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Gunpowder Artist, Pavilion To Mark 75th Anniversary Of 1st Nuclear Reaction

By Sam Cholke | September 8, 2017 5:56am | Updated on September 10, 2017 11:05am
 The University of Chicago released renderings of a new pavilion being built around the existing
The University of Chicago released renderings of a new pavilion being built around the existing "Nuclear Energy" sculpture (far right). The new pavilion will mark the 75th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear reaction.
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Provided/University of Chicago

HYDE PARK — The University of Chicago is constructing a new pavilion to mark the 75th anniversary of the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction and commissioning a new artwork to mark the occasion.

The pavilion will snake and curve around Henry Moore’s 1967 sculpture “Nuclear Energy” on Ellis Avenue just south of 56th Street and will open on Sept. 30 in time for the Chicago Architectural Biennial.

The spot marks the location of Chicago Pile-1, the first artificial nuclear reactor, built under the old Stagg Field by scientist Enrico Fermi and a team of scientists working on the Manhattan Project in an effort to harness nuclear energy.

Cassandra Dunn, manager of strategic planning for UChicago Arts, said the pavilion's design will reference the complex computations that scientists undertook at the time to create nuclear energy while avoiding a meltdown.

“We’ve called the piece 'Nuclear Thresholds' in honor of its appearance and themes,” Dunn said.

The university has also commissioned Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang to create a new work to mark the anniversary, according to Laura Steward, curator of public art at the university. He was behind the fireworks display at the Beijing Olympics and has done huge installations that incorporate gunpowder and other mediums.

“He’s an artist who primarily works in gunpowder, which we thought had interesting parallels to fission,” Steward said.

The actual first nuclear reaction of Pile-1 happened on Dec. 2, 1942, and the university will lead up to the anniversary with with the premiere of a new musical work, “Plea for Peace,” by composer Augusta Read Thomas on Dec. 1.

The next day, the university will premiere new works by three composers at the university, a new score for the university’s carillon and electronics and a new dance piece choreographed by a physicist from the university and a choreographer from Yale University.

A full listing of events is available on the university’s website.

The pavilion is expected to be temporary and will remain on campus until Jan. 7.