken up residence near the quarries in Larvik, Norway, as well as in Stony Creek, CT, where he still lives today. With a first-hand understanding of the stone formation process as well as quarrying techniques, Petit's work portrays natural stone in its purest form, and his projects can be found around the world.
Born in Canada, Petit studied urban planning at Brown University, The Hochschule der Kunste-Berlin, as well as the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies of New York City. During the early part of his career, however, a stop at the Stony Creek granite quarry piqued his interest, and he worked in the quarry for several years. Ultimately, he began working with architects on various projects, and he has collaborated with some of the country's most renowned professionals, including Cesar Pelli, Kevin Roche and Diana Balmori, among others. Working on site-specific projects as well as other sculptural pieces, Petit has used a broad range of stone in various forms. His work has been on display at high-profile sites such as the Chubu Cultural Center and Museum in Kurayoshi, Japan; Riverside Park in New York City; the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, CT; and Yale University in New Haven, CT. It has also been procured for private collections in the U.S., Japan, Canada, Germany, Ireland and Egypt.
As an educator, Petit has been a visiting lecturer at Yale University, Brown University, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Kyoto City University of the Arts in Japan, among other institutions, and he continues to participate in symposiums around the world.
In a 1992 interview with the New Haven Register, the late Richard Bellamy - a legendary art dealer and former director of the Art and Steel Gallery in New York - made the following statement about Petit: â€œHis work is uncompromising. Darrell Petit is independent and fervid. He is always trying new things.â€
Contemporary Stone & Tile Design recently met with Petit at his studio in Stony Creek to discuss his work experiences and the relationship between sculpture and architecture.
CTSD: Describe the type of work that you do.
Petit: My work is a direct interaction with stone. For the past 15 years, I have been working in quarries all over the world to gain a better knowledge of the material, the process, and to experience the environment so that I can create my sculpture. And as it has evolved, the work has become a combination of my background in architecture, landscape architecture, sculpture and recently in the whole industrial/environmental condition of the quarry.
CTSD: What do you mean when you say you have worked in the quarries? Were you involved in the actual stone extraction?
Petit: In 1990, on my way to New York City from the Midwest, I stopped at the Stony Creek granite quarry to see the historic quarry where they [extracted the stone for] the Statue of Liberty. At that point, I decided that this was really where I needed to work and to find out about this material and the whole process - whether I was going to work as an architect or as a sculptor. So I worked in the quarry for six years, and that experience has prepared me to have a constructive dialogue and collaboration with architects and quarries around the world. So when I go somewhere - whether it is Japan, Italy, Norway or Canada - I can relate to the quarry, and I can work with them at that quarry level.
CTSD: How did you first become involved in sculpture?
Petit: While a student at Brown University, I had a hockey-related head injury, and it was suggested to me that I not take any reading or writing classes for a semester. I returned to the university and made sculpture another language. My first experience was in a foundry. The activity of making form from material into sculpture became a natural way in which I could think and work. I continued my architectural studies in urban planning and worked in an office in New York as a structural engineer, but sculpture came back to me later as the natural crystallization of all these different disciplines.
CTSD: Did your first experiences in sculpture use stone?
Petit: My first efforts were in molten iron. The process is alchemical; it is of the earth. The experience of working with a material that is mined from the earth is critical, and the language is quite similar [between molten iron and stone]. You are extracting a mineral that is part of the earth process, which is important to me.
CTSD: Can you explain the role of â€œarchitectural sculptor?â€
Petit: I think that describes the way in which I was formed and the process of my thinking and work. I am working on the boundaries of different disciplines, and though I still need to work directly with the material, I am often working within an architectural context. To study and better understand the condition of that place is the first step in the process of deciding what happens.
CTSD: We've talked a bit about your work in the quarries. Can you give some examples of how working in the quarries has increased your knowledge of how natural stone can be used?
Petit: It has been infinite. I would say that, in a sense, I was â€œbornâ€ when I first walked into a quarry. That whole experience left a mark on me that I found to be a critical turning point in my life. Working at that elemental state - and understanding what it is to go into the earth to secure the material for building purposes or sculptural purposes - was a transformative event in my life. I think before that, I probably would have understood the material as surface, which is unfortunately a great problem right now in the world of architecture. When you experience the quarry and you walk into the earth, your whole consciousness is affected. I thought to myself, â€œI really need to work here and understand the process.â€
CTSD: You are alluding to a complaint that is common among stone industry â€œpurists,â€ who say that stone is being commonly used like â€œwallpaperâ€ when it is specified in a vertical application. What are some of the ways in which you detail stone to best exploit its three-dimensional qualities?
Petit: That's a particular question, and I think it is different for everybody's specific language. In my case, I am mostly working with stone as a solid entity, and the quality of the granite is always pronounced. I am not usually looking to use it as a cladding, veneer or a covering.
Speaking generally, I think there is a great crisis in the world of architecture on how to handle a corner. That one specific detail can be handled a number of different ways to enhance the three-dimensionality of the material and in effect the architecture. Roche Dinkeloo's Museum of Jewish Heritage is a good example of a building with a definitive granite corner detail. I.M. Pei's Bank of China is a masterpiece. Granicor's granite work on Predock's McNamara Alumni Center in Minnesota is a strong example.
There are other ways [to detail stone] as well. Think of the ancient stone monumental projects where the scale of the stone elements is colossal - the scale of columns, lintels, panels, of great stepping stones. Once stone elements are greater than the human scale - because most contemporary stone architecture is still based on human proportion - then that material becomes a greater material entity than yourself. We then measure ourselves within a whole different dimension of time and on a geological scale that is closer to the scale of the quarry experience. Often, architects are afraid of this geological scale. [Norwegian Architecture Group] Snohetta's Norwegian Embassy in Berlin, where they designed a 56-foot slab of granite into the facade of the building - is an example of this bold thinking.
CTSD: But sheer volume of stone has not always conveyed a true sense of the material. In some casinos, for example, â€œgrandeurâ€ seems to be the goal. They have used stone on a large scale, but it is overdone.
Petit: You're right. Think of the giddiness around â€œThe Wombi Rockâ€ at the Casino of the Sky and how it is simply another â€œtheatrical setâ€ in comparison to the genius, mystery and enduring quality of the ancient monuments such as Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, Karnak, Baalbek, Abu Simbel or Angkor Wat. There is still an uncontainable excitement among many architects about technological advancements in cutting stone into little elements of decoration. We should be thinking less about how it all looks on a computer screen and more about how to use the technology to innovate with stone to bring out the essence and timelessness of stone to further develop architecture. The shortsightedness also has been the result of the common way people are sourcing material. People are still for the most part looking at stone two-dimensionally to make great, consequential decisions. A trip into the quarry can help develop a deeper understanding of stone in its raw state, and this experience will inevitably inform your design. There was some very strong architecture projects in the exhibition â€œGermany: the Art of Building with Stoneâ€ at Verona Marmomac 2004.
CTSD: Who are some of the people who have influenced you over the years?
Petit: I think for the most part, I have been greatly influenced by certain experiences in my life more than any individuals - even though I had many teachers. I would say that working in the Stony Creek quarry has been a great influence on my direction. Of course, working with Lundhs Labrador [a stone producer with several quarries in Norway] has had a great influence on my ability to create sculpture. Working with such an elite has enabled me to have a clear view of how to work from idea to process to sculpture. I have always felt free in the Larvik quarries to work unhindered by logistical limitations and to make sculpture with passion, efficiency and creative force. Egypt has also had a great influence on my life. To see stone monuments created at that scale and with that level of craftsmanship was an experience that left me thinking, â€œWhat can possibly be done anymore?â€ When I returned, I was sincerely humbled but also invigorated by the new insights and a new energy to continue working.
CTSD: You have worked together with several architects and artists, including Cesar Pelli here in Connecticut. Can you explain the dynamic or the interchange that takes place between sculptors and architects on a project?
Petit: Coming from my diverse background, I think I am better prepared to work in those relationships, and I think the most successful ones are symbiotic. You come into it with your language, and the other person in the collaborative also has their specific language. So you bring to the table differences, but hopefully you discover a common ground in the process of developing the idea. Nobody owns the originality of an idea in a collaborative. You have to believe that the idea and product becomes richer through its transformation over time by all persons on the team.
Through my relationship with Pelli's office, I have been exposed to a leading international firm and their process of developing world class architectural projects. I have worked with the architects of Cesar Pelli's office for the past 10 years, mostly in relation to Stony Creek granite. Whereas Cesar Pelli has much greater experience than I in the architectural use of stone, they have respected my work, my sculptural way of thinking and my direct experience in the quarry.
Pelli's office is also interested in the expanded field of possibilities of the usage of stone. I had the great experience of working with them on the Chubu Cultural Center and Museum in Kurayoshi, Japan. That was a project where I integrated a sculpture within their architectural complex. I felt that the dynamics of the two balanced forms of my sculpture reflected the [overall] project.
â€œContingent 2000â€ was created in Norway with Lundhs Labrador, and it is composed of two Marina Pearl granite elements of 15 and 12 tons joined together in interdependent balance. It had been shipped from Larvik to Connecticut for an exhibit. Diana Balmori, the landscape architect of the project, had the chance to see it, and she urged Pelli's architects to see it. They saw how it could be integrated within the context of the project in such a way that both the sculpture and the architecture were reflecting the same underlying concepts. In both the sculpture and the architecture, organically shaped elements are combined together in an interdependent balance.
The piece was shipped from Connecticut to Japan, and it was permanently installed. In the architecture, you have an expansive open atrium - under a great wooden and glass â€œcrystal palaceâ€ structure - coming together with the outdoor plaza and biomorphic form of the library. I have connected two organic granite forms in an interdependent balance, which mirrors these great billowing forms heaving together in a balanced architectural composition. From my perspective in the quarry, I bring a view of stone in an unmediated state. In this regard, I prefer the creative chaos of the quarry as opposed to the more controlled arena of the fabrication plant.
Another good case was with Kevin Roche. On the Museum of Jewish History in Battery Park, NY, he made a comment to me that he wanted the interior panels of Jet Mist granite to â€œappear as though they had been ripped out of the earth.â€ Now, when an architect of that stature says that to me, I relate to it very clearly, and I can help. That's a good example of a relationship between a sculptor and an architect.
CTSD: How does sculpture complement architecture and vice versa?
Petit: There are infinite ways in which someone at my level can aid in the architectural usage of stone. Part of it has to do with detailing. There are still details available that are not considered just because the stone is being looked at and utilized two-dimensionally. That's not really how I see stone. I am still looking at stone at close range. It is still a product that is in my hands all of the time. So as a consultant, you can inform them and work with them on different ways in which the materials can be manipulated.
I am also involved in plasticity of form; the shaping of material and its transformative qualities. That is not necessarily an architect's goal, so to have somebody around on a project that can aid or consult them on that allows them to see stone as a material that can be worked, rather than just utilized as decoration.
In its simplest form, a great work of sculpture can reveal the source of the project; it can show where the material has come from and portray it in a different light. I think that is what happened at the Chubu Cultural Center and Museum. It is a good case of a museum being realized with the most advanced technological processes for stone. And yet here, my work had been done in many ways at the quarry level by hand. There are still certain qualities of the Marina Pearl granite being polished, but you are seeing it in its root state.
CTSD: Over the years, you have worked with a broad range of stone materials, and while you have obviously done a lot of work with granites from Connecticut and Norway, have you favored any materials in particular? How do you determine what stone is right for a given project?
Petit: I am always discovering new stones. I would like to get my hands on Bethel White at some point. I would also like to work with Belfast or Rustenburg granite. I have had limited experience with them, but the quality and the hardness of that stone really surpasses any experience I have had with other materials before. I would like to experience that while I still feel I am at the physical peak of my life.
CTSD: You have worked overseas in places such as Norway, Germany and Japan as well as in North America. When you are working overseas, is there a change to your design approach from one country or another?
Petit: Definitely. All of the conditions are different. The politics and the ways in which they realize a project are different. I lived in Japan for two years, and there is an approach to the building process that could be frustrating, or it could be interpreted as more flexible and more creative. Things may happen throughout the process that were not originally planned. Design decisions that may appear to be improvisational get made within the building process and impact the architecture in a positive way.
My experience working here in the U.S. has been mostly positive. It's definitely different than working in Norway or Germany. With a background of traveling the world - mostly in search of other granites - I try to be aware of the differences and stay informed of the cultural conditions. I am not going to force my way of thinking into any condition. I am going to learn from it and figure out what it is I am dealing with to make the decision-making process more of a collaborative and more effective. There is no point in imposing your own structure when every context is different. That is why the stone trade fairs are important. You meet people from around the world, and it prepares you to understand many different approaches.
CTSD: Do you think different countries appreciate different factors regarding stone? We discussed how the American market generally uses stone in a two-dimensional form.
Petit: I would say so, because some countries have much longer histories in stone usage. I was interviewed by the press the first day I got off the plane in Egypt, and they asked pretty much the same question. I said to them, â€œI am from a very young country, and I am coming to your country which is an ancient culture. You have used this material over a long period of time, and so I am deferring to you on certain aspects.â€ You have to be open to learning.
I have just completed a project [The Circle of Life in Guilford, CT] that is based on certain astro-archeological concepts of Stonehenge. We did not deny history. I visited Stonehenge numerous times to learn from the concepts, from the stone usage and from the experience of the site to be able to create our project specific to our site and our ideas.
CTSD: Can you give me a description of the Circle of Life project?
Petit: The Circle of Life project was the idea of Dr. Jonathan M. Rothberg. Jonathan wants to build things to last. We did everything, including working with Laticrete [on custom adhesives] to make sure this would be here for at least 10,000 years. We wanted to build a monolith with the greatest ability to predict solar and celestial events. Think of the Circle of Life as a complex watch - a modern day monolith that exhibits beauty and functionality and demonstrates that these structures can function as powerful astrological instruments with substantial predictive abilities. I helped give form and material to the idea, and it started to become a reality in our minds. Then there was the next part of the process of finding the team and of orchestrating the process to build it.
I had never been involved in anything that had to â€œworkâ€ before, so we needed to consult Dr. Anthony Aveni, who is an expert in the [astronomy] field. His knowledge influenced the siting of the Circle, and then it changed again and again over time based on everyone's expertise. It was truly a collaborative project.
Though we were dealing with asto-archeology, it was as important to develop the project from the ground up so that the specific site conditions influenced our usage of stone.
Considering the flat area of the expansive waterfront property - with evidence of granite ledges and wide open to the sky and wide open to the Long Island Sound - helped us to source the stone. We wanted a granite that would endure the 10,000 years and that would act gravitationally on the site. We also wanted a stone with the energy of millions of years that would reflect the sun and stars of the expansive universe. This project appears to have to have grown there, or have been there for some time, and that's really what you want. Not only does the project belong, but it looks as if it has been birthed there.
CTSD: The Circle of Life uses over 700 tons of granite. Were you sure that such a project was even feasible?
Petit: This project was proposed to a number of different people, and I was surprised at the apprehension that we met. And yet the great thing about that apprehension was that it narrowed it down to only those people who were truly capable and truly enthusiastic, and were capable of elevating to another level of thinking. They wanted to do it, they understood how it had to be done, and they were willing to accept the challenge. That kind of thinking I associate with the early stone industry. There were great speculative aspects of undertaking projects of great scale that involved risk taking. I never doubted whether it could happen, but we quickly found out that there was doubt in the existing group of players out there. However, I did know that Lundhs Labrador could do it and could do it to the highest standard.
CTSD: Have you ever been in a situation where you were surprised that you couldn't do something with stone, or that the stone â€œbehavedâ€ in a way that was different than you expected?
Petit: There is a whole idea of finding the right material for the right project. In the way in which I use stone, I would rather not force the stone to do something it doesn't do. I feel as though the intrinsic qualities of stone are important and true. Innovation is partially about pushing the materials to their tolerance levels, but you don't want to embarrass the material. That's not so interesting to me; that's more theatrical.
CTSD: You sculpted Gondwana for Richard Bellamy, which was on display at Riverside Park in New York City in 2003 and 2004. Can you describe this project?
Petit: That project involved the very specific context of Frederick Law Olmsted's Riverside Park. I had worked with the National Association of Olmsted Parks in New York City in 1983, so I have a grounding in the formative ideology of Olmstedian landscape architecture and how it was applied to the New York City park system and many urban open spaces in America. I really wanted to do something within a New York City Park.
I was first contacted by Henry Stern, the New York City Commissioner of Parks and then by Adrian Benepe, who was the new commissioner. We talked about Riverside Park, and a lot of the discussion had to do with the great Manhattan schist outcroppings that grow out through the earth. Though it was a temporary project for two years, I designed it specifically related to the site. I researched the site by walking Riverside Park to find the outcrop that I thought was most dramatic and could be seen from the street and from within the park. Then I chose a granite that is from the Stony Creek Granite quarry but is comprised of a disproportionate amount of biotite that is overtaking the feldspar content. There is a half-to-half relationship between the black biotite and the feldspar, and you see clearly the igneous formation of the material. That to me was very provocative; to be able to place something like that in a context where the schist outcrop breaks through the surface of the park. I have been putting these pieces aside because they are geological phenomenons that happen once every 10 years in this quarry. I have named this â€œStony Creek Fusion graniteâ€ because it is not clearly understood by the industry in terms of the regular material. The feldspar pink [sections] of that piece were polished, and there are holes in it along the natural seam in the block with American Oak dowels inserted to cause splitting contingent upon the expansion and contraction of the wood in extreme climatic conditions. I have been developing this concept over the past 10 years in a series of sculptures based on very early splitting techniques. Wooden dowels were inserted and subjected to moisture, freezing and perhaps expansion within the hole. My original questions to experts in the stone world about the time element in the splitting process were met with answers ranging from five years to 50 years to never. The question of time and the â€œunknowingâ€ became interesting to me. In an industry that is used to certainty, there is still a contingency in the nature of the stone. We have no say whether Gondwana splits or not; the answer is in Mother Nature's hands.
CTSD: You are working on a large sculpture for the Yale University Peabody Museum of Natural History. Can you explain your work there?
Petit: The Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale is commissioning a life-sized cast bronze Torosaurus to be permanently installed outside the museum in New Haven, CT. It will be of grand proportions in a 19th century way. The sculptor of the Torosaurus came to me with small model and a proposal of installing the beast on a granite block. After looking at the model, I explained to him that he was looking for a block that would be over 250 tons. They also asked if I could make it look like it was millions of years old, and I said, â€œWell, you are standing on something that is millions of years old right here in the quarry.â€ They were not getting positive reactions from the quarries that they had contacted in the Northeast, so the situation was perfect for me. When a situation is said to be impossible that's when I get on board. I get involved to a degree that makes me a sculptor. I asked them to allow us a year or so to observe the quarrying process and perhaps find their shape in the natural beds and faults of the quarry. They were looking for a large triangular shape like a ship's prow, and they wanted the sculpture to be a two-part piece where the Torosaurus would be sitting 15 to 35 feet high. I tried to inform them that the formation of the quarry is based on seams and beds, and the shape could be in there. I wanted to find it naturally within the process of quarrying as opposed to cutting the shape industrially and then having to get all of our [extraction] marks off. But I had to explain that it would take a little bit of looking, and there was the risk that we would not find it. We actually found something similar in one of our discoveries, and we quarried all the way around it, which only involved producing what was being quarried anyhow. My thinking is always to try and design work with the quarry operation in mind and to not design so that the whole process is interrupted.
Once the block was isolated, it was 250 tons and had to be scaled down because the rigging and the logistics became very costly. We further broke it down into three elements - based on a seam and a bed that existed - in such a way that it could be taken apart and put back together as a puzzle. In doing so, we left very little industrial markings because we did it in such a way that it was on the seam and already had the natural crack in it. It can come back together as it was originally formed, and in effect becomes even more of a reflection of the geological process.
The sculpture will probably be installed in the Spring of 2005. We are still working on it within the quarry, and the Torosaurus is being cast. To me, this was another case of pulling people together on a project that was perhaps unprecedented, and it brought them to a level that they wanted to be at. It is also an example of working at the quarry level on a project where the procedure and the formation process are respected.
CTSD: Looking back on your work over the years, is there any single project that you can point to as one of your favorites for one reason or another?
Petit: They all have distinct memories, but I do think I was brought to another level on the Circle of Life project. I also believe that you are only as good as your next project, and we are right now looking for a 600-ton block of white granite for a project. I also have very clear memories of the balance pieces in my beginning at Stony Creek. I was working with pretty rudimentary tools and outdated rigging equipment, but with some men at the quarry who really had a â€œnever say dieâ€ attitude.
CTSD: On the other side of the equation, are there any projects that you look back on and wish you had done things differently, or maybe you would not try something like that again?
Petit: I don't know. There are a few stories, but there are definitely no regrets. I remember being in New York City with a 25-ton block and not being able to get into the park. The trucker was refusing to go in, and we had to park the block in a parking spot and fill the meters. But I have no regrets about anything.
CTSD: Can you tell me about some of the other projects you are working on now?
Petit: I have spent some time starting a Web site at: www.darrellpetit.com. I believe that this will help to strengthen my relationship with the architectural community. Also, we are working on the plans and proposals for a waterfront park in Scandanavia that would use a great deal of Larvikitte. We are also working on a project that will incorporate 27-foot-high Larvikitte columns for a waterfront project here in the U.S. The hunt for the 600-ton block of white granite continues and has been occupying a lot of my time.
We have just finished installing, â€œAku-Aku,â€ a 25-ton sculpture of Stony Creek granite based on a Moai monument of Rapa Nui or Easter Island for The Rothberg Institute for Childhood Diseases in Guilford, CT. Jonathan had good reason for the reference to Rapa Nui. Rapamycin, the first drug to be tested to directly treat Tuberous Sclerosis Complex, is derived from a fungus found only on Easter Island. I am also working on a World War II memorial of Stony Creek granite for the town of Guilford. The Guilford Green is a National Historic Site, so they want to use indigenous material. We are also working on the preliminary plans for a Civil War Monument in Vicksburg, MI, for the 150 Irish-Americans from the state of Connecticut who died there. Connecticut and Vermont are the only states that have no monument represented in the Vicksburg National Military Park. The Park is well represented with monuments of 22 feet to 202 feet, so we want to make sure that the Connecticut Monument is as significant as the efforts of the men who died there.