A concrete sandwich lies deep in a chasm between London skyscrapers. An angry Bristol crowd drag a statue through the streets. De Chirico seems to have left something at Cambridge station. The life of sculpture in public space…
by Herbert Wright
In London, there’s a concrete sandwich that is the size of a double bed. Three skyscrapers – the 118m-high Miesian-style St Helen’s tower (GMW, 1969), the iconic 225m-high Cheesegrater (RSHP, 2014) and the overwhelming 278m-high glass behemoth 22 Bishopsgate (PLP, 2020) – crowd over the spot where it lies, to make it shady even in the brightest summer sunshine. The British artist Sarah Lucas chose the location so that office workers could sit on it and eat their lunch. It forms part of the annual trail of contemporary sculptures called Sculpture In The City in the heart of London’s prime financial quarter.
Before sushi, superfood-salads, bean enchiladas and other healthy take-aways, the sandwich was the standard lunch for millions in the UK. Especially popular was bacon and ketchup in thick flat white bread. We still eat sandwiches, but less than before, and likely to be vegetarian. Lucas’ bread is unseeded. So, her sandwich is also a monument to what is gradually becoming a collective memory.
That brilliantly illustrates Aldo Rossi’s proposition, in his book L’architettura della Città (1966), of the city as a repository for collective memory. Monuments played a key role, encoding memory in stone. What is sculpture’s relationship with collective memory? And because we now recognise that the built environment has a responsibility to activate city life, let us also ask: What is the relationship between public sculpture and city life?
Most historical statues are ignored, but their collective memories can be re-activated. When George Floyd was publicly murdered by Minneapolis police in 2020, it created international outrage. Bristol, England was already soul-searching about its history as a slave-trade port. The two came together when an angry crowd gathered around the statue of slave trader Edward Colsten, long considered a great man of the city. They splattered him red, pulled him down, dragged him through the streets and dumped him in the harbour. Local police made no intervention. Like Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, toppled in 2003, or Lenin statues brought down across the ex-Soviet Union, collective memory was exorcised. It was a fantastic eruption of emotion and people power, but should we erase the memory of evil? Perhaps cities need Museums of Shame, where statues and other records of past evil are displayed, explained and serve as educational resources. Holocaust museums serve as a good model.
Sculpture can store nicer historical memories of the city. In a quiet mews in London’s swank Mayfair, Neil French’s Three Figures (2012) captures fashion photographer Terence Donovan photographing 60s super-fab model Twiggy while a shopper looks on. It freezes an intimate, magical moment in an unexpected place. Why can’t architects think like this when they are busy ‘place-making’?
Five kilometres to the east, in a dull nook by the 180m-high Gherkin (Foster+Partners, 2004), another of the 20 sculptures on Sculpture in the City trail, The Granary (2021) by Jesse Pollock, actually has an architectural subject. A shiny orange metal form is an almost Jeff Koons-style representation of a historic English grain store. We forget that without the countryside to feed it, the city would not exist. Its bright orange colour not only transforms a dull corporate nook in the cityscape, but also alerts us, like a collective reminder, to the lost memory of the relationship between city and countryside.
Contemporary sculpture often aspires to be seen by use of provocative colour and form, and calls the citizen to record it on social media, especially Instagram. This shared digital memory is a new sort of collective memory, and has global reach. Rossi would have understood this – his floating Teatro del Mondo, the highlight of the 1980 Venice Architecture Biennale, was a pre-digital harbinger of projecting the instant architectural image. Sculpture has now become an advertisement for its location, financed by corporate sponsorship. We are in the realm of the Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (the 1967 book which offered the radical perspective of capitalism as immersing us in imagery that serve its own ends). Digital media is the mediator of the contemporary spectacle. The urban sophisticate’s idea of city life is constantly refined by ideas from Carlos Moreno’s 15-Minute City to ‘street food’ re-marketed as hip at five times the price as when it was on the street. Sculpture neatly takes its place in this contemporary spectacle that is rooted in capitalism and consumerism.
I mention various London skyscrapers because each is a sculptural form, so these corporate buildings are also sculptures. Even the square rectilinear black form of St Helen’s is an example of the high modernism’s minimalism which both art and architecture expressed. Modernism was blind to its pre-exiting urban context, including community life, and the new ‘city’ it created didn’t always work. Sculptural architecture later turned into ‘starchitecture’, with the same indifference to human scale and history. Now it is yesterday’s architecture.
Future architecture must become organic – buildings of natural materials that host plant life and generate civic life. Public sculpture is also seeking this path. Thomas Heatherington has designed a ‘Tree of Trees’ for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. It will hold 350 trees on a tree-like steel structure outside Buckingham Palace. This may not be the way to go. The trees will be isolated in pots, lonely because they cannot network via any mycelium web, and the structure has been compared to a mobile network mast.
Rossi made drawings conveying collective memory in an imaginary, metaphysical city of classically-inspired buildings and surrealist objects. They were influenced by the surrealist de Chirico. Interestingly, a new sculpture outside Cambridge station, Ariadne Unwrapped by Gavin Turk, is exactly like a Rossi-de Chirico statue, except that it is wrapped and bound as if by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
On 23rd June, Sculpture In The City hosted a night of live performance called Nocturnal Creatures. One of its many events, repeated from last year, was scheduled to be roller skaters gliding around the madly colourful shapes of the sculptural ensemble Bloom Paradise by Taiwanese artist Jun T. Lai. She also designed the skater’s inflatable costume to be contemporary Alice in Wonderland. It would have been a joyful update on collective memory. Like the Bristol protestors, Lai’s sculpture would have animated the city. Unfortunately, the performance was cancelled, but Bloom Paradise remains, bringing magic to the City – a different sort of metaphysical magic to de Chirico, but also like a dream nevertheless.
Dreams themselves are free-form imagination which incorporates and reconfigures memories. If sculptural imagination brings dreams to the city, they can become collective memories. The collective memory stored in sculpture is not just history, but of dreams too.
This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture in early July 2022, entitled: Du devenir les sculptures dans l’espace public. It has been updated in connection with Aldo Rossi and with June T Lai’s sculpture-centric performance.
© Herbert Wright, July 2022