Granite and Mortar
2004 Docent training project by Karen S. Bell-Hanson
As a focal point of the Tacoma Art Museum, this untitled piece by Richard Rhodes makes a quiet
statement, a statement with as many variations as people who pass by the atrium where it lives. It
lays to the left as you ascend the ramp, which spins-off the gallery spaces. Some visitors walk
past with little notice while others are drawn to peer through the tall windows. Still others only
come to appreciate the work as they return to the ascending view after each exhibit.
This atrium is an odd shaped open-air garden area walled in by 30-foot-tall, mirrored glass.
Roughly 1650 foot in area. Rhodes describes the space as a warped-hyperbolic paraboloid. The
enclosure has only one right angle and the width of each side is roughly 56 feet by 50 feet by 38
feet by 25 feet.
As you look through the mirrored glass, you see 650, 24-inch square, granite pavers in a shape
frequent viewers have come to call “The Wave.” The pavers were hand-chiseled five centuries
ago for a road in a rural area in China. The surface of the slabs has been worn by animal and
human traffic, the effects of which can still seen in the soft patina of the richly textured rock.
These pavers, arranged to specification of masonry-design specialist Rhodes, form a concave
four-sided structure with 3 to 71/2 foot sides. His informal name for the piece is “Stone Motion”
He wants the sculpture in this “fish-bowl garden” to look “like the fish-bowl has been jostled and
the water is caught forever in mid-slosh.”
I believe the shape lends itself beautifully to the spot. The view and feel of the piece is forever
changing with the weather, the reflections of the weather, and the vantage point of the viewer. I
especially like the way the reflections of the piece play with the eye to double the view or wrap
the piece around the end of the hallway. The viewers almost become part of the piece as their
reflections move with “the wave.”
Original plans for the building, designed by architect Antoine Predock, called for a “mist moss
garden” in the atrium, or center, of the building. Predock’s first idea was to plant moss between
flat stones inside the mirrored glass walls. When the planners realized the moss would die from
the intense sun and the warm temperatures possible in the reflective space, other solutions were
sought. Predock and former TAM board president Brad Jones talked with Rhodes whom Predock
has consulted with on previous projects.
Rhodes was trained in stonework in Italy where he was the first foreigner in 726 years to become
a freemason. His fast-growth, Seattle-based company has worked primarily on residential
projects, using stone from its large salvage projects.
The piece completed for the TAM was created using granite slabs salvaged from a rural area in
the Pearl River delta of China that will be flooded upon completion of the Three Gorges Dam.
Rhodes’ company, Rhodes Architectural Stone, has been working since its beginnings in 1998,
to harvest as much old rock from as many of the sixteen thousand condemned villages as is
possible before the completion of the dam in 2006.
The process for the TAM sculpture was the unique melding of 16th century stone, 18th century
hand-craftsmanship and 21st century information technology for which the company is known.
The piece was first diagramed on Rhodes’ laptop computer. Detailed specifications were sent
electronically to the factory/warehouse in China where each piece was trimmed by Chinese
masons, using a computer-generated paper template. The work was then preassembled alongside
a rice paddy in China. The pieces were numbered and color-coded by section, then packed and
shipped. Once in Tacoma the process was taken over by a team of Ukranian Stone workers under
the direction of installation supervisor, Pamela Rhodes.
First the atrium floor was covered with a rubbery waterproofing membrane. Next thirty-two
hundred cubic feet of foam was placed to make foam bleachers for the total structure and
individual foam pedestals for each paver. The foam was stuck down with mortar that created a
honeycomb under the foam to facilitate rain drainage.
The pedestals were frosted with mortar which was dyed black to make the inch-wide view
between the stones appear void. To make this void deeper and enhance the feeling that the slabs
are floating, the pedestals are smaller than the stones, and the gutters, hand-cut in the bleachers,
are lined with black mortar.
The 650-piece jigsaw puzzle was assembled from the edge into the center with the edge pieces
being positioned and repositioned till the corner of the highest peak fit perfectly in the atrium
corner nearest the museum entry.
The light foam supports the stones without violating the 250 pounds-per-square-foot weight
restriction which is due to the fact that the atrium is built over the museum’s parking area. The
sculpture’s total weight is 112,000 pounds, with 20,000 pounds of that total being mortar.
The garden area was designed by Predock to be a quiet spiritual focal point or “soul”of the
building. The space was meant to be a resting place for the eye between the viewing of exhibits
in the various galleries.
Considering these intentions, Rhodes sought to create something that was thoughtful but didn’t
require or demand your attention. His design was meant to be suitably blank. He considers the
piece “something that could grow on you and maybe you came many times to the museum
before you really fully appreciated it.”
Rhodes sees respite for visitors in the stone’s subtle colors, the sheen the stone has due to
centuries of wear and the fantastic textures. He believes the meaning or spirit of the piece is
something that the audience has to decide. They have to bring that to the piece.
Architectural Record says “The sensual effect of the courtyard, opening to the right of the axis,
sums up much of what Predock intends for the museum experience,” The article quotes
Predock’s experience of the sculpture garden as “Through reflections, the void of the courtyard
takes on substance and becomes an object.”
I believe that the untitled work is up to the lofty tasks that were set out for it. It’s calmness and
the surreal intrigue brought to the piece by the reflectiveness of the glass and steel enclosure,
make the piece a pleasure to explore each an every time I visit the TAM.
Architectural Record, August 2003
Anderson, Peggy. “Tacoma Art Museum, A sea of stone is at the heart of the new space,” Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, (Seattle, PI, Mar. 13, 2003) note:Anderson is an Associated Press
writer and this story was used in various forms by other papers, many of these clippings
from various papers can be found in the Archives of the TAM.
Graves, Jen. “Doing the Wave, Tribnet: The Tacoma News Tribune, (Tacoma, TNT, Apr. 18,
Graves, Jen. “TAM’s stone wave ‘soul’ will cross Pacific soon,” The Tacoma News
Tribune,(Tacoma, TNT, Dec. 8, 2003) Archives, clipping collection, Museum Opening
Folder, Resource Center.
The website of Antoine Predock, architect, http://www.predock.com/
The website of Richard Rhodes, architectural designer, http://www.rhodes.org/