Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

The Difficult Whole: Siah Armajani, Robert Venturi and the Politics of Modernist Architecture

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

The Difficult Whole: Siah Armajani, Robert Venturi and the Politics of Modernist Architecture

Article excerpt

In 1980, the Iranian-American sculptor Siah Armajani made a number of outdoor installations, called 'reading' and 'meeting' gardens (e.g. Reading Garden #1, figs. 1, 2, 3). Some of these remain extant, while others have been dismantled. Each comprised a cuboid shed with an open front along with various benches, fences and screens. They were primarily made of wood and painted in white, black, redwood brown and dark, 'park bench' green. Although their titles suggest a functional purpose (i.e. 'reading room' or 'meeting room'), they all resisted use to a significant extent. In each installation some of the fences closed off areas of grass, and Armajani did not incorporate gates or openings to render these spaces accessible. The sheds were often empty and even when they did contain furniture, they generally lacked sufficient light for comfortable reading. Furthermore, Janet Kardon has noted that the benches were built with a 'cultivated clumsiness; the right angle joining seat to seat-back is discomforting enough to make sitting an active, rather than passive activity'.1 As Nancy Princethal puts it, the gardens were therefore 'elusively inviting'.2 Their promise of functionality was swiftly rescinded by their deliberately ungainly, cumbersome forms.

Since 1968, Armajani has consistently made art on the border between sculpture and architecture, with works including bridges, gazebos, reading rooms and other architectural structures. In a manifesto written in 1978, Armajani pledged himself to a practice of 'public sculpture', which should be 'less about the self-expression and myth of the maker and more about its civicness'. This text also rejected the traditional assumption that artworks should be functionless, instead arguing that public artists should aim to satisfy a general 'social and cultural need'.3 Based on this rhetoric, critics discussing Armajani's work have commonly argued that his works are open and democratic by virtue of the way that they integrate public engagement through invitations to use.4 However, while this approach accurately reflects the artist's statements, it does not really speak to his works, since many of his constructions are actually impossible to use and even when they do invite interaction, they usually render it difficult and uncomfortable.

According to Armajani, these barriers to use play a key role in determining his works' relationship with the medium of sculpture. Although he often calls himself a 'sculptor', in 1978, when asked whether his architectural installations should really be categorized within that medium, he acknowledged that it is difficult to say.5 However, he suggested that they could be seen as 'non-functional ... architecture', a category which ultimately shares 'the same properties as sculpture'. Furthermore, as architectural constructions that resist functionality, he argued that his works comprise 'investigations into the qualities and properties ... of lived-in structures'.6 In other words, through their autonomy from the functional demands of architecture - or their status as sculpture - Armajani's works invite meditation on the built environment. By resisting utility, they maintain a function as platforms for thought.

Any reflection on Armajani's works must come to terms with their deeply counterintuitive compositions. The 'reading' and 'meeting' gardens all feature parts joined together at acute and irregular angles as well as benches placed in strangely isolated positions or located at oblique orientations to other elements of the work. Describing Meeting Garden (1980), Kardon has written that 'a number of disparate elements ... sprawl in a seemingly aleatory arrangement'.7 The works' decidedly inharmonious compositions are further confused by the way that fences, walls and screens frequently act as barriers. These impede the viewer's gaze, ensuring that the installations can never be apprehended as a whole. Their oddly jumbled arrangements therefore unfold through a series of physically and perceptually isolated experiences. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.