|Commissioning Entity||Rodef Shalom Congregation|
|Owner||Rodef Shalom Congregation|
In the early 1960s, Rodef Shalom Congregation held an invitational competition to find an outdoor sculpture that would visually connect the two components of its synagogue on Fifth Avenue — the Henry Hornbostel-designed sanctuary built in 1907 and the Freehof Hall addition built in 1956. The congregation selected “Relief,” a proposal by Kent C. Bloomer that was innovative in both design and construction.
At the time, Bloomer was an associate architecture professor at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and gaining a reputation as a sculptor. He had been given a one-man show at the Carnegie Institute in late 1962 and won prizes at the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh annual exhibits in 1963 and 1964. For his smaller works, he would repeatedly fire and hammer brass sheets into abstract configurations with organic forms and rhythms. Similarly, his submission to the Rodef Shalom contest used a pattern of waves arranged in seven parallel rows separated by strong horizontal ridges. The amplitude of the waves shrunk as they climbed up the wall, going from large waves on the bottom to small waves of top, which gave the design an uplifting quality — and a spiritual resonance, given the nature of the building. The design also had a strong environmental aspect to it. As the arcing sun passes over the façade throughout the day, the patterns of shadows cast by the waves are constantly changing.
The design was unusual for the times, both because ornamentation had been “banished from contemporary architecture,” as Bloomer later described it, and because it was one of the earliest and most prominent works of outdoor abstract sculpture to be commissioned in Pittsburgh. The construction was also innovative. When Bloomer realized it would be impractical to carve his design from stone, he enlisted the help of James P. Romualdi, a civil engineering professor at Carnegie Tech who had developed a material called Wirand. Using small wires rather than thick bars to reinforce concrete, the material was both strong and malleable, making it well suited for the organic curves of the design. The Rodef Shalom relief was the first practical application of the material.
Bloomer carved his design from 720 cubic feet of Styrofoam donated by the Dow Chemical Corporation. Once he was satisfied with the design, he covered the Styrofoam in fiberglass and epoxy followed by a coating of Wirand. The 32’ by 22’ relief is actually constructed from 35 separate panels that were affixed to the building façade. Inspired by the project, Bloomer made ornamentation a crucial part of his professional practice. He designed a similar wave-based relief for the Architect’s Building in New York in 1972 and decorative elements for other buildings across the country. In 1966, shortly after completing the Rodef Shalom project, Bloomer joined the faculty of Yale University.
By Eric Lidji, writer
Kent Cross Bloomer studied physics and architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and sculpture at Yale University. He was an instructor at the Carnegie Mellon Institute of Technology from 1961 to 1966 and has taught at Yale University since 1966. He is the principal and founder of the Bloomer Studio, and has served as its chief designer since 1965. His most recent book is The Nature of Ornament published in 2000.