Washington knows its domes.
But nothing like the ones Andy Goldsworthy, the British environmental sculptor, is building in a small garden at the National Gallery of Art.
To begin, the Goldsworthy design is eye level, hugging the earth, not piercing the sky. And the domes are not glistening white, like the Capitol or the one next door gracing the gallery's West Building. Nor are they mostly blue mosaic, like the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. No, the Goldsworthy models are gray, a deep pewter that can glisten but not glow. Their color is much like that of the winters the artist enjoys.
Andy Goldsworthy and team members atop the foundations for the nine slate domes that will make up "Roof." Below and right, two of the artist's drawings for the dome design and installation.
(Andrew Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
On a recent morning, Goldsworthy was standing by the foundation of a dome that he and his crew had started building. He pulled a string across the radius, seeing if the actual work matched his estimations. Dressed in a navy blue jumpsuit, covered with stone dust, he looked pleased at the piles of slate pieces that were beginning to resemble upside-down bowls.
"I was trying to find some relationship between the city and its origins. I'm trying to find that meaning and the sculpture that would have meaning to the city," says Goldsworthy, 48, a native of Cheshire, England, who lives in Scotland. He is a celebrity in that segment of the art world that likes wrap-artist Christo and others whose work is temporary, and this is his first project in Washington.
Domes seemed to him a natural symbol of the capital, and slate is a material used in the roofs of some prominent buildings, such as the Smithsonian Castle and Ford's Theatre. His design is a series of nine domes, each 5 1/2 feet high and 27 feet in diameter, made without mortar. At the top of each dome is a two-foot, circular hole. Their insides are empty. The public will have two views of the domes. In the first, at ground level through plate glass, the domes resemble a row of huts. The second perspective will be from the gallery's mezzanine looking down into the darkened centers and their slate backdrop. "In a sense it is almost like a geological formation," says Goldsworthy.
Then, to confuse the locals even more, he called the project "Roof," a nod to ancient views of these shapes.
The sculptor's musings about Washington and its symbols and materials began after the gallery invited him to do a site-specific installation. Goldsworthy had gained an international reputation through his work with twigs, flower petals, ice, sand and rock. Although his installations are usually not permanent, he transforms sites, making a point about the connections with the ground and the light. Earlier this year, he did a dome of wood and stone in the roof garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He previously did a garden of stone and trees at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
The Goldsworthy work is an unusual art project for the gallery, both because it is being created on the spot and because it is one of the rare commissions since the installation of the Alexander Calder and Henry Moore works marked the opening of the East Building 26 years ago.
It is as permanent as its materials and Mother Nature will permit -- which presumably means many decades. The gallery has been expanding its holdings in modern sculpture and wanted a Goldsworthy work. "Andy Goldsworthy is remarkably attuned to natural materials and forms in our environment -- whether urban or rural -- that we might otherwise take for granted," says Earl A. Powell III, the gallery's director. "His ephemeral and permanent sculptures are among the most beautiful and evocative works being made today."
The space is limited -- 139 feet long by 35 feet wide, less than half the width of an Olympic-size pool. It is contained by a wall of glass on one side and a stone wall on the other. But Goldsworthy is pleased, happy that the area has been used in the past as a reflecting pool, as well as an English garden and a Japanese garden. Works by Jean Dubuffet and Henry Moore have stood in the space.
"It is a very challenging site because the parameters are set by the building. It is very tight," he says, adding that he selected the final location after browsing other parts of the gallery's expansive turf. "The site had to be something of a scale that would meet the challenges, feed off it and wed with it," he says.
The public can watch the careful construction through the glass panel that lines one side of the main lobby, facing Pennsylvania Avenue. The seven-foot marble wall blocks a view from the street. Goldsworthy and his team of five British stonemasons and a laborer will take a break for the holidays and return next month for the final construction.
Those watching Goldsworthy with his chisel and power tools probably won't realize, as he outlines his process, that he is also bonding with his art every step of the way. As he works, Goldsworthy emphasizes that he is having a conversation with the site. "It is a dialogue with the stone and the city and its groundings," he says. But he also adjusts his vision as the work progresses. He's been pleased, for example, by how the domes touch. "Those junctions between the three domes could be beautiful," he says. "It gives it more of an organic feel, like a cell division is happening there."
This is part of learning the "internal system" of the sculpture and then finding its spirit, he says. Once he decided on a dome shape, he looked at famous examples. "I was struck by the drawings of Thomas Jefferson [for the dome at the University of Virginia] and how the circle of the dome continues into the building and then defines the building," he says.
Then Goldsworthy did some quarry shopping. He looked at the sandstone at Aquia Creek quarry, which was the original material for the White House and the Capitol. He settled on Buckingham slate from Arvonia, Va., the source of the material for the roofs of the Castle. Now huge slabs of the material, which will total 400 tons by the end, are standing at the edge of his workspace.
"Slate is a very reflective material," he says, his artistic description contrasting with the rough appearance of his hands, scarred and hard. The evidence of its fragility is on the ground, with pieces the size of shoes scattered about. It is heavy, with some of the pieces for the top weighing close to 750 pounds. It is also one of nature's sharper materials when broken. Everyone is wearing Kevlar gloves and sleeves.
The only lighting will be the gallery's existing spotlights and the day's natural contribution. "I hope when we finish it will feel like it grew there," says Goldsworthy.