WINGS OVER HOUSTON
Alex Irrera, Civic Art + Design Collections Coordinator
Designing a 30-foot kinetic sculpture inside of a public fountain is no simple feat. Yet, this was the challenge for Wings Over Water—the newest permanent artwork outside Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. Panel-selected for the commission, Joe O’Connell and Creative Machines brought their sculpture to life in approximately 18 short months—completing installation in December 2016. The resulting artwork is a monumental mechanism that displays elegant abstraction and the finesse of biological motion.
The sculpture’s clever engineering is partially masked by its hypnotic movement. At the base of Wings, an electric motor uses hydraulic pressures to turn two enormous, stainless steel pipes. Twisted like a helix, these pipes are connected to 32 vertical pushrods that are topped with blade-like winglets. As the pipes turn, the pushrods move up and down, creating an undulating ripple among the winglets. Covered in a semi-transparent architectural fabric (Stamisol), the feathery winglets also reflect the bright hues of the lights below to bring a rainbow of colors into the sky. Overall, the movement of the winglets produces the magnificent “flap” of a hovering, 70-foot long wingspan. It is a beautifully choreographed, mesmerizing effect—the graceful motion of a bird in flight.
For this project, the artists were asked to illustrate “Houston’s place as a stopping point for avian migration and the concept of flight,” as well as themes of progress, movement, and diversity. Creative Machines’ Wings Over Water sincerely captures these themes while also revealing ties to modern art. The sculpture’s winglets utilize a shape reminiscent of Constantin Brancusi’s famous Bird in Space. Assembled, the resulting structure is grand, functional, and futuristic. In a more contemporary context, Wings also evokes the work of artist Theo Janson—whose Standbeests are skeletal, moving sculptures that are powered by wind.
An evocation of biology is additionally strong in Wings Over Water. Immobile, it resembles a dinosaur skeleton—ancient and monumental. In motion, the sculpture’s mechanism reveals the harnessing of kinetic energy. Embodied in Wings is man’s desire to identify and utilize scientific knowledge. However, Wings Over Water also induces a sincere awe for deepened connection to the natural world.
Although efforts to bring Wings Over Water to life were led by Joe O’Connell and Creative Machines, this project was shepherded by a myriad of groups. Many subcontractors contributed to Wings, including third-party engineers, surveyors, welders, drillers, Stamisol installers, truck drivers, and crane operators. Flying Carpet Creative, a team of Houston artists, also provided essential assistance during installation. The project’s client—Houston First Corporation—as well as those heading the renovation of the George R. Brown Convention Center—SWA Architects, Hoke Group, and Griffin Development—were also crucially involved in discussion about the design, fabrication, and installation of Wings. And of course, Houston Arts Alliance facilitated the artist selection process and provided project management support—communicating with Creative Machines every step of the way, and continuously acting as an intermediary between the project’s many involved parties.
The final element of Wings Over Water will be its Houston audience. HAA Project Manager Mat Kubo notes that viewers are already forging a relationship with the artwork. “Every time I am near Wings Over Water, I see people taking photos of and selfies with the piece. People are smiling, laughing, or in awe. The instant draw and connection people make with Wings is the major success of the piece.” Together with Ed Wilson’s suspended sculpture Soaring In The Clouds (inside the convention center) and Margo Sawyer’s iconic Synchronicity of Color (in Discovery Green park), Wings Over Water will serve as a beacon for arts, culture, and creative inspiration in Houston.