Building Materials As Art

President Barack Obama, center, makes a statement on health care reform after meeting with Senators, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009, at the White House in Washington, From left are, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.; Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.; the president; and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

The Parthenon, Notre Dame Cathedral, Jefferson's Monticello, a colonial home in the suburbs. They were all built the same way, placing one stone upon another.

The technique started with cavemen, and it can produce classic beauty and great strength. In the classic tale of "The Three Little Pigs," the wolf found out the hard way that trying to blow down a sturdy and reliable brick house is exhausting.

But, as CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports, architect Stanley Tigerman, thinks traditional materials, and the designers and builders who use them, may be a little too predictable, or maybe even a tad boring.

Take, for example, the use of marble.

"Your kitchen counter lies there like a dead dog, right?" he asks. "Marble is for counters, floors."

Not any more.

Marble - hanging, thinly sliced, pieced together in a puzzle-like mosaic and bonded by a cutting-edge glue - replaces the everyday vinyl or fabric shower curtain in a display at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

Tigerman is the curator of the art exhibit that explores using old building materials in new ways.

"The idea was to create a way in which materials that work traditionally only in compression, to see what could happen if you put them into tension," says Tigerman. "Tension is you're pulling something. You don't normally think of, say, marble being pulled."

When the supporting structures used during the installation were taken away, no one was sure the curtain wouldn't fall. It didn't. For Tigerman, the risk is part of the thrill.

"This thing is so wild, because it could fail," he explains. "And, you normally don't go into a museum … I mean museums are safe … The idea was to push the envelope. To make the playpen bigger."

Tigerman challenged four young architects and four craftsmen to design and build things that used conventional materials in unconventional, some might say wacky, ways. From scribbled drawings emerged a square gyroscope made from bricks. But the rigid science of construction or the laws of gravity no longer bind them.

"You will leave this discussion for television saying, 'Wait a minute. Maybe brick can actually do certain things that I didn't expect," says Tigerman.

The exhibit is called "Masonry Variations." A competition of apprentice bricklayers and other craftsmen helped open the exhibit. Architects and craftsmen are often suspicious, if not hostile, to each other -- white collar versus blue collar, dreamers versus pragmatists. And that animosity can stifle creativity. "Masonry Variations" was designed, in part, to get the warring parties to think differently about the materials, and also each other.

"To get anywhere, you have to have the patience to fail," says architect Julie Eisenberg. "And this was an exploration. And failing is only a kind of temporary state."

Eisenberg worked with tile and terrazzo, pieces of stone secured with cement or resin that were usually used for floors and patios. She designed a veritable stone waterfall. The piece starts in a traditional way, but it slowly rises and becomes a wave of large stones.

Some suspicious craftsmen initially challenged the concept. They believed it would collapse, if it could be built at all. But the man who built it, Mike Menegazzi, had nothing but praise for the architect.

"She was very intelligent and very demanding and wanted all the i's dotted and the t's crossed properly," says Menegazzi. "I heard a lot of people, quite frankly, complaining 'She's being unrealistic.'" And I told them, 'No she's not. You should thank, be thankful for architects like that.'"

Architect Eisenberg returned the compliment to the craftsmen who fashioned her raw, unproven sketch into a work of art.

"What we do from as early as high school, is we de-value craft," Eisenberg says. "Wood shop and metal shop and car shop are considered for people who aren't as bright as other people, which is complete idiocy. So there also has to be, in my opinion, a reconfirmation that these skills, the skills of actually making it, putting things together, are valuable. And it takes intelligence."

Other work in the exhibit includes two giant concrete blocks. They are made of the same material normally used in home and office buildings' foundations. Injected air makes the blocks lighter, but it's still humble concrete.

"The normal use of this stuff, you never see it," says Tigerman. "It's also a backup for a school, a house, an apartment building, and then covered by plaster. Here you see it exposed, finally, and it's spectacular."

Tigerman says the innovative structures exhibited at the National Building Museum trumpet the possibility of old materials and old ideas that are viewed in fresh, new ways.

"It doesn't mean that Georgian houses or Colonial houses are out," says Tigerman. "It just means there are now greater options, a greater number of options. Is that not exciting?"