Training News

Terrazzo Makes Waves

Issue: FEBRUARY - MARCH 2005

Editor’s note: This is the final in the series on designing and building the Masonry Variations exhibit.

One of the most talked-about museum exhibits in 2004 was Masonry Variations. Installed at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. from Fall 2003 to Spring 2004, it took a fresh look at classic masonry materials and their future possibilities, and was one of the top draws in the museum’s history. BAC and IMI sponsored Masonry Variations to spotlight two important themes: the endless potential of masonry, and the value of collaboration between designers and skilled craftworkers.

Slate was hand-shaped onsite to assure a smooth transition from rough to smooth.

Of the four materials featured – terrazzo, brick, stone, and AAC block – it was the groundbreaking terrazzo piece that most dazzled both the design and art worlds. Collaborators on the terrazzo installation were Julie Eizenberg, principal of Koning Eizenberg Architecture in Los Angeles, and IMI Terrazzo Instructor Michael Menegazzi, a member of BAC Local 18 California.

Eizenberg was inspired by the ruins at Herculaneum, which like Pompeii, was buried by the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. What particularly caught her eye were pictures of an elegant stone floor jolted into shapes resembling rollercoaster tracks. That gave her the idea of exploring vertical applications of terrazzo, which meant a lot of consultation and experimentation with Menegazzi to shape inspiration into reality. And for that, says Eizenberg, “Two things have to happen. You have to spend time knowing each other, and you have to spend time knowing the material.” Menegazzi, a fourth generation terrazzo expert, knows his materials cold, and has always advocated creative uses of terrazzo. Still, he wasn’t sure if the designer’s ideas would hold – literally.

Exhibit collaborator and IMI Terrazzo Instructor Mike Menegazzi invented the process of constructing the final piece in modular sections, which were pre-built at the BAC/IMI National Training Center and then transported to the museum for finishing.   Extensive preparation work included confirming the scale of the piece before actual build-out. IMI Regional Training Director Bob Perry built a full-scale plywood image at IMI’s El Monte, CA training center.

The team began by exploring terrazzo applications and assemblies that could take a variety of vertical and non-planar applications. Menegazzi experimented with numerous bases, setting media and stone.
According to Masonry Variation’s curator, Stanley Tigerman, FAIA of Tigerman McCurry Architects in Chicago, while each exhibit team created spectacular solutions, the terrazzo team’s collaboration generated a truly unique “structural adventurousness” while demonstrating the untapped creative value of terrazzo. “They achieved great results because they had the courage to work through their differences,” says Tigerman.

Rough terrazzo units.

Eizenberg’s design goal was to integrate traditional material knowledge and craft techniques into non-traditional methods and applications. She was intrigued by slate, a material never before used in ground applications such as terrazzo, and by the concept of achieving groundbreaking tensile design through unexpected bends, turns, and both horizontal and vertical waves.

After much brainstorming and experimentation, a final design vision emerged – a slate “waterfall” that represented the terrazzo process. The design called for shards of slate to undergo a transformation from a rugged texture to a highly polished smoothness. The highly kinetic installation had the raw material set vertically in a dramatic sweep that met the floor in increasingly softer profiles to become waves and ripples before settling into a smooth horizontal floor. Visitors had to resist the urge to touch the ever-changing terrazzo surfaces.

BAC Local 1 MD/VA/DC’s Tom McQuaid was lured out of retirement to work on the unique project. He led a team of craftworkers at the National Training Center in the time-consuming process of shaping, molding, and pre-assembling the final exhibit piece.

The National Training Center served as the staging ground for the terrazzo installation, where a team of craftworkers led by Tom McQuaid, a retired member and officer of BAC Local 1 Maryland/Virginia/District of Columbia, shaped, molded, and pre-assembled the final exhibit piece. Regular photos were exchanged between the east and west coast to work out design and coordination issues.

Faced with a tight building schedule, and still on the west coast, Menegazzi then turned to configuring a system for constructing the final piece in modular sections that could be pre-built at the National Training Center, easily transported to the museum, and then finished in place.

Eizenberg designed the Terrazzo installation to show visitors all the elements that make up the terrazzo craft, from base to material to supporting media, and the skills required for the craft. In so doing, it became critical for the team to experience the final “scale” and “presence” of the exhibit, including learning the material limitations relative to creating curves and waves. Enter Bob Perry, IMI Regional Training Director and Local 18 CA member, who built a full-scale plywood image of the final exhibit profile. Perry also worked as a member of the onsite installation team.

Eizenberg’s final design was not her first solution, but she conceded, “As I moved through this process, I became more aware of the need to be true to terrazzo’s future in terms of the material and its characteristics from the craftworkers’ perspective. I wanted to create something that would not only give a nod to the future of the material, but to the importance of craft worker involvement in reaching that future.”

Visitors to the Masonry Variations exhibit had to resist the urge to touch the multi-surfaced terrazzo piece that appeared to be in motion.

The result was not only a stunning piece of art, but proof that classic materials can be pushed in many new directions. For Eizenberg, terrazzo’s future includes both unconventional applications and further exploration of the “green” or recyclable nature of terrazzo, with a wider range of materials. For all the boundaries pushed by the exhibit, several practical points were made as well, notes IMI President Joan Calambokidis. “People think that great craftworkers are born, not made. BAC and IMI know that it takes a long-term commitment to training to create master craftworkers. This exhibit helped others see that, too.”

The high degree of craftsmanship required to develop, build, and install the exhibit also dramatized the necessity to have a true partnership between those who design and those who build. A shift from a traditional construction delivery approach to a collaborative one that recognizes the craftworker’s expertise with the materials and methods can translate into stronger communication, which leads to effective and timely construction solutions.

In the end, these bold new experiments underscored a very practical point, says Calambokidis. “Masonry can be creative and affordable – in the right hands.”


620 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
Phone: 202.783.3788
Toll free: 1.888.880.8222