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When it comes to the floor, the sky's the limit

ECB floor art.
The preliminary plan for the ECB terrazzo floor, which covers the atrium and four main hallways of the building. Larger Image

The fusion of science, technology and art will occur in a rather unexpected location in the new Engineering Centers Building: the floor. Colorado artist Scott Parsons is creating a bold, imaginative design for the 11,000 square foot area.

"This is a fabulous opportunity," said Parsons during a public presentation of his preliminary plan on November 30. "It's a massive undertaking that allows me to create a journey of discovery through the entire building."

The terrazzo floor, a mosaic surface made by embedding marble or granite chips in mortar, allowing the mortar to harden and then grinding and polishing the surface, is funded under Wisconsin's Percent for Art Program. This program requires that two-tenths of one percent of the total construction costs of new state building is designated for the commission or purchase of artwork.

Parsons used a unique approach to the design, gathering images and ideas from the broad spectrum of research and development that will occur in the new building. "I began my research by reading about physics-chaos theory, information theory, linear dynamics, complex systems," said Parsons. "When I was visiting the campus, I started to think about the similarities between the work of scientists and artists. We both work in the realm of ideas and the imagination. We take what we imagine and we introduce these ideas to the physical world."

Photo of Parsons and Bollinger.
Artist Scott Parsons (right) and former College of Engineering Dean John G. Bollinger review plans for the terrazzo floor. Larger Image

Based on these thoughts and several discussions with College of Engineering faculty members, Parsons began to collect images related to engineering research. He included circuit images as homage to Nobel Prize winner and alumnus Jack. St. Clair Kilby, inventor of the integrated circuit. Also included were images of quasi-crystals, which Parsons described as elegant, abstract images open to interpretation.

The artist found the organic shapes in a CT scan of a blocked sinus cavity intriguing and representative of the engineering applications used in medicine, and he felt an image of a car's transmission suggests the importance of the automotive programs that will be housed in the building.

In the end, his eclectic set of more than 50 images included a photograph of a crystal array, a Native American pattern that recalls the indigenous history of the area and a fractal that Parsons felt brought harmony to the design. Then, Parsons used his computer to create the floor plan, reasoning that because so much of the research that will occur in ECB wouldn't be possible without a computer, artwork for the building should be driven by computer design.

What resulted was a fluid, iconoclastic collection of engineering elements. After receiving input from college faculty and administration, Parsons will finalize his design. When he begins the two-month process to create the floor, local contractors will lay down eight colors of terrazzo in the building's atrium and four main hallways.

"I just took a very organic notion of engineering, to create a blueprint of the activities that will occur in the building," said Parsons. "I hope this can help to enhance the daily experiences one encounters in this building."