Following the giant ‘Cloud Gate’ sculpture from Bob Honan’s fabrication shop in Chico to Oakland and all the way to Chicago
Never would I have guessed the artistic creativity and genius bubbling inside that plain, beige-and-green metal building.
The name is Advanced Building and Metal Fabrication. I am sitting in its office alongside Highway 32 in north Chico with owner Bob Honan. His employees are at work in the large shop behind us. Some, including his brother Gary—who, like Honan, is a Bay Area (San Bruno) transplant from the ‘70s—pop into the office on occasion to exchange a few lively words about a particular project they are working on.
When I am later taken on a tour of the shop, I find, besides the camaraderie among the employees and between them and their bright-eyed, energetic boss, that it is quite quiet due to the high-tech tools, such as the amazing, computer-controlled 55,000-psi water jet cutter. There’s also the “largest band saw in the world” towering outside, behind the shop, the domain of brother Gary.
This is not your typical Butte County metal shop. And, as Honan discusses the role he played in the building of renowned innovative British sculptor Anish Kapoor’s fantastic “Cloud Gate” sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park, the true scale of his work is revealed.
Honan, an ex-Navy man who “tuned [his] fabrication skills in HVAC” working for local outfit Artic Aire before going into business for himself in 1983, and his able crew of 15 have put Chico on the map in a big way, helping build what is now one of the most famous public art works in the world.
The “Cloud Gate” sculpture (or “The Bean,” as Chicagoans affectionately dubbed the gigantic, highly reflective, stainless-steel, jelly-bean-shaped structure) is described by Chicago Tribune art critic Alan G. Artner as “one of the most significant additions to [downtown Chicago’s] outdoor gallery of public art in decades.” Weighing in at 110 tons and measuring 66 by 33 by 48 feet, “Cloud Gate” is one of the larger sculptures in the world and arguably one of the most interesting.
Looking like a giant drop of mercury, it incorporates Kapoor’s intentions that it be “a work that would deal with the incredible skyline of Chicago and the open sky and the lake [Lake Michigan] but then also be a kind of gate,” as he told the Chicago Tribune in April, 2004. “The idea here was to make a work that was drawing in the sky, the skyline and all of that, and at the same time allowing you to enter it like a piece of architecture that was pulling your own reflection into the fulcrum, making a kind of participatory experience.”
The Chicago Architecture Web site (www.chicagoarchitecture.info) marvels at the sculpture’s “magical presence,” describing it as “no ordinary mirror. … To some it looks like a rift in the very fabric of space and time, and its combination of simplicity and elegance have allowed it to be embraced as a quirky mascot. A walk under its nine-foot-tall arch can be a mind-bending experience.”
At the time of our interview, Honan was in the midst of working on a power-producing windmill project for a client in Hawaii, as well as producing various metal structures—shed-like enclosures and heavy metal carts among them—all constructed with meticulous attention to workmanship and detail for various local clients. For instance, Honan explains how he turned the metal at a rounded 90-degree angle in certain places on one project, something structurally and aesthetically more pleasing than what the average fabricator might do.
Clearly a man in high demand (he even interrupted our interview for a short time to discuss some urgent business with a client calling from China), Honan and his crew are responsible, among other things, for much of the metal and stone work at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.—the catwalks on top of the brew tanks, the brass hand railing in the Big Room and the decorative stonework on its stairs, and such specialized constructions as the brewery’s hops strainer and spent grain tank.
He shows me photographs of some other very impressive creations: the elaborate 12-foot-diameter colorful stone-inlay City of Redding insignia that graces the floor of the Redding City Hall; the beautiful interior stone, metal and glass work he did for two very upscale houses in Los Molinos and Carmel; and the intricately carved 5-foot stone butterfly he made for his wife, Lora.
That’s why Ethan Silva recruited his talents. Silva is owner of Performance Structures in Oakland, the supremely talented fabricating outfit contracted by the Millennium Park Group to design, engineer and construct the Cloud Gate sculpture.
“I met Bob [about four years ago] through a stainless-steel supplier who thought we should meet each other,” said Silva by phone recently. “I think he’s an amazing, resourceful, energetic man who approaches his work with great enthusiasm. … He has lots of unique talents. He had some very special things to offer.”
Performance Structures designed the sculpture and built the state-of-the-art, mirror-like, stainless-steel outer metal plates that are seamlessly welded together to form the “skin” of the sculpture—no small feat. This skin expands and contracts, according to Chicago’s severe weather fluctuations, and “floats” on top of an interior stainless-steel support system built by Honan for Performance Structures.
“The first thing we started doing was cutting the ribs for the skin … in the spring of 2002,” Honan explained, referring to that part of the structure immediately below and supporting the skin. “In order to have a good skin, you have to have a good sub-frame. … It was two years’ worth of cutting. Not continuous, of course—we were doing other jobs at the same time. Ethan would send the orders, and we’d cut them as fast as we could. Once we started getting the ribs headed down to Oakland so they could start putting skins to it, then we started construction on the [two 22-by-25-foot] rings. … That took about six months, on and off. We were building fast, even though it doesn’t sound like it.”
Add to the ribs and rings the construction of a giant “truss lattice framework” and a carbon-steel base made of I-beams—all Honan’s part of the job—along with the 168 curved plates of shiny “skin,” and you have the contents of the 68 truckloads that were shipped from California to Chicago for assembly on site—a process that took about a month.
Honan made a point of stressing his gratitude to and admiration for Greg Humphery and his trucking company, who under some challenging conditions—carrying some seriously wide loads in, at times, “the worst weather you could ask for” over both the Sierra Nevadas and the Rockies—delivered all the components of “The Bean” on time and unscathed.
Originally, the whole thing was going to be assembled in Oakland as one giant egg and shipped through the Panama Canal. “That would have been the best story of all,” Honan said with a laugh. “I would’ve liked to have gone on that ride and photographed it going through the Panama Canal!”
But the idea of transporting a 110-ton sculpture partway around the world by boat and then trying to get it on land at the Great Lakes and haul it along the sometimes questionable Illinois roadway system proved too risky. “There were some bad spots in the trail,” as Honan put it. “Some of the roads wouldn’t have held up under the weight.”
So “The Bean” was shipped in pieces and put together in Chicago, a process that is winding down now with the completion of the final welding and polishing. “Right now, they’re finishing up the welding, welding all the seams, all the plates. Then they’ll start all the final grinding and polishing,” Honan said.
“What we do … it’s called ‘valued engineering.’ That’s the best way to put it,” Honan explained, summing up Advanced Building and Metal Fabrication’s operation. “You have the ideas, you have the technology…”
Much like the unassuming building of his workshop, Honan is humble, not attention-seeking. Toward the end of our second meeting, in fact, he jovially expresses his disbelief that he is even doing a newspaper interview, reminding me that he usually works behind the scenes and doesn’t seek publicity.
“This is the first time I kind of stuck my nose out and was seen on a project,” he emphasized, referring to the fact that he traveled to Chicago at times to help oversee assembly of the parts he’d built and to attend the gala opening of Millennium Park and official unveiling of the sculpture in July, 2004, where he got to meet Kapoor. “He was very quiet, very polite.”