The artist as an architect: Anish Kapoor at the Olympics

City Scapes

The artist as an architect: Anish Kapoor at the Olympics

Like the altogether more modest Skylon — an ethereal, skypiercing mast on the South Bank designed by the architects Powell and Moya as a signpost for the 1951 Festival of Britain — Kapoor’s tower, designed in collaboration with the imaginative structural engineer Cecil Balmond, will draw attention to the Olympics Park more persuasively than any of the architecture commissioned for the event.
Only Zaha Hadid’s Aquatics Centre will be able to hold anything like a flaming torch to this structure.

But it does raise questions. First, when is a sculpture more of a building than an artwork? And thus, when does an artist become an architect — at least in spirit, if not in law (after all, you can’t call yourself an architect unless you have qualified as one)? And a third question, too: Can artists take on architects at their own game?
Long before the architectural profession was officially recognised, architects, artists, craftsmen and builders worked more or less freely across their shared discipline.
The greatest of them — Michelangelo vaults to mind like some Olympian high-jumper — produced some of the finest paintings, sculptures and architecture of all time. Even by the end of the 19th Century and the early 20th, when the architectural profession was well-established, the most imaginative architects of the era were equally inspiring, whether drawing, building, painting or decorating.

In Barcelona, the likes of Antoni Gaudí or Domènech i Montaner were surely artists as well as builders, as were Otto Wagner in Vienna or Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow. The watercolours Mackintosh painted in his last years in the south of France, after he had given up architecture, are quite superb.
What separates the role of the artist and architect today is the fact that artists may be asked to design enormous structures requiring collaboration with engineers, yet they’re nearly always gloriously useless. Buildings have to function in matter-of-fact ways. Most need plumbing, heating, lavatories — all those down-to-earth elements that Kapoor will not have to get his head around for his soaring tower at Stratford. I’m not saying an artist can’t design a fully functioning building, any more than I am claiming that some contemporary architects aren’t great sculptors — Frank Gehry and his Bilbao Guggenheim come to mind.

If you ever get the chance, do visit Diego Rivera’s House of Anáhuac in Coyoacan, Mexico City. Designed by the artist himself, this haunting 1950s structure, inspired by Mayan and Aztec architecture, houses the artist’s inspiring collection of pre-Hispanic art.
Such buildings, though, are rare. The artist brings something else to a project: Unbottled imagination. Kapoor’s own Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park  — 110 tonnes of mirror-polished stainless steel — plays with infinite distorted views of the surrounding cityscape, especially its forest of skyscrapers. Here, an artist with a real love of buildings brings the two disciplines — art and architecture — into, and out of, focus.
In some ways, Cloud Gate is an ­appealing model. There is a world of difference between a fully functioning building and an artwork designed and built on an architectural scale, but the play between the two offers any number of intriguing possibilities. Kapoor should seize this Olympian opportunity, and run like crazy.

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