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Geometry in the Making

Geometry in the Making

When architect Eduardo Benamor Duarte had an idea for building with porcelain blocks, he turned to RISD’s Ceramics department experts for help.

Associate Professor of Ceramics Larry Bush helped puzzle through a viable mold design for Duarte’s Fijiji blocks.

Over the last few years, Assistant Professor of Interior Architecture Eduardo Benamor Duarte has drawn on his experience as an architect and his passion for geometry to experiment with various manufacturing methods and the mathematical process of form-making. In his native Portugal, collaborations with the cork industry and metallurgical companies yielded new personal works, along with breakthroughs within these industries.

More recently Duarte has been pursuing experiments involving geometric ceramic blocks—or more specifically, porcelain octahedral polygons. Last year, when he was working part-time at RISD, he submitted a proposal for a PTFA [Part-Time Faculty Association] Fund Grant to make a new body of work based on what he calls Fijiji blocks. Not a static stacking system like Lego, Fijiji blocks have 16 different faces that can connect in 16 different ways, providing huge variations in how they can be combined.

“Although ceramics has a long tradition in Portugal, it’s a new field I hadn’t explored before,” Duarte says. “I thought maybe I would be interested in porcelain casting methods, which would allow more complex formal variation.”

Fortunately, Duarte turned to Larry Bush, an associate professor of Ceramics, for help in realizing his idea. “Larry showed me his work with blocks—with intricate systems—and it seemed like a beautiful opportunity to learn more, to create a synergy with technology and with someone whose knowledge was so much further developed,” he says.

With the support of Ceramics Department Head Katy Schimert, who offered her colleagues use of the Metcalf plaster room for developing prototypes, the project quickly became an inter-departmental collaboration. “The final shape of the blocks is 85% of what I’d designed on the computer,” Duarte says. “But the other 15% is extremely important, and it relates to Larry’s knowledge of what needed to change to make it happen. It’s an example of what happens when geometry encounters the world of making.”

With assistance from Judith Kollo MFA 12 CR, Bush and Duarte initially worked out an 18-part mold last fall, engaging in a series of discussions and experiments about the shape of the mold and how it would release after casting. By Wintersession they had altered the design enough that it became a two-part mold, which is when Kelli Adams MFA 09 CR got involved and took on the challenge of constructing the mold and slipcasting the blocks before they were fired at RISD. The team cast and fired 84 blocks during spring semester – just in time for Fijijiblocks to debut at the Wanted Design event held in New York City in conjunction with the 2012 International Contemporary Furniture Fair.

“It was fascinating and challenging,” says Duarte. “One day the blocks were coming out of the kiln, and the next day we were installing them in New York. There was no time for testing all the connectivity, but the system worked fine.”

As for future prospects for Fijiji blocks, Duarte says: “It’s a serious project, and my goal is that it will expand. The beauty is that they don’t have an assigned purpose. They seem fragile, but they’re not. They’re brick-like, but they’re lighter than brick. They’re three-dimensional building blocks that constitute an environment wherever they’re installed – in an outdoor space, covered in plants; as wall dividers in an interior space; as loose blocks attached to an outdoor wall. We now have four molds, but if we expand to 10 or 20, we can make hundreds of blocks to make new spatial environments.”