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Art and architecture: Combined

Carol Polsky
Newsday
Bruce Gilbert/Newsday Artist Mihai "Nova" Popa in his studio in Water Mill, New York.
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WATER MILL, N.Y. – Mihai “Nova” Popa’s ambitions, philosophically speaking, are as monumental as his welded steel sculptures. His curved and wavelike forms reflect the forces of the cosmos, he says. He designs models of circular modular cities to float on the ocean, and to launch into space should humans face an exodus from a dying planet in an ecological apocalypse he believes is a possibility. He proposes a futuristic university for world leaders be built near the United Nations.

“It’s a modern alternative of the great temples of the past, the Taj Mahal of America, to give a sense of a new way of living for the entire species,” says the Romanian-born artist of his high-rise “matrix” of spheres and wave forms. He creates “integral art,” combining art with architecture and an embrace of the archaic and the cosmos in the face of the unrelenting advance of technology.

“It’s a very intense existence,” says Popa, son of a woodcutter, who came to the United States in 1966 after escaping from then-Communist-controlled Romania.

He lives it with longtime companion Carol “Tundra” Wolf in a house he designed more than 15 years ago as a kind of “propaganda” for his ideas: an attention-grabbing bright blue structure, like a barrel laid on its side with a gangplank leading to the door, that he calls the Elliptical House. It’s on Millstone Road in Water Mill near Bridgehampton, and shares a 100-acre-plus complex with a fancifully renovated former potato barn, sheds for six sheep, horse paddocks, living quarters for more than a half-dozen staff and assistants, metalworking workshops, and rolling fields where huge sculpture groups are installed in a sculpture park dubbed Nova’s Ark Project (www.thearkproject.com).

The 2,800-square-foot two-story space was built with the old wood from a demolished Brooklyn church and covered in corrugated fiberglass. It’s based, Nova says, on an ecological idea: It’s 40-by-40 in the middle and 20-by-40 at the base, “which means we are giving back half of the house to the planet.”

“We like the archaic spirit and new forms of the house,” he says. “Old powerful wood beams and steel … to give you a sense of timelessness; you may be in a galleon 500 years ago, or a spaceship in the future.”

He and Wolf share the space, and their lives, with “Luna” Shanaman, who serves as farm administrator and has been engaged with them since 1983 in a kind of “extended family.” (He gave them the names Tundra and Luna: “We have a three-way partnership united by our ideals and humanity.”)

Not surprisingly, life in the Elliptical House is not predictable or conventional. With a kitchen area on each level, each person usually prepares food and eats separately: “We graze like horses, every man for himself,” says Wolf. “Being so preoccupied, we don’t have a common rhythm in life,” says Popa.

Each sleeps in his or her own quarters, the women in their own downstairs “couchettes,” little bedrooms with built-in bunks like those on trains, opening through fancifully carved doorways onto the large space downstairs where the women have their desks and computers.

Popa’s open sleeping loft just under the curving wooden vault of ceiling on the upper story is near his work table, his models and drawings.

“Nova keeps odd hours and does his designs through much of the night,” says Wolf, who jokes, “He’s from Transylvania. Maybe that explains it.”

Popa, now in his late 60s, and Wolf, in her late 50s, first came east to Southampton in 1973, living most of the year in a Manhattan loft, which they’ve since sold. Work began on the Elliptical House in 1986, ending with the certificate of occupancy in 1991.

There’s a rough-hewn, sculptural quality to the entire space, much like Popa’s handmade wooden furniture and the elaborately carved and constructed doorways, stairways and kitchen cabinetry.

“Everything is artistic and because of that, you are content in your environment,” says Wolf. “Technology is not allowed to overwhelm. It’s there, but we don’t let it steamroll us or dictate to us.”

Creature comforts, therefore, are somewhat rough-hewn too, by the standards of their neighbors in the Hamptons. A futon couch, projector and makeshift screen serve as “media” room. There’s a single small bathroom, sans marble and Jacuzzi. The radiant heating coils under the floors don’t always manage to heat the large open spaces. With a 15-foot-high ceiling on the second floor, 10 on the first, Wolf concedes it can be uncomfortable when interior temperatures fail to rise above 50 degrees on cold days.

They now spend the coldest months in a small house in Florida, so perhaps that’s not as much of an issue now.

The little bedrooms have the charm of a boat, with closets tucked into walls and built-in desks and a porthole window looking out into the main room from Wolf’s couchette. She has the trim and fit appearance of the horsewoman she is, and hops onto the high bunk with ease.

“You have to be quite athletic to get in this bed,” she says. Her mother, then in her 70s, slept there once, “and she was quite unhappy. She wanted something more conventional, and maybe I will when I’m that age.”

But convention has little to do with it now, this life supported through sales of sculpture, boarding horses, leasing land and stables to the Southampton Polo League each summer, and renting out some buildings for weddings and events. And they may sell the two-acre-plus parcel of land on which their house is located, moving the structure next door to the “farm.”

The Ark, on a recent darkening late afternoon, emitted a hum of activity as assistants used a crane to lift a rusty steel flattened orb into place in a new work. Woolly sheep stared and horses grazed nearby in paddocks that share fields with looming steel sculpture groupings: “Settlers,” “Soldiers,” “Astronauts,” “Kiss,” “Milky Way” and “The Embrace of the Sun.”

Popa’s worktable in the house held the shapes of his next work. And he and Wolf (who was a social worker when they met and fell in love in Central Park a few years after he arrived in the United States), are also collaborating on a book. It’s “about what’s happening to humans and the next phase,” she says. “It sounds utopian, but some day it will be necessary.”

Wolf eagerly leads visitors through the outbuildings where Popa’s art is stored: the African Series, the new dimensional wall murals, the models of modular cities they want to exhibit in the former barn. In the corner of one building, she uncovers a car, a 1973 mustard yellow Mustang Mach 1.

“In 1974, we bought this with our last $3,000,” she says of the car Popa refuses to give up. “People thought we were crazy. But look how beautiful it is.”

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service