Sunday, November 15, 2009

Everything In Its Right Place

Flamingo Legs by Alexander Calder in the Federal Center Plaza by Mies Van Der Rohe (Photo: Argitect)

“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth” Pablo Picasso

“Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” Pablo Picasso

Sculpture for Mies is an important theoretical contrast placed in the context of his work. Solutions for architecture were meant to be architectural solutions (Bankunst), not sculptures with program shoved into them and structure built around them. To make architecture Mies sought to clarify structure and program in a solution that organically grew out of the needs of structure and program (this is a simplification that I will elaborate on in a future blog). This resulted in a vocabulary of strict logic.

To compliment the logical vocabulary of his buildings he incorporated sculpture into some of his major projects. In every case this strengthened considerably the theoretical notions of the building by pointing out roles of decorum in the different arts. They also exaggerated each other’s inherent ideas, strengthening both the idea of architecture and the idea of sculpture.

The most famous example of sculpture utilized in Mies’ work can be found at the Barcelona Pavilion. The George Kolbe sculpture titled “Dawn” stands floating over the shallow pool on the far end of the pavilion. The image of the Barcelona Pavilion that is most widely circulated includes this sculpture. It is integral to the building and feels like it was designed for it. The sculpture reflects in the water and on the nearby glass heightening the feeling of virtual space within the pavilion. The organic flowing curves of the sculpture contrast greatly with the planar arrangement of the space enveloping it. This sculpture is a solid form in a space. The form of the sculpture and the spatiality of the pavilion are reinforced, exaggerated, and heightened by the presence of each other. The sculpture clarifies the spatiality of the pavilion, and in reciprocation the pavilion clarifies the solidity of form in the sculpture. They also elucidate the clarity of purpose for each other: the sculpture is purely art, whereas the Pavilion is purely architecture. The “pure” architecture of the pavilion is shown in the distillation of the column, roof and wall. These clearly articulated elements express the rationality of the architecture. The metaphor of differences between the two arts is somewhat tenuous in this example considering that the Barcelona Pavilion doesn’t actually have a clear program. It is not traditional architecture in the sense that the task it performs is abstracted from pragmatism. This yin/yang between sculpture and architecture can be seen more clearly in the Federal Center in Chicago; a building with a clearer program.

The Flamingo sculpture by Alexander Calder in the Plaza at the Federal Center in Chicago, which was installed after Mies’ death, is, in my opinion, the best example of the contrast between sculpture and architecture in the work of Mies Van Der Rohe. Calder’s Flamingo is literally the heart of the entire Federal Center. It is the dancing soul of the plaza and uses the pristine backdrop to float freely. The two major ways it contrasts the buildings that surround it are its color and its form. The color is bold red, a significant and heightened color in a backdrop of black mullions and glass. Its form is made up of free flowing arcs that swoop up like a sun flare or a gaggle of St. Louis arches. It is with this sculpture that the separate function between art and architecture is wildly contrasted. The sculpture has no obligation to program; its program is merely to create an aesthetic experience. It succeeds in its aesthetic necessity. The building fits courthouses offices and a post office into a structure that must hold these functions up and protect them from the elements. It succeeds in its pragmatic necessities. The aesthetics of the building are a consequential ordering device based on pragmatic concerns including the relationship to its site.

The success of this contrast between sculpture and architecture in Mies’ work is evident when comparing other famous building/sculpture relationships. The Daley Plaza sports the famous Picasso, which is the centerpiece of the plaza as well as a great thing for young children to play on. The dynamic relationship between building and sculpture is lost somewhat in that the sculpture is the same color and material as the building (cor-ten steel). It also has a form that, although sinuous in certain parts, has a rigidity about it that seems to reflect the building. So the sculpture and the building seem to have more in common than contrast. I feel this weakens the force of each part when in relation to the other one. The Thompson Center Plaza by Helmut Jahn has a sculpture by Jean Dubuffet. The wildly eclectic form of the building competes with the sinuous forms of the sculpture weakening its potency. In even further extremity, any of these sculptures above would look just about impotent when competing with a museum by Frank Gehry. Only the work of minimalist sculptors such as Richard Serra or Sol LeWitt could create an interesting contrast between building and structure. However, this would be an ironic contrast; a contrast that comments on the roles of architecture and sculpture by resisting the nature of their logic. This is a tedious fight: the building fights the Rational, as the sculpture fights the Spiritual.

A couple of Mies’ buildings resisted the introduction of a sculpture most notably in the Seagram Building. Mies himself spent a considerable amount of time dedicated to designing a free-flowing sculpture for placement in the spacious plaza, however nothing seemed to work. Jacques Lipchitz and Henry Moore were requested to make sculptures for the space but both declined. Here was a plaza that a sculpture just didn’t seem to fit. However, after subsequent years, in an even more dynamic and contrasting manner, there have been sculpture exhibitions that periodically changed. This contrasted the building even further, demonstrating constant change and fluid motion in the face of the indomitable glass and bronze facade of the Seagram Building. I wonder why the Seagram Plaza resisted sculpture. My initial impression is that the Seagram Plaza, in contrast to the Barcelona Pavilion and the Illinois Federal Center, is symmetrical whereas the other buildings are arranged in asymmetrical, De Stijl, type shifting planes. (This asymmetry happens in the building itself of the Barcelona Pavilion, and happens in the arrangement of symmetrical buildings at the Illinois Federal Center.) Perhaps the symmetry of the Seagram Plaza, in its rigidity, resisted the introduction of a dynamic element such as a sculpture.

Extreme contrast between sculpture and architecture can help to heighten the sensations of the other. The decorum of sculpture and architecture is clearly distilled when given a properly opposing context.

The ambiguity and competition of sculpture at the Bilbao Guggenheim by Frank Gehry.