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Anchorage, Alaska, US – Antony Gormley's statue gazesout at the Alaskan wilderness

Gormley’s ‘man in the form and size of a house’ takes residence in Alaska

The work of sculptor Antony Gormley focuses on the human form. The artist places life-size metal figures, made from casts of his own body, in the wider world, beyond the neutral spaces of the gallery. This has prompted energetic searches for locations where the figures can be most effectively placed, from rural locales to towns and cities across the world.

His first commissioned work in the US has enabled Gormley to explore a site that is distinctly urban, but also commands a spectacular natural setting. Habitat is a permanent installation in Anchorage, a city on the southern edge of Alaska dominated by the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and the snow-capped Chugach mountain range.

Anchorage is remote, yet is also a large city marking a distinct edge of the world. The 7.3m-high sculpture takes the form of a seated figure made up of 57 closed boxes of different sizes, stacked upon one another. Each box is fabricated from 6mm-thick stainless steel plate and finished with a matt grey coating resembling the texture of stone.

The cubist figure sits at the intersection of two city streets, overlooking a garden that forms part of the new extension to the Anchorage Museum, itself an elegant ensemble of glass boxes designed by David Chipperfield (AR August 2009).

‘Most of us live in cities,’ says Gormley. ‘This work is a man in the form and size of a house. The body takes a position on the building line and looks to the horizon. The mind inhabits the body, the body inhabits a house, the house inhabits a city and the city inhabits a land. Alaska is one of the last wildernesses. This is a meditation on the human animal’s need for a very particular form of habitat.’

Habitat has already become a key part of this austere frontier city. Yet it also references the surrounding wilderness, appearing to gaze towards a distant horizon. Throughout the year the sculpture will generate a series of changing tableaux. During the short Alaskan summers it will provide a focus for community activities in the new museum garden, while on winter days it will be a stony beacon.

In the snow, its boxy form will be transformed by drifts of snow and spiky icicles. The sculpture is also a complex structure. Gormley developed his initial concept in collaboration with engineers, and a detailed structural analysis was carried out by Berkeley-based software and engineering firm Computers & Structures Inc.

It was constructed by local metal fabricators, using skills learned from building equipment for oil companies and Alaska’s rugged industrial infrastructure. Seen alongside the boxy forms of existing Anchorage buildings and a new square of constructed landscape, Habitat recalls the vast scale of historic monumental sculpture, from ancient Egypt to Renaissance cities, which so impressively juxtaposed art and architecture to create distinctly public urban spaces and define new places connecting nature and the city.

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