Fabio Quici / Aesthetics of Resistance

Aes­thet­ics of Resistance

Fabio Quici

Trisha Brown. Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, SoHo, 1970 (from Trisha Brown: so that the audience does not know whether I have stopped dancing, Peter Eleey ed, catalogue of the exhibition at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008)
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Trisha Brown. Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, SoHo, 1970 (from Trisha Brown: so that the audience does not know whether I have stopped dancing, Peter Eleey ed, catalogue of the exhibition at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008)

Fatal Attractions

In April of 1970, at 80 Woost­er Street in Man­hat­tan, a man began walk­ing on the side of a build­ing, per­fect­ly erect and per­fect­ly per­pen­dic­u­lar to its sur­face [ 1 ]. His appar­ent­ly non­cha­lant walk ren­dered near­ly nat­ur­al a move­ment that in actu­al­i­ty rad­i­cal­ly altered his body’s rela­tion­ship with grav­i­ty. The nat­u­ral­ness of a move­ment oth­er­wise tak­en for grant­ed under nor­mal con­di­tions was exalt­ed in the para­dox­i­cal sit­u­a­tion enact­ed before the eyes of a group of spec­ta­tors involved in spite of them­selves in a desta­bi­liz­ing performance.

In con­ceiv­ing the per­for­mance of Man Walk­ing Down the Side of a Build­ing (1970), Trisha Brown aimed to inter­pret a nat­ur­al force like grav­i­ty, usu­al­ly tak­en for grant­ed in its man­i­fes­ta­tions, via a medi­at­ic chal­lenge through the human body and its move­ment. How­ev­er, it was not a cus­tom­ary chal­lenge like climb­ing, but a move­ment that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly indulged and coun­tered the inescapable ver­ti­cal direc­tion of a body that would nor­mal­ly have been in free fall under those con­di­tions. The dis­sim­u­la­tion of the effort of resis­tance by Brown’s dancer became desta­bi­liz­ing from the observers’ equal­ly unnat­ur­al per­spec­tive with respect to the action tak­ing place over their heads. The con­ven­tion­al and func­tion­al ori­en­ta­tion of their bod­ies in the world was cast into doubt, open­ing up unusu­al forms of expe­ri­ence that required rethink­ing cer­tain dynam­ics of move­ment, like those typ­i­cal of a ges­ture as nat­ur­al as that of walk­ing. The per­cep­tion of the performer’s mus­cu­lar effort in rela­tion to grav­i­ty, fear-induced ten­sion, the poten­tial of phys­i­cal strength and the force of resis­tance enact­ed through that sit­u­a­tion ampli­fied the spec­ta­tors’ under­stand­ing of the mechan­ics – and there­fore the lim­i­ta­tions – of their own bodies.

Antony Gormley. Edge II (2000) at the Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo, Norway. © Fabio Quici
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Antony Gormley. Edge II (2000) at the Astrup Fearnley Museum, Oslo, Norway.
© Fabio Quici

Thir­ty years after the Woost­er Street per­for­mance, British artist Antony Gorm­ley appeared to have wished to pay her homage with the sculp­ture series Edge II (2000), in which his Gorm­lems’ — as W.J. T. Mitchell liked to call them — look down upon us from atop the walls of Oslo’s Astrup Fearn­ley Muse­um [ 2 ] and Eton College’s Com­mon Lane House. This time deprived of move­ment, the human fig­ure behaves like an archi­tec­tur­al body’ and, chal­leng­ing the laws of grav­i­ty, appears to invite observers to look at the world from a dif­fer­ent perspective.

Resis­tance to grav­i­ty has shaped our bod­ies just as we, as a func­tion of its action, have giv­en shape to the built environment. 

The forms of archi­tec­ture are by their very nature the result of an act of resis­tance – a resis­tance dis­sim­u­lat­ed at one time and exalt­ed at another. 

Resis­tance, ten­sion and excite­ment” are at the ori­gin of artis­tic pro­duc­tion, along with the com­po­sure that cor­re­sponds to design and com­po­si­tion in the object,” as Dewey point­ed out.[1] But art and archi­tec­ture share these assumptions.

The Ficus macrophylla in Piazza della Marina, Palermo. © Fabio Quici
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The Ficus macrophylla in Piazza della Marina, Palermo.
© Fabio Quici

Adalberto Libera. Palazzo della Regione, Trento, 1958-1965. © Fabio Quici
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Adalberto Libera. Palazzo della Regione, Trento, 1958-1965.
© Fabio Quici

Unlike the forms we find in nature, which are the result of a use­ful adap­ta­tion to their very sur­vival [ 3 ], those of archi­tec­ture have nev­er been lim­it­ed to the mere sur­vival of their inhab­i­tants. This is why con­struc­tions built by peo­ple embrace such cat­e­gories as arbi­trari­ness, dec­o­ra­tion, and for­mal exu­ber­ance [ 4 ]. Resis­tance in this case often becomes a per­for­mance, a chal­lenge against grav­i­ty and more. As takes place in Brown’s per­for­mance and in Gormley’s stat­ues, the forms of archi­tects are con­ceived to elic­it just as many actions and reac­tions from an oth­er­wise dis­tract­ed” soci­ety at large, as Wal­ter Ben­jamin was already point­ing out at the start of the last cen­tu­ry[2]. It is a soci­ety that archi­tec­ture address­es by pro­vid­ing not only shel­ter — spaces for liv­ing— but also a set of stim­uli that ques­tion the very con­cept of being in the world’. To these stim­uli — visu­al, tac­tile, and synaes­thet­ic — soci­ety in turn can respond with forms of resis­tance that are for the most part emo­tion­al rather than ratio­nal in nature. But when accept­ed and trans­formed into expe­ri­ences, these resis­tances become oppor­tu­ni­ties for eman­ci­pa­tion, because strug­gle and con­flict may be them­selves enjoyed, although they are painful, when they are expe­ri­enced as means of devel­op­ing an expe­ri­ence.”[3]

Matthew Barney. Drawing Restraint 6, 1989-2004. (from Matthew Barney: drawing restraint, catalogue of the traveling exhibition Kanazawa - Seoul - San Francisco, s.l., s.n.).
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Matthew Barney. Drawing Restraint 6, 1989-2004. (from Matthew Barney: drawing restraint, catalogue of the traveling exhibition Kanazawa - Seoul - San Francisco, s.l., s.n.).

The Unit­ed States artist Matthew Bar­ney, bring­ing with him from his past as an ath­lete the idea that the mus­cle tis­sue of the human body is strength­ened when it encoun­ters resis­tance, devel­oped the notion of resis­tance as a cat­a­lyst for growth’, see­ing in it a nec­es­sary pre­req­ui­site for cre­ativ­i­ty. This led to the per­for­mance series Draw­ing Restraint 1–18 (from 1987), which pro­duced mate­ri­als in the form of draw­ings, pho­tographs, videos, and sculp­tures. Using inclined plat­forms, wires, and tram­po­lines, Bar­ney jumped towards the walls of a room, then towards the ceil­ing, and then remained sus­pend­ed in the void, thus gen­er­at­ing designs on the sur­faces that bore wit­ness to the effort of each indi­vid­ual ges­ture. In Draw­ing Restraint 6 (1989÷2004), Bar­ney, jump­ing for an entire day on a mini-tram­po­line set at a 15° angle and leav­ing a sin­gle mark on the ceil­ing with each leap [ 5 ], man­aged to pro­duce a draw­ing that allud­ed to a self-por­trait, but also to some­thing more. As Neville Wake­field point­ed out: Reach­ing against the resis­tance of grav­i­ty and restraint, each mark rep­re­sent­ed the phys­i­cal effort of its mak­ing along with the cir­cles of exer­tion, exhaus­tion, and recov­ery that char­ac­ter­ize our very exis­tence as sen­sate beings.”[4]

The image of Matthew Bar­ney strug­gling against grav­i­ty in his ver­ti­cal jumps and trac­ing vari­able tra­jec­to­ries in the air can seem­ing­ly be glimpsed in the non-lin­ear geom­e­try of Arcelor­Mit­tal Orbit (2010−2012), the 115-metre tow­er designed by Anish Kapoor for Queen Eliz­a­beth Olympic Park in Lon­don [ 6 ]. Here, the artist’s vision goes beyond the typ­i­cal par­a­digms of tow­ers, resort­ing to the image of a frozen move­ment that becomes dynam­ic again in the eyes of the pub­lic invit­ed to walk around and through the struc­ture. The hyper­trophic struc­ture designed by Cecil Bal­mond to give con­crete form to Kapoor’s artis­tic ges­ture coun­ters grav­i­ta­tion­al forces with­out dis­sim­u­lat­ing the ten­sions that are gen­er­at­ed. The ten­sions are instead enact­ed with the pur­pose of giv­ing life to a dis­man­tled, inten­tion­al­ly unsta­ble image, a shape that looms over vis­i­tors [ 7 ]. Whether defined as a con­tort­ed tan­gle of loops,” as an implod­ed roller­coast­er,” or as a tor­tured scrunch of entrails, stretched and knot­ted into obliv­ion,”[5] the tow­er con­ceived by Kapoor has become the late-com­ing mon­u­ment to the aes­thet­ics of decon­struc­tion: an aes­thet­ics that has seen the forms of archi­tec­ture pre­pared for the event and placed into the inter­stices between order and dis­or­der, weight and light­ness, sta­bil­i­ty and insta­bil­i­ty, inti­ma­cy and inhos­pi­tal­i­ty, opac­i­ty and trans­paren­cy, sym­me­try and dis­sym­me­try har­mo­ny and dishar­mo­ny, pro­por­tion and dis­pro­por­tion, form and func­tion, super­flu­ous­ness and pur­pose, dec­o­ra­tion and struc­ture.”[6] But it is pre­cise­ly in the very cir­cum­stances when one is at the mer­cy of oppo­sites – when we con­front the unusu­al, when the forms of art and archi­tec­ture, over­com­ing the reas­sur­ing con­ven­tions, defy our resis­tance by enact­ing ten­sions rather than seek­ing bal­ance – that our sense of imme­di­ate liv­ing” is inten­si­fied.[7]

Anish Kapoor with Cecil Balmond. Arcelormittal Orbit (2012), Queen Elizabeth II OlympicPark, London, 2014. © Fabio Quici
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Anish Kapoor with Cecil Balmond. Arcelormittal Orbit (2012), Queen Elizabeth II OlympicPark, London, 2014.
© Fabio Quici

Arcelormittal Orbit and the visitors, 2014. © Fabio Quici
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Arcelormittal Orbit and the visitors, 2014.
© Fabio Quici

These ten­sions were addressed by Raimund Abra­ham when he con­ceived his Sphere Project (1991). A large, met­al sphere had been designed by the Aus­tri­an archi­tect to appear perched in pre­car­i­ous equi­lib­ri­um at the out­er­most edge of a con­crete plat­form at the end of a podi­um to be placed on the Ter­rassen­plateau of Vienna’s Muse­um of Applied Art (Muse­um für ange­wandte Kun­st – MAK) [ 8 ]. The sphere was to have been held in place by a sin­gle steel cable anchored to a wall, whose vari­a­tions in ten­sion due to changes in tem­per­a­ture were to be off­set by spe­cial mech­a­nisms inside the sphere. Seen from below, the sphere would have appeared pre­car­i­ous­ly bal­anced; seen from the podi­um on the ter­race, it was to have giv­en the impres­sion of being about to plunge down­ward. If built, the instal­la­tion would have enact­ed a mechan­i­cal and com­po­si­tion­al game aimed at allud­ing to a con­di­tion of uncer­tain­ty of soci­ety as a whole. Lebbeus Woods wrote about the project: Abraham’s sphere, and the uni­ty it pre­sup­pos­es, is only one ele­ment in an ensem­ble, the fragili­ty and tem­po­rari­ness of its posi­tion cor­re­sponds to the post-Enlight­en­ment con­di­tion of insta­bil­i­ty, uncer­tain­ty and inde­ter­mi­na­cy which mod­ern life presents and which rea­son alone can­not be cod­i­fied as a sta­tus quo, as – or in a fixed and deter­min­is­tic state.”[8]

Raimund Abraham. Sphere Project, Museum für angewandte Kunst, Wien, 1991. Photo of the model: Gerhard Zugmann
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Raimund Abraham. Sphere Project, Museum für angewandte Kunst, Wien, 1991. Photo of the model: Gerhard Zugmann

While archi­tec­ture is by its very nature the art of equi­lib­ri­um, of sta­bil­i­ty, its forms are not always con­ceived sole­ly to with­stand stress­es or to give reas­sur­ing shape to our hous­ing. In coun­ter­ing grav­i­ty and bound­ing space, archi­tec­ture also casts into plain view those invis­i­ble forces that it coun­ters, mak­ing them vis­i­ble. Archi­tec­ture is the adap­ta­tion of forms to oppos­ing forces” accord­ing to John Ruskin’s pop­u­lar apho­rism. While Raimund Abraham’s sphere may in fact be con­sid­ered the archi­tec­tur­al coun­ter­part of Trisha Brown’s Man Walk­ing Down the Side of a Build­ing per­for­mance piece, on many occa­sions archi­tects have giv­en vis­i­bil­i­ty to these invis­i­ble forces by work­ing pre­cise­ly with those struc­tur­al ele­ments called into ques­tion in the pur­suit of Vit­ru­vian fir­mi­tas. But giv­en that achiev­ing equi­lib­ri­um and pro­por­tion in archi­tec­ture appears to soothe the sens­es and urge only pas­sive con­tem­pla­tion, at times we look to the cat­e­go­ry of the sub­lime’ rather than to that of the beau­ti­ful’, in order to dis­play strength and fatigue” (to para­phrase Edmund Burke) through the use – and even the arti­fi­cial use – of dis­crep­an­cies and alter­ations of shapes and of the equi­lib­ria them­selves. There­fore, if the metope and the triglyph at Mantua’s Palaz­zo Tè (1524−1534) slide down­ward [ 9 ] by the effect of those same forces that trans­formed into a ruin the mag­nif­i­cence of the clas­si­cal archi­tec­ture observed by Giulio Romano, cen­turies lat­er, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of insta­bil­i­ty’ takes the forms of a pil­lar sus­pend­ed in the air [ 10 ] at Peter Eisenman’s Wexn­er Cen­ter for the Arts (Colum­bus, Ohio, 1989). 

Giulio Romano. Dettaglio del primo cortile di Palazzo Tè (1524-1534), Mantova. © Dida Biggi (from Casabella 559, 1989)
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Giulio Romano. Dettaglio del primo cortile di Palazzo Tè (1524-1534), Mantova.
© Dida Biggi (from Casabella 559, 1989)

Peter Eisenman. Wexner Center for the Arts (1989), Columbus, Ohio, 1995. © Fabio Quici
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Peter Eisenman. Wexner Center for the Arts (1989), Columbus, Ohio, 1995.
© Fabio Quici

On the occa­sion of the 12th Venice Bien­nale of Archi­tec­ture, it was to be Antón Gar­cía-Abril to make the forces of resis­tance in action vis­i­ble in the instal­la­tion Bal­anc­ing Act (2010). By insert­ing a sec­ond struc­tur­al line, taut and unsta­ble as well as dis­so­nant with the orig­i­nal one of the Corderie dell’Arsenale, Gar­cía-Abril aimed to under­mine the per­cep­tion of the reas­sur­ing struc­tur­al lines of the six­teenth-cen­tu­ry lon­gi­tu­di­nal space. Two dou­ble T pre­fab­ri­cat­ed con­crete beams placed one on top of the oth­er, one of which bur­dened by a con­crete weight and coun­ter­bal­anced by a large spring placed at the oppo­site end [ 11 ], high­light­ed, in the Biennale’s spaces, the poten­tial aes­thet­ics of the con­cept of weight and resis­tance. Grav­i­ty, which for cen­turies has trans­mit­ted its load to the Arse­nale build­ing and been dis­trib­uted through the large mason­ry columns, found a way to com­bine and react with the new diag­o­nal struc­ture, gen­er­at­ing an intense fric­tion' that gave rise to a new, unset­tling read­ing of the involved space.

Anton García-Abril. Balancing Act, 12th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, 2010. © Fabio Quici
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Anton García-Abril. Balancing Act, 12th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, 2010.
© Fabio Quici

Maria Matilde House, Lisboa, Portugal, 2022. © Fabio Quici
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Maria Matilde House, Lisboa, Portugal, 2022.
© Fabio Quici

Rachel Whiteread.
House, London, UK, 1993. © John Davies (courtesy John Davies)
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Rachel Whiteread. House, London, UK, 1993.
© John Davies (courtesy John Davies)

Oppositions

In cities, one may encounter on a dai­ly basis expres­sions of resilience by the pop­u­la­tion, man­i­fest­ed in the form of excep­tions to the urban fabric’s grad­u­al­ly trans­form­ing log­ic. A pop­u­lar exam­ple has become that of Edith Macefield’s small house in Seattle’s Bal­lard neigh­bour­hood. Besieged by a mod­ern com­mer­cial devel­op­ment in 2006, Edith’s lit­tle house, dat­ing to the 1950s, sur­vived even her death in 2008 thanks to the pop­u­lar­i­ty it enjoyed after it inspired Pixar’s pop­u­lar ani­mat­ed film Up (2009). And near the Belém Tow­er in Lis­bon, while cross­ing the pedes­tri­an bridge over Aveni­da da Índia, one may encounter a unique house that seems to have sunk into the pave­ment of a plaza. This is the house of Maria Matilde [ 12 ], which dates to the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Now for­got­ten by Lisbon’s toponymy and hav­ing been left with no street address, the house held out against the demo­li­tions in the mod­ern­iza­tion of the Reste­lo quar­ter, and now stands as mute tes­ti­mo­ny to the his­to­ry of the area and of a lifestyle, with its exte­ri­or plants and hang­ing laun­dry, that peo­ple nowa­days almost wish to con­ceal. Seen in this way, in its iso­la­tion, the house of Maria Matil­da seems ready to become one of Rachel Whiteread’s casts, with which the British artist pre­serves the every­day’ and gives author­i­ty to the for­got­ten things’. Even her famous House (1993−1994), the cast of a Lon­don ter­race house that was to be demol­ished [ 13 ], was seen as a mon­u­ment to an unhealthy and claus­tro­pho­bic past” and sub­ject­ed to attacks by the Lon­don Coun­try Coun­cil.[9]

Caruso St John Architects and Thomas Demand. Nagelhaus (2007), Zürich, Switzerland. (courtesy Caruso St John Architects)
Caruso St John Architects and Thomas Demand. Nagelhaus (2007), Zürich, Switzerland. (courtesy Caruso St John Architects)
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Caruso St John Architects and Thomas Demand. Nagelhaus (2007), Zürich, Switzerland. (courtesy Caruso St John Architects)

The famous Nail House in Chongqing remained isolated within the construction site, 2007.
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The famous Nail House in Chongqing remained isolated within the construction site, 2007.

In fact, in spite of their anonymi­ty, these forms of resilience seem almost intend­ed to affirm, by their sim­ple pres­ence, the noble ide­al — recent­ly evoked by Jean Nou­v­el in the mag­a­zine Domus — of an archi­tec­ture intend­ed as resis­tance against the sys­tem, against phys­i­cal glob­al­i­sa­tion that does not respect the genius loci, the spir­it of places, the con­text, the dif­fer­ences between peo­ple.”[10]

In Chi­na, the so-called Nail Hous­es’ have them­selves become sym­bols of resis­tance to and oppo­si­tion against the dev­as­tat­ing urban renew­al poli­cies fol­low­ing the Asian giant’s eco­nom­ic rev­o­lu­tion. In this case as well, these are small, anony­mous hous­es iso­lat­ed in the urban con­text, whose own­ers — con­sid­ered trou­ble­mak­ers’ — refused to aban­don them so as make way for the new, intru­sive con­struc­tions favoured by the government’s poli­cies. Called dingz­i­hu in Chi­nese, these Nail Hous­es, in addi­tion to being a sym­bol of oppo­si­tion, have at times also become the last trace of an urban mem­o­ry now inevitably lost and entrust­ed only to urban frag­ments or peri­od photographs. 

In 2007, the British archi­tec­ture stu­dio Caru­so St John Archi­tects, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Ger­man artist Thomas Demand, drew inspi­ra­tion from one of these Nail Hous­es to enter a major pub­lic art com­pe­ti­tion for the city of Zürich [ 14 ]. That very year, the bat­tle waged by the own­er of a mod­est, two-storey brick home in Chongqing against the builders who had lit­er­al­ly left a void around it [ 15 ] became an Inter­net sen­sa­tion due to the extra­or­di­nary images that doc­u­ment­ed the events. In spite of Ms. Wu Ping’s well-com­pen­sat­ed sur­ren­der in April of 2007, the cit­i­zens of Chongqing still expressed their admi­ra­tion for her oppo­si­tion to the gov­ern­ment and to the devel­op­ers, bestow­ing upon her the nick­name 'Stub­born Nail’. This was the inspi­ra­tion for Nagel­haus, the win­ning entry by Caru­so St John Archi­tects and Thomas Demand. The project inter­pret­ed the dif­fi­cult con­tex­tu­al con­di­tions of a for­mer indus­tri­al area under­go­ing dra­mat­ic trans­for­ma­tion near Esch­er Wyss Platz. It con­sist­ed of two mod­est pre­fab­ri­cat­ed tim­ber build­ings placed beneath a road viaduct, con­tain­ing a Chi­nese restau­rant, pub­lic toi­lets, and a kiosk. Their vol­umes, in rela­tion to the dif­fer­ent scale of the road infra­struc­ture loom­ing over it, were to give the impres­sion of hav­ing stood their pre­vi­ous­ly, appear­ing almost as archae­o­log­i­cal frag­ments.' With their milled tim­ber boards paint­ed inside and out, they aimed to pro­vide only an abstract and approx­i­mate image of the Chi­nese orig­i­nal, almost to demon­strate how their sources were only poor-res­o­lu­tion pho­tographs obtained from the Inter­net. The project would then have become the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a rep­re­sen­ta­tion — an oper­a­tion in full Thomas Demand style — laden with polit­i­cal and social impli­ca­tions. How­ev­er, as fate would have it, this kind of memo­r­i­al to the resis­tance’ of the sin­gle indi­vid­ual hold­ing out against the pow­ers that be found a dif­fer­ent type of resis­tance in Switzer­land: that of pub­lic opin­ion. Far-right polit­i­cal groups unin­clined to jus­ti­fy the high costs for build­ing the project (evi­dent­ly too con­cep­tu­al to be under­stood by a broad pub­lic) led the cit­i­zens of Zurich to put a stop to the initiative.

Herzog & de Meuron. Elbphilarmonie - The contruction site as a common ground of diverging interests, installation at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, 2012. © Fabio Quici
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Herzog & de Meuron. Elbphilarmonie - The contruction site as a common ground of diverging interests, installation at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, 2012.
© Fabio Quici

At the Com­mon Ground (2012) edi­tion of the Venice Bien­nale of Archi­tec­ture curat­ed by David Chip­per­field [ 16 ], Her­zog & de Meu­ron demon­strat­ed that the mak­ing of a pub­lic work is, in its essence, the result of patient medi­a­tion among con­flict­ing posi­tions. In sub­mit­ting the design of the Hamburg’s Elbphil­har­monie then under­way, the two Swiss archi­tects aimed above all to show how the enor­mous work site in HafenCi­ty had been grad­u­al­ly trans­formed from an emblem of civic pride into a bat­tle­field” between three main play­ers: the client (the City of Ham­burg), the gen­er­al con­trac­tor and the architect/general plan­ner. «Ide­al­ly, the con­struc­tion site of every build­ing project is a plat­form of inter­ac­tion that engages these three main forces; in this case, it relent­less­ly exposed con­flict­ing inter­ests and require­ments. The sto­ry of the Elbphil­har­monie pro­vides, as an exam­ple, an insight into the extremes that mark the real­i­ty of plan­ning and build­ing today.”[11]

In San­ti­a­go (Chile), the social con­flict that broke out in Octo­ber of 2019 with a series of demon­stra­tions — known as the Estal­li­do social — against cor­rup­tion and the high cost of liv­ing, found in the Gabriela Mis­tral Cul­tur­al Cen­ter (arch. Cris­t­ian Fer­nan­dez + Lat­er­al Arqui­tec­tura) an ide­al loca­tion for high­light­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions of dis­con­tent [ 17 ]. On street lev­el, the main façade in pierced cop­per of the cul­tur­al cen­tre on Aveni­da Lib­er­ta­dor Bernar­do O’Higgins became, in the win­ter of 2019, a gallery of social protest in the form of a vast reper­toire of street art tech­niques: posters, tag­ging, sten­cils, stick­ers, instal­la­tions, and wheat­paste [ 18 ]. This spon­ta­neous­ly cre­at­ed gallery gave vis­i­bil­i­ty to the mis­treat­ment and abus­es of pow­er per­pe­trat­ed against the demon­stra­tors by the nation­al police and the army. From the streets and pub­lic squares where the demon­stra­tions took place, civ­il soci­ety had cho­sen an archi­tec­ture con­ceived as a social con­denser to gath­er the rep­re­sen­ta­tions of its own resis­tance. Like the tables dis­played by Her­zog & de Meu­ron at the Venice Bien­nale, which col­lect­ed and exhib­it­ed the news­pa­per arti­cles and images that had accom­pa­nied the events at their work site as they unfold­ed, in San­ti­a­go the façades of the Gabriela Mis­tral Cul­tur­al Cen­ter had been cho­sen to draw the atten­tion of pub­lic opin­ion not only to what took place dur­ing those weeks, but also to the var­i­ous forms of injus­tice that afflict­ed the social work site’ of a coun­try in transformation. 

The Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center (arch. Cristian Fernandez + Lateral Arquitectura) in Santiago del Chile, December 2019. © Fabio Quici
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The Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center (arch. Cristian Fernandez + Lateral Arquitectura) in Santiago del Chile, December 2019.
© Fabio Quici

Some of the protest images on the walls of the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center in Santiago del Chile, December 2019. © Fabio Quici
18

Some of the protest images on the walls of the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center in Santiago del Chile, December 2019.
© Fabio Quici

A tourist takes a selfie in front of the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center, December 2019. © Fabio Quici
19

A tourist takes a selfie in front of the Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center, December 2019.
© Fabio Quici

While in San­ti­a­go it was above all the aes­thet­ic and artis­tic qual­i­ties [ 19 ] of these forms of protest, as they put them­selves on dis­play in an open-air exhi­bi­tion gallery, that reached the unin­formed tourist just hap­pen­ing by, in 2014 the prod­ucts’ of the protests found offi­cial place at a pres­ti­gious exhi­bi­tion venue. 

The pow­er­ful role of objects in move­ments for social change’ was exam­ined for the first time at the Dis­obe­di­ent Objects[12] show at London’s Vic­to­ria & Albert Muse­um. This was a case not of cel­e­brat­ing pop­u­lar artis­tic expres­sions by street artists, but of demon­strat­ing how polit­i­cal activism is also capa­ble of nour­ish­ing design inge­nu­ity and cel­e­brat­ing col­lec­tive cre­ativ­i­ty by pro­duc­ing objects that defy stan­dard def­i­n­i­tions of art and design’. The forms of resis­tance thus took on the appear­ance of inge­nious objects assem­bled with com­mon mate­ri­als, use­ful for pro­pa­gan­da, for per­son­al defence, but also for vio­lent action: makeshift tear-gas masks; buck­et pam­phlet bombs; book bloc shields; lock-on devices; chang­ing designs for bar­ri­cades and block­ades; exper­i­men­tal activist-bicy­cles; etc. Every exhib­it­ed item was also accom­pa­nied by videos, fly­ers, and pho­tographs show­ing the geo­graph­ic and polit­i­cal con­text and the bat­tles for which they had been cre­at­ed – an iden­ti­ty at times already declared by their own tech­ni­cal and mor­pho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics [ 20 ].

How to Guide: Makeshift Tear-Gas Mask. Illustrated by Marwan Kaabour, at Barnbrook; from Disobedient Objects exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014.
20

How to Guide: Makeshift Tear-Gas Mask. Illustrated by Marwan Kaabour, at Barnbrook; from Disobedient Objects exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2014.

Bosa District, Bogotà, Colombia, 2010. © Fabio Quici
21

Bosa District, Bogotà, Colombia, 2010.
© Fabio Quici

The decorations on the facades of the houses in Bogotà, Colombia, 2010. © Fabio Quici
22

The decorations on the facades of the houses in Bogotà, Colombia, 2010.
© Fabio Quici

Fences in Bogotà, Colombia, 2009. © Fabio Quici
23

Fences in Bogotà, Colombia, 2009.
© Fabio Quici

Marjetica Potrč. Pattern Protects 2007; from Making Worlds, 53rd International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, 2009
24

Marjetica Potrč. Pattern Protects 2007; from Making Worlds, 53rd International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, 2009

The show at the Vic­to­ria & Albert Muse­um demon­strat­ed pre­cise­ly how the shape of objects is a trans­mis­si­ble rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the cor­re­spon­dence among acts of resis­tance’, a rep­re­sen­ta­tion capa­ble of keep­ing alive the mem­o­ry of peo­ples’ abil­i­ty to cre­ate but also to destroy and sub­vert. In the end, the frag­ments of the Berlin wall we find today scat­tered through­out the world, from Rich­mond, Vir­ginia to Paris, from Toron­to to Brus­sels, in the Vat­i­can Gar­dens or beside the uni­ver­si­ty library of Cot­tbus, remind us pre­cise­ly of this: resis­tance is a right’.

Self-Determinations

An expres­sion of the pos­i­tive free­dom of peo­ple’, self-deter­mi­na­tion is man­i­fest­ed through actions and objects that speak of the aspi­ra­tions of peo­ples and of their strength to trans­form the places they inhab­it. In spite of the com­mon­ly neg­a­tive def­i­n­i­tion com­mon­ly giv­en to the results of the spon­ta­neous trans­for­ma­tions result­ing from these aspi­ra­tions, the the­o­ret­i­cal research that has been done on fave­las, bar­rios, zhopad­pat­tis, kam­pungs, and the world’s periph­eries demon­strates the extreme live­li­ness and inter­est that these phe­nom­e­na show from the social, polit­i­cal, archi­tec­tur­al, and urban per­spec­tive. As anthro­pol­o­gist Vyayan­thi Rao, direc­tor of the Ter­reform Cen­ter for Advanced Urban Research in New York, has observed: the slum appears over and over as a the­o­ret­i­cal­ly pro­duc­tive spa­tial ecol­o­gy.”[13]

The Argen­tine Car­los Basu­al­do, cura­tor of the sec­tion enti­tled The Struc­ture of Sur­vival at the 50th Venice Bien­nale (2003), had col­lect­ed the inter­pre­ta­tions pro­vid­ed by more than 25 inter­na­tion­al artists for the cur­rent sit­u­a­tions in fave­las and shan­ty­towns. Defin­ing shan­ty­towns as spaces of resis­tance,” Basu­al­do saw in these places a pro­duc­tion of orig­i­nal forms of social­i­ty, of alter­na­tive economies, and of var­i­ous forms of aes­thet­ic strength.”[14] In these places of the unpre­dictabil­i­ty and nego­ti­a­tion result­ing from cri­sis sit­u­a­tions, the aes­thet­ic act was seen as the moment of assert­ing the person’s auton­o­my with respect to a pos­si­ble world, while liv­ing through and over­com­ing cri­sis.”[15]

Only when walk­ing the streets of the infor­mal city can one com­pre­hend how the uncon­trolled devel­op­ment of these places is not just an act of neces­si­ty con­nect­ed to hous­ing, but also con­tains forms of affir­ma­tion pass­ing by way of forms of vis­i­bil­i­ty [ 21 ]. In Bogotá, paint shops have become the new cathe­drals of the infor­mal city. Amid dwellings in con­tin­u­ous trans­for­ma­tion, with their trun­cat­ed con­crete pil­lars and open rebar ready to accom­mo­date new floors, the use of colour and of now cod­ed geo­met­ric motifs in the façades is not only dec­o­ra­tion but recounts a pro­gres­sive eman­ci­pa­tion, both eco­nom­ic and social, of the fam­i­ly unit while it takes place [ 22 ]. Colour restores iden­ti­ty and rec­og­niz­abil­i­ty in an oth­er­wise homolo­gat­ing con­text. Recov­er­ing iden­ti­ty is a neces­si­ty vir­tu­al­ly ignored by the Bogotá admin­is­tra­tion, which con­tin­ues to offer new row hous­ing and blocks of mul­ti-storey hous­es with bal­cony access with­out under­stand­ing the social dynam­ics and the aspi­ra­tions of the pop­u­la­tion that will have to inhab­it them. The fences pro­tect­ing the prop­er­ties, as a form of resis­tance among equals, whether in Bogotá, Cara­cas, or Guatemala City, become forms of iden­ti­ty and aes­thet­ic expres­sions [ 23 ]. It is no coin­ci­dence that the Sloven­ian archi­tect Mar­jet­i­ca Potrč, for her archi­tec­tur­al case stud­ies shown at art gal­leries around the world, takes her inspi­ra­tion from the spon­ta­neous set­tle­ments in South Africa, Colom­bia, Brazil, and many oth­er places, to recount the dif­fi­cult con­di­tions (envi­ron­men­tal, social, eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal, etc.) that gave shape to their exis­tence, while at the same time high­light­ing the cre­ativ­i­ty of resis­tance in its var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions [ 24 ]. In Mar­jet­i­ca Potrč’s well-trained eyes, as in the eyes of any archi­tect will­ing to pay atten­tion to the sug­ges­tions pro­vid­ed by both con­sol­i­dat­ed and expand­ing cities, the population’s needs and aspi­ra­tions emerge in the urban fab­ric with sim­i­lar man­i­fes­ta­tions, albeit in very dif­fer­ent social con­texts. There are telling con­nec­tions that tie Potrč’s archi­tec­tur­al case stud­ies, inspired by the per­son­al and inge­nious hous­ing solu­tions of South Amer­i­can urban agglom­er­ates, to her designs that look to the Balkan pop­u­la­tions and to their way of oppos­ing the inher­i­tance of Sovi­et-style mod­ernist utopias – and these utopias’ dream of the anony­mous indi­vid­ual in the metrop­o­lis [ 25 ]. Both cas­es show the rejec­tion of anonymi­ty while cel­e­brat­ing impro­vi­sa­tion and adap­ta­tion as cat­e­gories of an organ­ic hous­ing more respon­sive to the chang­ing needs of individuals. 

Marjetica Potrč. Caracas: Growing Houses
(2012), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie; 2013 purchased by the Stiftung des Vereins der Freunde der Nationalgalerie für zeitgenössische Kunst © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Jan Windszus (courtesy the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie)
25

Marjetica Potrč. Caracas: Growing Houses (2012), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie; 2013 purchased by the Stiftung des Vereins der Freunde der Nationalgalerie für zeitgenössische Kunst
© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie / Jan Windszus (courtesy the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie)

Torre David in Caracas
26

Torre David in Caracas

Novi Beograd, Serbia, 2014. © Fabio Quici
27

Novi Beograd, Serbia, 2014.
© Fabio Quici

Yona Fried­man, in his praise for irreg­u­lar struc­tures, high­light­ed not only the for­mal rich­ness that derives from them, but also their excep­tion­al tol­er­ance for impre­ci­sion” that makes them acces­si­ble even to non-pro­fes­sion­al builders, with impor­tant social con­se­quences: Irreg­u­lar struc­tures not only admit impro­vi­sa­tion, they also admit that each per­son can make improve­ments to them.”[16]

How­ev­er, the reg­u­lar struc­ture of a sky­scraper can also become a man­i­festo of resis­tance and self-deter­mi­na­tion in the absence of ade­quate respons­es by pub­lic insti­tu­tions. The Torre de David (or Cen­tro Financiero Con­fi­nan­zas) in Cara­cas has become an emblem­at­ic case of adap­ta­tion and self-reg­u­la­tion of the com­mu­ni­ty of squat­ters inside a stiff, mod­u­lar struc­ture appar­ent­ly extra­ne­ous to the organ­ic com­plex­i­ty of infor­mal set­tle­ments. The 45-storey sky­scraper in down­town Cara­cas, nev­er fin­ished and left in a state of aban­don­ment in the ear­ly 1990s, has become a het­erotroph, an infor­mal ver­ti­cal set­tle­ment, an ambigu­ous space, fol­low­ing its occu­pa­tion by 200 home­less fam­i­lies in Octo­ber of 2007 [ 26 ]. Over the years, the num­ber of fam­i­lies grew to 750, and the inhab­i­tants, with great resource­ful­ness, began to fill and con­form the spaces based on their needs, and to an extent pro­por­tion­al to their abil­i­ty to obtain mate­ri­als, and there­fore to their own eco­nom­ic pos­si­bil­i­ties. This com­mu­ni­ty, orga­nized into a coop­er­a­tive that self-reg­u­lates the tower’s life and its rela­tions with the out­side in the same man­ner as a con­do­mini­um on Park Avenue in New York, has been the sub­ject of social, anthro­po­log­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, urban, and archi­tec­tur­al stud­ies. Nev­er­the­less, the aes­thet­ic impact of the pho­tographs of the Torre de David by the Dutch pho­tog­ra­ph­er Iwan Baan were essen­tial to mak­ing this real­i­ty known to the world at large, and for bring­ing it into gal­leries and into the most pres­ti­gious inter­na­tion­al art exhi­bi­tions. One of the most well-known pho­tos, the one depict­ing a por­tion of the tower’s exte­ri­or face with the storeys plugged var­i­ous­ly with bricks and cur­tains, does not offer an image that is, in sub­stance, so alien in its for­mal het­ero­gene­ity. Even in the com­plete­ness of the hous­ing in our cities, where room is left for self-deter­mi­na­tion there is no lack of indi­vid­u­al­ism man­i­fest­ed by occu­py­ing and mod­i­fy­ing exte­ri­or spaces as well. Log­gias enclosed in var­i­ous ways, the build­ing of glassed-in veran­das and win­ter gar­dens, win­dow cov­er­ings, satel­lite dish­es and air con­di­tion­ers: every­thing con­tributes towards recount­ing an inad­e­qua­cy of the archi­tec­tur­al response to people’s need to help give shape to their own homes [ 27 ]. An act of resis­tance, then, is the non-con­formism shown by archi­tects like Yona Fried­man (1923−2020), Lucien Kroll (1927−2022), and Ralph Ersk­ine (1914−2015), with their design phi­los­o­phy based upon par­tic­i­pa­to­ry cri­te­ria. Ini­tia­tives like Lima’s exper­i­men­tal hous­ing project (PREVI) in the 1960s – with its metabolist approach and its nat­ur­al inher­i­tance rep­re­sent­ed in the more recent Incre­men­tal Hous­ing Projects by the Ele­men­tal Chile stu­dio led by Ale­jan­dro Arave­na – were equal­ly non-conformist.

The forms of self-deter­mi­na­tion that give shape to the large urban agglom­er­a­tions are to be con­sid­ered as expres­sions of resis­tance by the indi­vid­ual who wish­es to be the causal agent in his or her own life and in the cre­ation of his or her own liv­ing envi­ron­ment. The inhab­i­tant still pos­sess­es a trea­sure lost by archi­tects: a cul­ture of scale and of domes­tic com­plex­i­ty, a bon­homie that makes land­scapes live­able,”[17] said Lucien Kroll. In essence, you should nev­er design a façade like an archi­tect.’ One must obsti­nate­ly seek the ges­ture of the inhab­i­tant’ and safe­guard his or her com­plex­i­ty.”[18]

  1. 1

    John Dewey, Art as Expe­ri­ence [1934] (New York: Wideview/Perige Books, G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1980), 160.

  2. 2

    Cf Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Das Kunst­werk im Zeital­ter sein­er tech­nis­chen Repro­duzier­barkeit, from W. Ben­jamin, Schriften (Frank­furt am Main: Suhrkamp Ver­lag, 1955).

  3. 3

    John Dewey, cit., 41.

  4. 4

    Neville Wake­field, Matthew Bar­ney. Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail”, in Matthew Bar­ney. Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail, cat­a­logue of the exhi­bi­tion at the Schaulager Foun­da­tion, Lau­renz Foun­da­tion ed. (Basel: Schwabe AG Ver­lag, 2010), 10.

  5. 5

    Cf Oliv­er Wain­wright, Lon­don has unveiled its bom­bas­tic Olympic icon, but what does it say about the city’s image for the 2012 Games?”, Domusweb 9 (2011).

  6. 6

    Rober­to Masiero, Estet­i­ca dell’architettura (Bologna: Il Muli­no, 1999), 225.

  7. 7

    John Dewey, cit., 6.

  8. 8

    Lebbeus Woods, Raimund Abraham’s Urwelt”, in Raimund Abra­ham. [Un]built, ed. Brigitte Groi­hofer (Wien, New York: Springer-Ver­lag, 2011), 224.

  9. 9

    Cf Antho­ny Vidler, Warped Space. Art, Archi­tec­ture, and Anx­i­ety in Mod­ern Cul­ture [2000] (Milano: Post­media, 2009), 119.

  10. 10

    Jean Nou­v­el, Emo­tion and rea­son,” inter­view by Wal­ter Mar­i­ot­ti in Jean Nou­v­el. Inven­tion springs from char­ac­ter, sup­ple­ment to Domus 1063 (2021): 9.

  11. 11

    Jacques Her­zog and Pierre de Meu­ron. Elbphil­har­monie — The con­struc­tion site as a com­mon ground of diverg­ing inter­ests” in Com­mon Ground, cat­a­logue of the 13th Inter­na­tion­al Archi­tec­ture Exhi­bi­tion, La Bien­nale di Venezia, ed. David Chip­per­field (Venice: Mar­silio, 2012), 90.

  12. 12

    Dis­obe­di­ent Objects, Gavin Frindon and Cather­ine Flood cura­tors, Vic­to­ria & Albert Muse­um, Lon­don, 26 July 2014 — 1 Feb­ru­ary 2015.

  13. 13

    Rao Vyayan­thi, Slum as The­o­ry”, Lotus Inter­na­tion­al, 143 (2010): 10–17

  14. 14

    Cf Car­los Basu­al­do, Dell’espressione del­la crisi,” Dreams and Con­flicts: The Dic­ta­tor­ship of the View­er, ed. Francesco Bona­mi, cat­a­logue of the 50th Inter­na­tion­al Art Exhi­bi­tion, La Bien­nale di Venezia, (Venice: Mar­silio, 2003), 243.

  15. 15

    Ibid, 244.

  16. 16

    Yona Fried­man, Basic & Irreg­u­lar,” Domus 893 (2006): 74.

  17. 17

    Simone & Lucien Kroll. Une archi­tec­ture habitée, (s.l.: Actes Sud, 2013), 230.

  18. 18

    Ibid, 310.

Bibliography

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Bouchain, Patrick (ed). Simone & Lucien Kroll. Une Archi­tec­ture Habitée. s.l.: Actes Sud, 2013.

Brillem­bourg, Alfre­do and Klump­n­er, Hubert Urban Think-Tank, ETH Zürich (ed). Torre David: infor­mal ver­ti­cal com­mu­ni­ties, Zürich: Lars Müller Pub­lish­ers, 2012.

Deleuze, Anna. Vivere di avver­sità: l’arte del­la pre­ca­ri­età”. Lotus Inter­na­tion­al, 143 (2010): 122–129.

Dewey, John. Art as Expe­ri­ence [1934] (New York: Wideview/Perige Books, G.P. Putman’s Sons, New York 1980).

Eleey, Peter (ed). Trisha Brown: so that the audi­ence does not know whether I have stopped danc­ing, cat­a­logue of the exhi­bi­tion, Min­neapo­lis: Walk­er Art Cen­ter, 2008.

Flood, Cather­ine and Grindon, Gavin (eds). Dis­obe­di­ent Objects. Lon­don: Vic­to­ria & Albert Pub­ns, 2014.

Fried­man, Yona. Basic & Irreg­u­lar.” Domus, 893 (2006): 66–75.

Gar­cía-Abril, Anton. Bal­anc­ing Act”. In Peo­ple Meet in Archi­tec­ture. Bien­nale Architet­tura 2010, cat­a­logue of the 12th Inter­na­tion­al Archi­tec­ture Exhi­bi­tion, La Bien­nale di Venezia, edit­ed by Kazuyo Seji­ma, 158. Venezia: Mar­silio, 2010.

Gar­cía-Huido­bro, Fer­nan­do and Tor­res Tor­ri­ti, Diego. El Tiem­po Con­truye! Time Builds!. The Exper­i­men­tal Hous­ing Project (PREVI), Lima: gen­e­sis and out­come. Barcelona: Edi­to­r­i­al Gus­ta­vo Gili, 2008.

Hen­del Teich­er (ed). Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dia­logue, 1961–2001. Andover, Mass.: Addi­son Gallery of Amer­i­can Art, Phillips Acad­e­my Essays, Andover, dis­trib­uted by the MIT Press, 2002.

Her­zog, Jacques and de Meu­ron, Pierre. Elbphi­lar­monie — The con­truc­tion site as a com­mon ground of diverg­ing inter­ests”. In Com­mon Ground, cat­a­logue of the 13th Inter­na­tion­al Archi­tec­ture Exhi­bi­tion, La Bien­nale di Venezia, edit­ed by David Chip­per­field, 90. Venezia: Mar­silio, 2012.

Maak, Niklaas. Some hous­es stay, some hous­es go, some pop-up some­where else”. In Peo­ple Meet in Archi­tec­ture, cat­a­logue of the 12th Inter­na­tion­al Archi­tec­ture Exhi­bi­tion, La Bien­nale di Venezia, edit­ed by Kazuyo Seji­ma, 106–108. Venezia: Mar­silio, 2010.

Masiero, Rober­to. Estet­i­ca dell’architettura. Bologna: Il Mulino,1999.

Matthew Bar­ney. Prayer Sheet with the Wound and the Nail, cat­a­logue of the exhi­bi­tion at the Schaulager Foun­da­tion, Lau­renz Foun­da­tion (ed.). Basel: Schwabe AG Ver­lag, 2010.

Matthew Bar­ney: draw­ing restraint, cat­a­logue of the trav­el­ing exhi­bi­tion Kanaza­wa — Seoul — San Fran­cis­co (2005−2006), s.l., s.n.

Maz­za­glia, Rossel­la. Trisha Brown. Paler­mo: L’Epos Soci­età Editrice, 2007.

Mitchell, William John Thomas Archi­tec­ture As Sculp­ture As Draw­ing: Antony Gormley’s Paragone”. In Antony Gorm­ley: Blind Light, edit­ed by Antho­ny Vidler and Susan Stew­art. Lon­don: The Hay­ward Gallery, 2007.

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https://www.domusweb.it/en/opinion/2011/11/09/untangling-the-orbit.html

Woods, Lebbeus. Raimund Abraham’s Urwelt. Aus­tri­an Cul­tur­al Insti­tute in New York and the Sphere Project in Vien­na”. In Raimund Abra­ham [UN]BUILT, edit­ed by Brigitte Groi­hof­fer, 224–225. Wien-New York: Springer-Ver­lag, 2011.