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Kent Bloomer adds artistic ornamentation to new Slover Library
Kent Bloomer ornamentation. Photo by Peter Aaron.

NORFOLK, VA.- Massive aluminum leaves dance across the entrance to the new $65 million Slover Library in downtown Norfolk. The hand-hammered leaves also are scattered across the ceiling of the new library’s three-story- glass atrium and dramatically articulate a trellis on an outdoor patio. These stunning sculptural elements are the work of Kent Bloomer, a Yale University architecture professor who has championed the return of architectural ornamentation since the 1970s.

“We’re at a point now where some of us are beginning to turn the situation around, from thinking of ornament as in the past, and seeing it as something in the future,” Bloomer recently told The Virginian-Pilot. “We’re at a new beginning.”

Bloomer’s impressive contribution to Slover Library is neither art nor architecture. It’s ornamentation, a creative form that was practiced for more than a millennium, until the stripped-down era of modern architecture. Carved and cast friezes are examples of classic ornamentation. Bloomer has been among a few select practitioners who have worked to bring back ornamentation, but with a contemporary twist.

The library’s principal architect, Herbert S. Newman of Newman Architects in New Haven, Conn. and Washington DC, brought Bloomer into the project as it began, about six years ago. The architect said the two influenced each other’s work on Slover Library. From the onset, there would be no distinction between the ornament and the architecture at Slover. “We think of ornament and architecture as one,” Newman told The Virginian-Pilot.

Newman said he sees Bloomer’s leafy entrance ornamentation as a visual connector, linking the early Seaboard building, which features botanically derived ornamentation, to the new glass atrium and an expansive addition. Bloomer’s atrium ceiling design has an organic appearance, due to his use of six different leaf designs set in an irregular pattern. He estimated that there are more than 1,000 elements in his ceiling sculpture. “It’s like being under a vined canopy,” he said.

In an interesting biographical note, Herbert Newman designed the Slover Library with his son and partner, Peter Newman. Peter’s son, Silas Newman, apprenticed with Bloomer’s Studio in New Haven, contributing handcraft to many of the pieces now erected in Slover.

The botanical forms on the third-floor patio also appear organic and lush. That portion of Bloomer’s labors features a trellis that appears to be overrun by metal foliage, as though it was a fast-growing vine. The result is a pleasing outdoor space where the public may sit and read or look out toward MacArthur Square, a public gathering place and light rail station in downtown. It will play a key role in the new urban garden district it defines.

The library opens to the public on January 9, 2015. Slover Library spans three centuries in architecture: the historic Seaboard building (1800s), the Selden Arcade (1900s) and a new six-story tower with atrium. The 138,000-square-foot jewel will house traditional library functions as well as innovative technology and engaging community spaces.

Kent Bloomer is the principal and founder of the Bloomer Studio, and has been its chief designer since 1965. His sculpture has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in California, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, as well as other museums and galleries. His work is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn. and the Carnegie Museum of Art.

His large-scale projects have won state and national awards from the American Institute of Architects. Bloomer’s most prominent projects include a foliated trellis for the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (architect: Cesar Pelli and Associates), large roof sculptures on the Harold Washington Library in Chicago (architect: Hammond, Beeby and Babka) an aluminum horse, wings and trellis for the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument in Kearney, Neb. (architect: Peter Dominick, Urban Design Group), “The Gateway Wings” spanning New York Avenue in Washington, D.C., and a decorative frieze for the Nashville Public Library (architect: Robert A.M. Stern).

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