August 9, 2010

French Curves

My father was a draftsman and, as a child, I was fascinated by the drawing tools that he had around the house. I remember being particularly intrigued by his set of French curves—curlicued plastic templates for piecing together arbitrary curves from appropriate fragments.

In these days of computer-aided design, there isn't much need for French curves or the other physical templates that were once part of every draftsman's or architect's toolkit. But the French curve hasn't disappeared completely. A large rendition of a French curve, covered in tile, serves as the centerpiece of a garden at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Known as the Kraus Campo, the garden represents the work of landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh and artist Mel Bochner (see also "Pondering an Artist's Perplexing Tribute to the Pythagorean Theorem").

Winding and undulating paths, bordered by thick hedges, surround the sculpted French curve, which is 60 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 3 feet high on its concrete base. Each white tile on the sculpture's surface features a black number, creating numerical sequences that meander all across the French curve.

In Bochner's eyes, the French curve at the garden's center also resembles an artist's palette, in effect bringing together the worlds of the engineer and the artist. The square tiling was inspired by black-and-white Roman mosaic floors discovered in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Photos by I. Peterson

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