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Architecture and Sculpture: A Dialogue in Los Angeles

Sculptural architecture can be moving, monstrous, or just plain arbitrary: a group of exhibitions in LA explores the borderline between the two spatial disciplines

Something about the current flourishing culture of exhibitions in Los Angeles seems to produce clusters of converging ideas. Perhaps it is a matter of volume: there is just enough for a gallery go-er to connect the ideas that might link them; and not so much as to find oneself buried in an encyclopedia. For rather too long, the city has been talking about itself, and it is a relief to find a recent concatenation of shows that, though coloured by local concerns, cast their sights beyond it. One such group of shows, beginning with two installations by Frank Gehry at the County Museum − of Ken Price and Alexander Calder (the latter continuing until 27 July) − raises questions about the instructive but plainly dangerous fascination of architecture for sculpture.

This is an exchange that has been particularly important to Los Angeles, most obviously to the commanding figure of Gehry himself. Gehry’s association with sculptors and his observation of their work has been instrumental to his search for more fluent built forms, from the figurative fish of the 1980s through the metaphor of Fred and Ginger in his office tower for Prague to the soaring abstract shell in which he placed his Disney Hall. That plasticity was the natural if oddly controversial theme around which Christopher Mount organised last year’s New Sculpturalism (AR August 2013) survey of recent work from the city’s architectural studios; and the idea of architecture as sculpture was equally potent 20 years earlier as critics began defining the city’s emerging wave of casual composition, in designs that were already suggesting a sense of the incomplete, the mobile and the open-ended.


Frank Gehry’s installation of a show of Alexander Calder’s sculptures at LA’s County Museum

Architecture is instinctively determinist, grounded in the aspiration to be complete, finite, permanent, settled and still; and the key to design has for long been located in what Wright referred to as the uncovering of ‘the one big idea’ − a single right solution to a complex set of problems. Characterising innovations from Los Angeles in 1992, John Chase pointed to sculpture as a way to free architecture from those constraints, suggesting that when buildings begin to build a formal language on the informal precedents of abstract sculpture and assemblage they can take on the liberating possibility of the indeterminate, making it clear that ‘they could just as easily have been put together in other ways’.

That dialogue with sculpture was in fact already ingrained in the city’s cultural conversation, visible from the late 1940s through the pages of Arts and Architecture and engaged through the ’60s and ’70s in all manner of collaborations and forums − as Sylvia Lavin’s exhibition at the Schindler House last year showed − as artists and architects taught, talked, and took turns designing or ornamenting each others’ homes and studios. It was just as evident in the physical landscape, whether in the whimsical and fragile shapes of the city’s roadside and festival architecture; in such work as the converging catenary curves of late John Lautner, who attempted to mould a newly plastic sense of space modelled on shells and caves, the paintings of De Kooning and the sculpture of Brancusi and Arp; or in the paintings hewn from the ground that are Garrett Eckbo’s plazas, with their swirling pools, teardrop raised parterres, rough-hewn stele, and kinetic fountains.

The lightweight: sculpture from graphics

One of the most influential of those conversations took centre stage in Deborah Sussman Loves Los Angeles, a recent exhibition of archives at the consistently inventive little street-front gallery run by Woodbury University’s school of architecture. Formed in the Eames office, and tested in the commercial signage and landmarking of the city’s horizontal streetscapes, Sussman − working with Paul Prejda and the Jerde Partnership − orchestrated the scattered venues of LA’s 1984 Olympics into a consistent linking system of environmental graphics. Like Asplund’s carnival approach to the 1930 Stockholm Fair, there was a dynamic, simplifying economy to these changing patterns of repeated forms, lines and colours. Like Calder’s mobiles or the moving figures and wires of his mechanical circus, they were lightweight, shifty, and instantly readable, both as fundamental forms and as self-evident structures. With television in mind, Sussman carried her language through to every transient feature of the Games, even the runners’ starting blocks, capturing in sculptural form the transitory and improvisational character of a cinematic city at every moment the camera turned.

Inside and out

Price and Calder represent two opposing ideal conditions of abstract sculpture. Price is intimate and almost haptic: every piece talks to the sense of touch and the act of shaping. Calder’s floating forms are distant and unapproachable, seeming almost unmade and immaterial. Neither are qualities that suit the scale or purpose of architecture, but both triggered a staggeringly beautiful architectural response. Gehry’s approach to the Calders placed them, whether hanging or settled, at a perfectly calibrated variety of height, distance from view, and closeness to the background walls. As a result they managed (in Auden’s words) both ‘to their own edges keep’ and engage each other as we moved between them. Even presented without the rotation Calder so often intended they thus and always spoke to motion.

The museum’s own designers, in an astonishing feat of lighting, varied the shadows, so that some pieces cast none, others sharp lines, some short soft perspectives, and still others long distorted lines that dissolved and broke the plane of the stands they sat on. In this way each piece both created a field of its own to work upon and showed us the multiple readings its geometry would make if we had moved within it. For the small, still, moulded pieces of Price, Gehry helped us make just such a move, translating the gallery itself into something like the inside of a sculptural form, as if he had cracked open one of the works to find a vast white hollow dream space inside it. One left both shows finding more depth in these artists than one had seen before, but above all begging for life in a city constructed on such magically seductive lines.


Deborah Sussman contributed to the unified architectural scheme for the 1984 Olympics in LA

Indeed I hope it is still possible to admire the fancifully plastic in public architecture − and rejoice in the possibility that fragments of such an ideal city might emerge from those experiments − and yet question the effects of an arbitrary use of sculptural exuberance. In some examples − like Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Museum, where a dynamic crystalline shell of sheeting is supported by rigidly conventional and wildly expensive steel scaffolding − the whole economy of design in terms of a coherent relationship between function, shape and structure becomes incomprehensible. In others − as perhaps at Gehry’s Disney Hall, whose colossal metal shields are so effective in animating the deadening urban effect of a black box on a hilltop, the design can be unsettling: Disney provides no clear way to read the inside from the out or to make a mental map of its perimeters and pathways. It is interesting that Gehry actually had a drawing made of the possible space within a Ken Price before planning his installation. That is an exercise invited by the near-tactile coloured surfaces of the sculptural objects, but somehow frustrated by the distancing scale and reflective finish of his own hall.

Monsters, colossi and grotesques


Jeffrey Kipnis and Stephen Turk curated a show of grotesque inhabitable monsters at SCI-Arc entitled ‘Figure Ground Game’, of which this is an installation view

One can be disturbed by such ventures into architecture as abstract sculptural form, but no longer, surely, shocked. What Jeffrey Kipnis and Stephen Turk have orchestrated in the exhibition Figure Ground Game (at SCI-Arc until 2 March) is in often very elegant fashion truly shocking: propositions about the relation of object to field in architecture in which the built forms appear in the form of human and animal figures distorted to monstrous effect. With gleefully provocative vulgarity their sculptural referents leave behind Arp, Brancusi, Calder or Ken Price, forget wave fields, crystals and biomorphs, and turn instead with a courteous nod to John Hejduk toward the figurative language of avatars, of Hellblazer, anime, World of Warcraft, theme park rides, Mike Kelley and Jeff Koons. By recognising the emerging buildability of such latter day colossi and giganti as inhabitable space, a last taboo is broken. We may be no more ready to embrace this endeavour now than when Hermann Finsterlin proposed it in the 1920s, and the show reminds us how dangerous is extravagant fancy in design, and how narrow the tightrope (walked at such projects as OMA’s CCTV tower) between the sublimely exuberant and the infernally grotesque.

Figure, field, action, emotion

Nevertheless, the deployment of versions of the human figure as an architectural protagonist answers some lovely and genuinely architectural questions. Kipnis talks of architecture, because it is stable, permanent and will decay, as condemned to emulate tragedy. Here, to the contrary, the posture of the figures suggested both a readiness to disguise or morph themselves in the comic tradition, and the kind of suspended animation that implies they are about to move − something the very different figures of Lautner and Arthur Erickson both regarded as an architectural ideal when they talked of the quest for buildings in a state of ‘poise’ and ‘readiness’ − like a dancer en pointe or a predator preparing to strike. Perhaps as a result, these figures do, as sculpture like Gehry’s Calders will, shift our sense of their ground, charging and changing the perceived field which they command according to their shapes or falls of shadow.

Mexico Satellite Towers

Luis Barragan’s Towers of the Satellite City in Mexico cross the boundaries of sculpture and architecture

The Figure Ground Game, as the show readily acknowledges, brings us very close to Hejduk and his paramythic − indeed tragic − narrative figures and monuments. But it also reminds us of the forgotten figure of Mathias Goeritz, who, with Luis Barragán, attempted to revitalise building as an ‘emotional art’ by crossing the boundaries of sculpture and architecture to arouse archetypes of feeling. We know this effort best from the coloured towers of Mexico’s Satellite City and the monoliths at the 1968 Olympic stadium 10 years later, whose placement and field echo the constellation of the Great Bear, which, in occult learning, is believed to transmit the language of celestial wisdom. But Goeritz and Barragán also used semi-figurative forms at architectural scale and to the same purpose, shaping an animal as guardian at the entrance to the suburb of Pedregal, and a colossal writhing serpent to frame the cityscape of Monterrey. Both are quietly and statically poised to strike. The same motive and emotive forces are what Ugo La Pietra called for in the landscapes of his ‘Novo Urbano’ in the ’60s, imagining a city that would no longer be punctuated by monumental episodes, but organised around gigantic sculptural forms whose presence and shadows infuse the psychic field of the metropolis with emotional resonance.

Sermons in stones

For his monstrous guardians Goeritz was drawing on the reductive figures of pre-Columbian sculpture and inscription, just as he drew on ancient stone circles and pyramids for his monoliths. There is a sense in which both endeavours end up, like the language of the Mayans, as a form of mapping code or as a repertoire of three-dimensional pictograms. So in many ways do the protagonists in the Figure Ground Game suggest a vocabulary of ideograms or nearly-written forms from which to fabricate an urban landscape. That idea of the city as a text in landscape, like runes on a stone, is brought to light in an exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Alice Aycock Drawings: Some Stories are Worth Repeating (until 20 April). Many of Aycock’s works use building motifs as a calligraphic scheme in which we can trace the deceptions of time − like the arches, arabesques and lotus blooms from cinema marquees that accumulate in the pyramids of her Wishbone Years. Rosetta Stone City, Intersected by the Celestial Alphabet shows writing − like buildings and ruins − as the medium through which times remote from one another converse: a dark perspectival city of tectonic runes at one scale surrounds the gift of a luminous angelic language that has descended at another. Both human and celestial languages are scripts made from architectural forms.


The Rosetta Stone City Intersected by the Celestial Alphabet

Text, movement, time

Aycock has described her built works as ‘exploratory situations for the perceiver … known only by moving one’s body through them.’ That reliance on movement seems to be the great essential of work straddling the boundary between architecture and sculpture. Nowhere is it more evident than in the best known of such works − Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which unites script and form, uses inscription not only to talk of time by moving readers along its walls, but compels bodily motion too, as visitors are drawn to trace names with their fingers. In works like Reading A Garden at the Cleveland Public Library, Lin goes further, using sculpted texts to ‘follow your path … so that words become descriptive of the spaces they inhabit and the spaces are somewhat shaped by the choice of words.’ And it is such movement, now in the language of stones alone, that renders Peter Eisenman’s Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews so effective, as, I am told, the figures seen walking through suddenly disappear, as if, with the millions whom the stone blocks try to remember, they become lost to history.

In capturing that sense of feeling through motion, architecture profits most from its dialogue with sculpture: in things that look ready to pounce or soar, are built with no single point of view in mind, charge a changing field around them, urge the body to move through at will and at a pace of its own choosing, or beg the imagination to construct its secret spaces: evoking, as Goeritz would say, ‘the lost architecture of emotion.’


The Leonardo Swirl

About the author

Nicholas Olsberg was chief curator of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal

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