Robert le Ricolais, 1894-1977

Visions and Paradox

The work of Robert le Ricolais is being shown here before it goes abroad.

Since the death of Robert le Ricolais, a large collection of beautiful models that he and his students made in his workshops at Penn over a period of 20 years has lain in various storerooms, in the care of his onetime student, Professor Peter McCleary.

This year, with the help of a new generation of architecture students, Professor McCleary brought the models out into the light again, for an exhibition that will be here only through next week, then moves on to London, Lausanne and Madrid (and tentatively also to Barcelona and Zurich) before it ends up in a slightly different form at the Pompidou in Paris.

Visually, the work could stand alone as an exhibition of sculpture: it fills the gallery with lyric forms, elegantly crafted in steel, wood and leather, suspended from the ceiling or mounted on pedestals. But from nearby drawings and photographs emerge the layers of thought and teaching that lie behind the development of the designs. Their roots are in nature and in sciencein a seashell, a soap bubble or le Ricolais' fantasy of "going inside a rope" to find a new way to realize his central vision of zero weight, infinite span.

Pulling it all together is a catalog, modestly produced but rich in the language of a teacher who could also create the spare and elegant phrases that would convey his concepts to others. An apparently simple sentence, The art of structure is where to put the holes, is his point of departure for an exposition on strength without weight in a tube shape that might create a new kind of subway tunnel.

Le Ricolais was born in 1894 at La Roche sur Yon. His university studies in math and physics were curtailed by World War Iin which he was wounded and decoratedbut he was to go on in teaching and research anyway. As a practicing hydraulics engineer (as well as a painter and poet), in 1935 he introduced the concept of corrugated stress skins to the building industry and was awarded the Medal of the French Society of Civil Engineers. Then in 1940 his work on three-dimensional network systems introduced many architects to the concept of "space frames." After years of research and many patentsand the 1962 Grand Prix of the Cercle d'Études Architecturales he was well established as the "father of space structures." In 1951, at 57, he came to America to conduct "experiments in structure" workshops at Illinois-Urbana, North Carolina, Harvard, Penn and Michigan.

Settling at Penn in 1954, he led generations of students to his perception that "to discover the nature of things, the secret is to be curious," drawing on mathematics and physics, engineering and zoology in search of new visions for structures of the futurevisions not limited to the individual structures to be built on or above or below the earth, but to the ways they might change the nature of cities and the circulation of human beings in them.

In 1974*, le Ricolais succeeded Louis Kahn as the Paul Philippe Cret Professor at GSFA, holding the prestigious chair until his death in 1977. His once-peripatetic models and papers now have a permanent home in the University's Architectural Archives. K.C.G.

Visions and Paradox is at Meyerson Hall, 34th and Walnut Sts., through February 16. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays except Wednesdays (9 a.m. to 8 p.m.). Saturday hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the gallery is closed Sunday.

Over 200 structural models were built and tested in le Ricolais' workshop during his 20 years at Penn. Some of the most daring and beautiful are on display now through the support of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Architecture and the Graduate School of Fine Arts.

Illustrations provided by GSFA Students Michelle Dempsey and David Grissino

*Note: This date was incorrectly identified as 1954 in the print version of this article.


February 6, 1996

Volume 42 Number 19

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