From Michelangelo to Heidegger to Anish Kapoor and Herzog de Meuron.

What do architecture, philosophy, sculpture have in common? What are their congruent elements? But most important, how can architects learn from philosophers and artists? Alain de Botton and John Armstrong explain us in their book, Art as Therapy, that there are seven duties of the arts: remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth and appreciation. But there is more in common between Sculpture and Architecture: Both of them operate within Space and Light. Le Corbusier’s definition of architecture is equally appropriate for defining sculpture:

“(Architecture is) The masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” Le Corbusier

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, whose legacy has left a precious imprint in the fields of phenomenology (which is the most relevant to our topic, arts, and architecture), existentialism, hermeneutics, psychology, political theory, and theology. He is best known for his treaty, Being and Time, published in 1927. In the world of architects, he is notorious for his study Building, Dwelling, Thinking (1951), but little is known that another essay that he wrote, in 1969 titled Art and Space, could be of equal use for the guild. The essay was written as a result of his collaboration with the Spanish sculptor, Eduardo Chillida (1924-2002), where he tackled the problem of space, from a phenomenological point of view, and it is the only one dedicated entirely to sculpture. Perhaps as a metaphor, he engraved the essay on a lithographer’s stone to emphasize even more his thoughts regarding sculpture, and the unicity of his gesture. It is not a coincidence that we are mentioning this essay and their relationship, philosopher-sculptor, because Eduardo Chillida studied first architecture, and then turned to art, detail which must be said since the beginning, as it makes his work more comprehensible. He mainly uses metal, stone or wood, and is interested in the effects of the natural phenomena (sunlight, wind, rain, tides) on his massive, abstract sculptures.

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Piene Del Viento by Eduardo Chillida

In his essay, Heidegger questions the nature of the space and the liaisons between the space and the sculpture. He identifies three types of spaces: space where one perceives the sculpture as an entity, the space enclosed within the sculpture, and the voids between the volumes. But in fact, he speaks about limits. When a sculptor sculpts, he defines his idea by taking out everything that doesn’t serve. Is not the same process in architecture? Doesn’t an Architect sculpt the space until he finds the best solution to be inhabited?

 “Matter, space and time are, in the first place, inseparable things, to such an extent that I don’t know if they are really different things.” Eduardo Chillida (Art and Emptiness: Heidegger and Chillida on Space and Place, by Miles Groth)

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) is one of the representatives of the Italian Renaissance, whose life was always between agony and ecstasy (Agony and Ecstasy is his biography written by the American author Irving Stone in 1961), as he’s excelled in everything he undertook, from painting and sculpture to architecture and poetry. We cannot say that he was a better sculptor than he was an architect. He invested everything with his passion, energy, and yearning to leave something behind, to fight for a higher ideal. During the Renaissance, architecture, sculpture, and painting were intertwined. One cannot imagine the Sistine Chapel without its frescoes, only mere walls. One cannot imagine the Medici Chapels without its statues. Sculptures and frescoes were whispering about the possessor of the building, or about its purpose. Sculpture or painting was not a decoration. Everything was thought, designed and perceived as a whole, spaces were experienced with the whole body. This happened because the human body was seen as the center of the universe. The use of the Golden Ratio when designing spaces gave a sense of human scale and proportion that was very well received both by the body and the brain, equally at the sculpture David, and at the Piazza del Campidoglio, in Rome, Italy. He made no difference when creating a painting, a sculpture or a space. Proportion and sensitivity were always in his thought. He instilled in all his works, his ideas of beauty, truth, faith, transcendence.

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Sistine Chapel Interiors © Vatican Museum

Born in 1954 in Bombay, India, but grew up and works in London, Anish Kapoor (1954) is of much relevance for our analysis, as he tackles like no one else, the space, by creating site-specific installations, as well as objects that test the phenomenology of space, according to Sandhini Poddar, the Assistant Curator of Asian Art, from Guggenheim Museum, where he held in 2010 the exhibition titled Memory. In 1990 he represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale, the “Cloud Gate”, or better known as “The Bean” has become one of the attractions of Chicago and ArcelorMittal Orbit, found in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is the tallest sculpture in the United Kingdom that has the longest and tallest tunnel slide. His sculptures are not to be seen only, they are created to be interacted with, experienced.

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Arcelor-Mittal Orbit by Anish Kapoor

For the exhibition Memory, at the Guggenheim Museum, Anish Kapoor conceives a voluminous oval shape made out of corroded steel which fills the room that has three doors, in such a way that you can never have full access to the entire oeuvre. It is a process, a challenge for the memory, due to its inaccessibility, but also a mystery. The Indian Architect Balkrishna Vithaldas Doshi (1927) states that he designs spaces that are meant to be discovered, revealed step by step, in order to create magic. We could assume that both the artist and the architect have the same aim. And in this revealing, discovery, in fact, a person can discover parts of the world or part of himself that might seem forgotten, or never reckon. The artist describes his intervention as “very closely related to architecture in the sense that we read the spaces that we inhabit through the process of walking, through the process of inhabiting.”

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Memory by Anish Kapoor

In an interview for Post Magazine, Anish Kapoor states that “The idea of place has always been very important to my work. A place that is, in a sense, original. I mean, by the word original, to do with ‘first’, and I think that is to do with centering oneself – allowing a thing to occur specifically rather than in general. A lot of my works are about passage, about ‘a passing through’, and that necessitates a place.” Jacques Herzog (1950) and Pierre de Meuron (1950) founded their own studio in 1978 after graduating from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), in Zurich, Switzerland, and in 2001 they were awarded the Pritzker Prize. They have a long history of collaboration with artists, such as, Rémy Zaugg (1943-2005), Helmut Federle (1944), Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) or Balthasar Burkard, Hannah Villiger, Margherita Spiluttini, and Thomas Ruff, with whom they collaborated with at the Venice Biennale in 1991. Their credo about architects and artists: “Over the years we’ve come to understand more and more that artists shouldn’t do architecture and architects shouldn’t do art. We have also understood that it’s very important to fuse these things, to bring these things together. In many projects we came to a point where we found it absolutely important and necessary to involve an artist to make the project better.” Herzog & de Meuron have been friends with the artists Helmut Federle (1944) and Remy Zaugg (1943-2005), before they went into architecture school, and they chose every time they could to consult or even involve them, because they consider the artists to have strong conceptual skills, which go beyond the aesthetic reasons that can be of tremendous help for architectural projects. From them, the architects have learned how to look at a museum with a critical eye, and who can know better what a museum needs, if not the artist himself? Rémy Zaugg was a Swiss conceptualist artist, also known for his critical approach regarding the perception of space and architecture, and even wrote a book about the relationship between the work of art and space, titled, Die List der Unschuld. He had his studio designed by Herzog& de Meuron, but he was also involved in other 14 projects with them. Designing the studio of an artist with such a strong personality and such a wide culture can be a challenge even for talented architects as Herzog & de Meuron, they recalled: “This was very tough because his work is about perception and it’s very critical about museum spaces… Doing this studio was a real test for us to show how a museum space should be, because even though it’s a workspace, it still has the character of a space where art is viewed.”

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Rémy Zaugg Studio by Herzog & de Meuron © Herzog & de Meuron

Between 1976 and 1978, the city of Basel bought an important oeuvre from Beuys for the Carnival, an important event that took place in the city, early. The architects stated that they “wanted to turn the whole event into an artist’s performance, including Beuys and his work. He agreed to work together with us, and he designed a performance on which we assisted him. This was, in a way, our first collaboration with an artist.” Their attention to detail and the materiality of their projects is perhaps a consequence of the influence of the artist Joseph Beuys had on them, with his genuine and unexpected way of using the materials. He uses metal, felt or fat for his installations, and instills a deeper meaning to every material. The iron suggests masculinity, war, and the deity Mars, while copper which is a conductor of electricity symbolizes femininity and the goddess Venus. Fat and felt, are the symbols or signatures for the artist, and appear in many of his sculptures. Fat is seen as a spiritual, transcendental symbol due to its plasticity that makes possible its transition from solid to liquid form. Felt is a symbol of warmth and empathy, as it is used to absorb, to insulate. If every architect would pay so much attention when choosing the materials and would design with all these subtleties in mind, we could have more meaningful spaces, concrete, built metaphors.

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David by Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s David or his Piazza del Campidoglio, in Italy, Anish Kapoor’s “Bean” in Chicago, USA, or Herzog & de Meuron, Carnival performance have in common the same play with the spaces, and questions about the limits. Limits of space, boundaries of self, of human interactions. Even though David can be seen as a static statue, the contraction of his muscles denotes an urge to take action, to surpass the limits that one might impose to himself. The public sculpture from Chicago offers a different perspective of the world around us, again, an invitation to question our own perception about the world and the boundaries we are building between us and the exterior world. The Carnival performance directed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron reveals to us that we are empowered to give meaning to every gesture, one does, architecture and sculpture being seen as ultimate cultural, social and political gestures. Consequently, if a work of art has the ability to touch us, and to make us raise some questions about ourselves or about the world around us, this means it has fulfilled its deepest purpose.


Ana Mirea is a Riba Part II Architectural Assistant and Ph.D. student, based in London. She has graduated from the “Ion Mincu” University of Architecture and Urbanism, and now she undertakes a research based Ph.D. in the field of neuroarchitecture, with a thesis titled The Influence of the Built Environment from Childhood on the Brain.

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