Nakashima's Arts Building turns 50 with a gala Ben Shahn retrospective

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George Nakashima in the Arts Building.

He is considered one of the 20th century’s finest modernist designers and the founder of the American craft movement. But New Hope artist and architect George Nakashima described his profession in much simpler terms.

“Early in his career, he thought of himself as a designer-craftsman,” daughter Mira Nakashima said. “Later, he simply called himself a woodworker, which doesn’t sound like a very high position.”

George Nakashima, who died in 1990 at 85, had earned a master’s degree in architecture from M.I.T. in 1931. But it’s as a woodworker that he approached one of his architectural masterworks, the Arts Building, a 2½-story gallery he built in 1967 on his property on Aquetong Road in Solebury Township.

From 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Mira Nakashima will host a celebration of her father’s work, marking the 50th anniversary of the Arts Building. It now serves as home to the Nakashima Foundation for Peace, which promotes peaceful international and intercultural dialogue.

Sunday's event will recreate the first exhibit the building hosted for its grand opening, a show of works by Lithuanian-born American painter Ben Shahn, a friend and confidant of George Nakashima's. “Dad built the studio as a gallery to promote the work of Ben,” Mira Nakashima said. “So we will have on display the original collection of 55 works.” 

In a bold engineering move, Nakashima topped the building with a distinctive parabolic roof formed out of plywood. People thought he was mad, Mira Nakashima said in a phone interview. Plywood, most builders would tell you, could not possibly have the strength to function as a roof. Nakashima made it work by fashioning the wood in the shape of a seashell.

“His work on shell technology was incredible because it followed closely the way nature works,” Mira Nakashima said. “That makes it possible for an incredibly thin material to become incredibly strong.”

She fondly recalled the friendship between Shahn and her father. “I remember we would sell Ben’s paintings at the studio, and my dad would make custom frames for them,” she said. “Dad also built a second story on Ben’s house in Roosevelt, N.J.”

That house, part of a row of low-cost dwellings that Philadelphia architect Louis Kahn designed in the 1930s, is still standing, she said.

Now 75, Mira Nakashima has followed in her father’s footsteps. She trained as an architect and continues to run the woodworking and furniture-design business he founded. “One of my daughters also went into architecture,” she said, “so I guess the tradition continues.”

She is less wistful when talking about the events that brought her family to Bucks County in 1942. Their previous residence? An internment camp for Japanese Americans.

Born in Spokane, Wash., George Nakashima was arrested shortly after America entered World War II. He and wife Marion were forced to move to a camp with their baby daughter. “Six weeks after I was born in Seattle in 1942,” Mira said, “we were incarcerated along with tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans. One of Dad’s professors heard about it, and he contacted a Japanese family who had relocated to the East Coast in the 1930s to sponsor us and get us out of there.”

Mira Nakashima, who chairs the peace foundation that bears her father's name, said she was deeply disturbed by recent calls from conservative pundits for Arab Americans to be detained in the same manner. “We don’t seem to have made any progress,” she said. “Look around the world, and there’s a rising tide of racial prejudice and xenophobia. People still seem so afraid of strangers and of people from other countries and cultures. This is what my dad wanted to fight by promoting understanding.”


Nakashima's Arts Building, 50th anniversary

3-5 p.m. Sunday, Nakashima Foundation for Peace, 1847 Aquetong Rd., New Hope. With an exhibit of paintings by Ben Shahn and talks by William Whitaker and César Bargues Ballester from the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Tickets: $75; $30 students. Information: 215-862 2272, nakashimafoundation.org.