December 6, 2013
When a well-known architect was hired to design student housing complex at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM), she teamed up with Lisa Schirmer and a fabricator to develop a fence-and-gate system that would look good, invoke local flora, and provide security for the residents. The result is part fence, part art.
When it comes to fencing materials, chain link, wood, and wrought iron are among the most common. Each has its own appearance, from simple chain link to elegant wrought iron, with wood taking the middle ground. Despite their different appearances, these fencing systems tend to stand out, sending a clear, somewhat harsh message: Keep out.
It takes an artistic perspective to create a fencing system that blends into its environment yet still provides security. Art Gates at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) is an example. A combination of security system and public art project, the gates are stainless steel wire mesh located at the entrance of The Quad, a student housing complex.
It’s often said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but when it comes to art, beauty starts in the imagination of the artist. In this case, the artist is Lisa Schirmer, a painter and graphic designer. She envisioned the mesh, with its abundance of patterns and light-diffusing qualities, as a way to create abstract images representing the natural environment of Southern California.
“This is a young campus, and I wanted to honor the natural habitat, indigenous people, wildlife, and history of the area,” said Schirmer, who was intent on representing these features in the gates, especially plants such as the echeveria and succulents such as the agave.
To work up concepts for the gates, Schirmer used a cross-hatching method, a Renaissance-era drawing technique that builds tones with diagonal and horizontal lines. Because the cross-hatching reminded her of the wire mesh patterns she noticed in a metal supply catalog from McNichols, she was sold on the idea of woven metals.
“I saw how I could depict the plants from the mesh, and how the mesh dovetailed with the cross-hatching in my drawing,” said Schirmer. To understand Schirmer’s approach is to understand that she has a degree in art from San Diego State University and a master’s degree in medical and biological illustration from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Schirmer’s Art Gates became an important component in the plan to develop The Quad, which was developed by a team that included an architect, a fabricator, and a city developer and required city approval before its construction.
“We like to include art in our projects, and rather than incorporating it after they are complete, we were able to plan for it in advance,” said Taal Safdie of Safdie Rabines Architects. Safdie provided an external frame structure of fencing and gates that included a grid of diagonal supports that resonated with the angular lines of the building.
“Lisa was able to combine the architecture of the lines that jog along the building roofline, incorporate ideas from the landscape, and turn these into what the fence is all about,” said Safdie.
Schirmer also allied herself with Bill Brents of Brents Metal Art, a metal artisan and master welder she works with on many projects.
“Lisa came to me with the stainless steel idea, and my part was to come up with the frame,” Brents said. His idea was to build a frame from tube and solid steel bar that would be hot-dip-galvanized and acid-etched. “The brilliance of the stainless and the matte appearance of the acid-etched, galvanized bar would contrast nicely, and weather far longer than a painted structure,” Brents said.
To fabricate Art Gates, Brents built a frame-within-a-frame system that fully encapsulates the wire mesh and its frame, making one side of the gates and fence a mirror image of the other, with no exposed edges. Brents used gas tungsten arc welding (GTAW) to join each of the mesh sections, which vary in style and thickness from 1⁄8 to ½ in.
The entire system consists of hundreds of pieces of iron flat bar and more than 300 stainless steel mesh shapes secured by thousands of aluminum and stainless rivets.
The result is much more than words can describe. Unlike many fences, which have all the charm of a “No Trespassing” sign, this project lives up to its formal name, A Harmony Parallel to Nature. It combines a beauty that reflects the local area with a subtlety that allows it to blend into its surroundings.
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