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Kept in Suspense: Joel Shapiro's floating sculpture

A successful colaboration between sculptor Joel Shapiro and architect Eric Parry

With stolen bronze art works being rendered into liquid metal at an alarming rate in the current economic meltdown, town councils, private patrons and collectors, architects and landscape designers may think twice about installing such works of art out in the open where they are unprotected and vulnerable. When, 10 years ago, Eric Parry won the competition to design a new office building on the site of the 55-year-old former English Heritage headquarters, he wanted an important work of sculpture to be an integral part of the design, and his brief provided a solution to the problem of protecting against the current spate of thefts before they had even begun.

His choice of artist for the building’s Savile Row facade was American Joel Shapiro who created an anthropomorphic abstract form that is sited above ground level in a recess, a contemporary move reminiscent of the positioning of figures of saints and worthies on the exterior walls of Renaissance churches.

Parry started his architectural studies in Newcastle, where the neighbouring art school that had nurtured the groundbreaking work of, among others, Richard Hamilton and Paula Rego, exerted a strong influence on all the university students. He then spent two years at the Royal College of Art and, following a foundation course at Hornsey, got his Part 2 at the AA where he encountered a rich mix of ideas from architects such as Koolhaas, Cook and, especially, Dalibor Vesely. While studying architecture, Parry worked for five years as a night guard at the Serpentine Gallery, enjoying in the wee small hours a profound acquaintance with the works he was protecting − works, for example, by Henry Moore and Giacometti. He remembers one precious moment when there was a knock on one of the Serpentine’s many windows at 10pm and he looked up to see the pale face of curator David Sylvester who asked to come in so he could move one of the Moore sculptures he’d installed earlier in the day, ‘just a bit’.

Given such familiarity with a different form of art from his own, Parry has never felt the distrust that can exist between the architect briefed to include a painting or sculpture in a building’s design and the artist chosen to provide the work. His ease with the visual arts also meant that, having seen a show of Shapiro’s work at Tim Taylor’s London gallery, Parry knew instantly that he wanted to work with him, that he was, as he puts it, ‘a guy who really understands anthropomorphic, rectilinear forms in architectural space’.


View along Savile Row

Parry’s architectural space is a six-storey building designed as a steel frame and self-supporting Portland stone structure that does away with independent columns and provides 15m spans internally. The 51m-wide Savile Row facade comprises two 18m wings flanking a 15m recess backed by a glazed wall that rises from a metal and glass canopy signalling the main entrance to the building. What appear from the outside to be conventional punched window openings establish a play of solid and transparent surfaces, different planes and travelling shadows that frame the central recess and create a ‘stage’ for the figure suspended there. Cast in bronze, Shapiro’s Untitled artwork is held by steel cables normally used as boat hawsers, manufactured and supplied by British Ocean Racing, and positioned precisely by engineers so that its more than two tons of weight are evenly distributed. The figure appears to be made up of attenuated railroad ties bearing the marks of rough-grained, timber casting forms, but assembled to create an impression of elegantly extended human limbs.

It is the artist’s first and, to date, only suspended figure and joins a worldwide group of commissions, including installations for Freed’s Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, the Musée d’Orsay, and the yet to be built US Consulate in Guangzhou. Initially, Parry’s D2 clients worried that the sculpture marking their building in such a dramatic way might be seen as an Icarus figure falling from a great height. Having negotiated what he describes as the ‘straitjacket’ of restrictions and entrenched notions in such a sensitive and traditional area, Parry convinced his concerned clients that Shapiro’s figure is more likely to be seen as floating, even ascending.

Certainly it appears to this onlooker to be leaping exuberantly both up and out over the roadway and is very much ‘there’, but, so perfect is the dynamic between the building’s structure and the sculpted form, it doesn’t disturb the tranquil fabric of the street. Shapiro describes Parry’s tight brief as particularly interesting because it forced him to create a work that, as he puts it, is ‘on the boundary between public and private space’, a position it could never have occupied had it been on the ground.

So next time you visit your tailor for a new suit, wander down to 23 Savile Row to see another example of a good fit. You’ll spot it easily because it’s right across from the West End Central Police Station.

Joel Shapiro

Piece: Untitled

Date: 2008

Location: 23 Savile Row

City: London

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