Peter Houk dips a metal pole through the glory hole and twirls it gently. When he pulls it from the furnace, a molten blob at the tip glows red. On the campus of perhaps the world’s smartest university, glassblowing, of all things, is the most popular of all extracurricular activities.
Houk gently turns the pipe. Depending on what he is making, he may shape it with a stack of wet newspapers — the paper sizzling and smoking in his hands — or with a heavy rounded block, or pull at it with giant tongs.
Sometimes, he puts his mouth to one end of the pipe and blows gently — more like an exhale than a trumpet blast — to stretch the blob, called a gather, from the inside out. Then he might roll it in powdered color, or dip it again into the furnace to add another layer of molten glass, or, after working it some more, pour it into a mold.
He might help transform a gather into a piece of jewelry, a plate, a bowl, or perhaps a pumpkin to be sold at a fund-raiser for the glassblowing lab he runs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
MIT has had a glassblowing furnace in the bowels of its Building 4 for four decades. Originally, it was used in a lab course, to blow oddly shaped beakers needed for experiments. It lay fallow for years, until 1986, when Michael J. Cima, then a newly hired member of the engineering department, was assigned the basement room as part of his new lab space. He assumed he would rip out the furnace and use the space for research.
“Material science and mechanical engineering students . . . understand it and can talk about it in ways no one else can. . . . I’ve learned a lot from these students.”Peter Houk, MIT glass lab director
His first sight of it was memorable: “In the middle of this room was a pile of bricks and a couple of kids with no shirts on pulling globs of glass out [of the furnace],” he said. “My first thought was: They’re going to kill themselves.” His second: “I’m going to get fired.”
At the time, MIT was struggling to figure out how to help its students collaborate better with others. Businesses wanted scientists who could invent, but also be team players — and complained that MIT graduates didn’t play well with others. Cima decided that working collaboratively on glass projects was just what the undergraduates needed.
“I realized that glassblowing is the one craft art you can’t do by yourself,” he said. “Groups of students learning to improvise together would teach them something they could use in other areas. When you watch a team making a glass pumpkin, they are improvising every step of the way with each other. When they are a good team, they don’t have to speak, they just look at each other.”
The furnace room became the site of a small but loyal group of students who took up the art as an extracurricular activity, with Cima as faculty adviser and an artist named Page Hazlegrove as its director. Houk took over direction in 1997, and in recent years, interest in the lab exploded. Now, glassblowing is the most popular extracurricular activity on campus, with as many as 120 students applying through a lottery for 16 open slots in each fall’s beginner class — making it almost as hard to get into beginning glassblowing as into MIT itself.
Houk spends at least two days a week helping students with their glasswork. He patiently explains techniques to novices, keeps more advanced pupils on track, and silently anticipates the needs of more advanced colleagues — heating tools, prepping materials, and working in synchrony.
Of course, because it’s MIT, he’s also pushing the boundaries of the field.
Some have said that the 5,000-year-old craft of designing glass is tapped out; that there’s nothing new that hasn’t been made before.
“That’s a bad idea to say to MIT people,” said Martin Demaine, a visiting artist and researcher at MIT who is collaborating with Houk.
Houk, Demaine, and Demaine’s son, Erik, an MIT computer scientist known for his work in origami, are now experimenting with folding glass — a technique they began inventing less than a year ago in the basement studio.
They co-taught a class in folding this summer at the world-renowned Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State, and work together in the lab every Monday.
The Demaines have folded materials such as paper, metal, and plastic for years. Martin Demaine was also a leading glass artist in the 1970s and took up the work again, along with his son, six or seven years ago, shortly after they arrived at MIT.
“Paper is all about this tactile, folding sensation. Glass is very amorphous — you can’t touch it,” Martin said. “To bring folding into glass has been kind of a challenge.”
The three of them fold by laying hot glass into a metal mold of zigzagging peaks and valleys. Once cooled a bit, the zigzags can then be bent into more complex shapes. Like scoring a piece of paper to make it easier to tear, a section of hot glass can be heated further — to about 1,800 degrees from 1,000, Erik said — to make it more bendable at a particular point. Unlike paper, though, it doesn’t twist, or crease — facts the three are just learning through experimentation.
“The more we can get a clear understanding of what the geometry of glass is, we can really push the limits and work perfectly within them,” Erik said.
In a sense, the work at the MIT glass lab also folds together art and science. It’s that kind of fusion that inspires Houk to teach at MIT.
“MIT students always want to figure out why things are working the way they are,” Houk said. “The material science and mechanical engineering students are really curious about material — they understand it and can talk about it in ways no one else can. . . . I’ve learned a lot from these students.”
Every year or two one of those students will turn into a devotee and refuse to leave.
Niels Cosman was one of them.
He started blowing glass as a mechanical engineering major in 2000. He bumped into a friend who was en route to sign up for the lottery, and went along as a lark. He didn’t love that first experience. “I was terrified of the glass. I didn’t understand it,” he said.
But it clicked afterward, and he hasn’t stopped blowing since. Cosman went to the Rhode Island School of Design for graduate school to learn product design, and now teaches part time at RISD, leaving him enough time on a recent day to spend it with Houk in the glass lab.
Houk hopes to grab more students with a class he’s co-teaching this year in collaboration with the music department. Students will invent and build musical instruments out of glass, and then compose pieces around their instruments.
In addition to teaching students and former students, Houk recently demonstrated his skills to a group from the Institute of Contemporary Art in connection with the current exhibit “Josiah McElheny: Some Pictures of the Infinite” (up through Oct. 14).
He showed them how he “pulls cane,” a technique invented by the Venetians on the island of Murano, where glassmakers have been blowing for at least seven centuries. Using a multi-step process, he embedded a complex geometric pattern into the glass, and then he and a colleague shared the glass, each holding a pontil pole, and walked away from each other, pulling. The glass sagged between them and then stretched into a long, thin rod that spanned the room. Laying the rod on wood pallets on the floor, Houk pinched at one end with his tongs, then gently whacked his pontil to release it. After cooling and reheating it, Houk was able to wind the rod into a platter that looked like one in the McElheny exhibit.
No one would deny that McElheny’s work is an art, not a craft, Houk said — after all, it’s in a major museum. As to whether his own work is art? Houk says he doesn’t care about labels.
“I’m interested in making beautiful objects that people will continue to like to look at,” he said. “I don’t come up with a concept first. I make what I make and I trust that there’s a concept there.”