Inhabiting: A woodsy reflection on the relationship between sculpture and architecture

Back CameraI spent the whole of last week on holiday in the north woods of Wisconsin – forcefully but happily disconnected from the connected world. I spent a lot of the week crafting cocktails, enjoying the exuberance of my nephews, and staring at trees, which, as I get older, has easily become the best thing about spending time in the woods. In the late 1970s, in an attempt to “live off the grid” my parents bought forty acres of land and built a modest house set a mile back from the nearest road, which only just recently was upgraded from gravel to blacktop. It was the first house my brother and I called home, but even more significantly this place–the land, the trees, and the house–has become the physical and emotional bedrock of our family. So what does this have to do with sculpture or sculptural things? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps this post is just excuse to remain a little longer amongst the singing birds and leaves blowing in the breeze, but after almost forty years my parents decided to renovate the property, an ongoing process that led to the addition of the structure pictured above, in its unfinished state a couple of summers back. Witnessing and being involved in these changes has made me acutely aware of the ways in which architecture exerts immense power over our experience of the spaces we inhabit; the power to contain and shelter, to both bring us closer to and separate us from surrounding landscapes.

Installation view of Henry Moore’s Maquette for UNESCO Reclining Figure, 1957 at the Art Institute of Chicago with Frank O. Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion in the background.

Which is a longwinded and perhaps overly personal way of getting to the fact that my time in the woods prompted a good deal of reflection about structures, sites, and space, but very little about sculpture, at least as such. These are terms shared by both disciplines, whose histories have always been intertwined or at least adjacent to one another. In addition to their engagement with size, volume, and mass, architecture and sculpture both possess transmutable disciplinary boundaries and generate the equally ambiguous adjectives “sculptural” and “architectural.” Traditionally, they have been distinguished through functionality and accessibility to interior space. They both shape and construct, but architecture creates structures, often in sizes unmatched by anything within sculptural practice, involving imminently more rigorous, complex engineering. Simply put, buildings have use value and are spaces you can enter and inhabit.

Frank O. Gehry, Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, 1997
Richard Serra, Matter of Time, 1997, installed at the Guggenheim Bilbao

In recent years, however, the boundaries between sculpture and architecture have become increasingly blurred. Architecture has become an object, the ‘Bilbao Effect’ of Frank O. Gehry’s now seminal Guggenheim Museum in Spain. Sculpture, in turn, has co-opted the language of architecture as artists create objects large enough to be occupied or atmospheric works that heavily utilize their architectural spaces. I am not interested here in providing either a thorough synopsis of the shared history of sculpture and architecture, nor do I really have much to add that might be new to the discussion. Entire books have been devoted to topic, and theories like Rosalind Krauss’s “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” created in attempts to explain its intricacies. Yet the relationship remains slippery. Writing in the rather unfortunately named if well-conceived catalogue ArchiSculpture (Fondation Beyeler, 2005), sociologist Dirk Baecker states at length:

In his Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1973), Gregory Bateson asks the famous question ‘What is a difference?’ He answers that it is certainly not a thing or an event. Differences, Bateson concludes, exist only in the world of communication, not in the world of things. We find differences on a map we produce of a territory not in the territory itself. It is we who differentiate… Where is the difference then between architecture and sculpture? Neither architecture nor sculpture tells us what makes them different from one another. On the contrary, as this catalogue documents, they go to great lengths to pretend that they have already crossed the dividing line. Architecture becomes corporeal sculpture, while sculpture becomes walk-in architecture. What is it then that we find confusing? Ultimately, none of us will be in doubt about whether what stands before us is sculpture or architecture. Given a concrete example, each of us will know exactly what intellectual and emotional pleasure is to be derived from labeling architecture sculpture or from making ourselves at home inside a sculpture. We seem to have preconceived notions about these categories that leave us in no doubt, even for a moment, about what we see in front of us; yet, at the same time, we take pleasure in being confused by the possibility of architecture and sculpture being indistinguishable. The confusion is one of the map, not of the territory. The world is what it is, but the distinctions we make become blurred. The map no longer works. Buildings and sculpture enjoy showing us how little we can rely on our map, and their pleasure becomes positively malicious when they notice that, instead of having the sense to doubt our map, we engage in the wildest speculations…. [Architecture and Sculpture] force us to interrupt our reading and to look, walk around, and test the maps to find the most suitable one to help us find our way (pp.50-51).”

I agree with Baecker that sculpture and architecture, especially in recent years succeed in exploiting the tension between their shared approaches to shaping space. I cannot help but feel, however, that there remains something inherently insurmountable between their respective territories. Not just in regards to the labels we apply to order and make sense of the existence of the object each discipline produces, but in the qualities built into their physical structures and the residues that accumulate on and in them over the passage of time. No matter how much I argue for the continued relevance of the sculptural object in the contemporary world, it will never be a home, and the house will never simply be an object or a thing. An architectural thing, like the one constructed in the woods of Wisconsin, can evoke certain characteristics of sculpture. It is three-dimensional, aesthetic, made from materials, and in dialogue with its specific site, but its ability to be inhabited, to come alive through, and be altered by, both its human occupants and its surrounding landscape will always make it more than just a sculptural thing.


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