The long thin yellow legs of architecture

On the face of it, the sculpture The long, thin, yellow legs of architecture is merely a strange construction of steel plates and girders of differing shapes and sizes. The colours, varying from yellow, white and pale blue to unvarnished metal, are fairly subdued. But, it is certainly a landmark as you drive down the Westzeedijk or Boompjes.
Rotterdam approached the two architects comprising Coop Himmelb(l)au – Wolf Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky – in 1987 and invited them to take part in the Sculpture in the City project. A series of sculptures was planned to link the Central Station with the Veerhaven, as part of the event entitled The City as a Stage. Various internationally renowned artists and architects were invited to contribute with a temporary or permanent work. Coop Himmelb(l)au’s sculpture is one of the few works in the Sculpture in the City project that was to acquire a permanent location in Rotterdam. It was originally intended to be located at Oud’s café De Unie (The Union, with its façade in De Stijl architecture) at the Westersingel. However, the sculpture was so big that a different spot had to be found – that was to be on the corner of Vasteland and Scheepstimmermanlaan.

The fact that the makers of The long, thin, yellow legs of architecture are originally architects was not a problem for their principles, who maintained that the two designers ‘prove with their formal language to possess sculptural awareness’. After all, the open character of their buildings underlines spatiality. That is quite clear in a pavilion of Groningen Museum which these two Viennese architects designed. The pavilion, originally intended to house the museum’s collection of old art, resembles a house of cards. A jumble of steel panels forms a facade from which beams jut out everywhere. The pavilion opens up and thus embraces the space. Here, the building is no longer a ‘box’ standing in space, but an almost open structure. And that is even more true of the Rotterdam sculpture.
With their seemingly chaotic buildings and sculpture Prix and Swiczinsky are ranked among the Deconstructivist movement, which became succesfull especially in the nineteen-eighties. A typical feature of Deconstructivist architecture is the dissociation of customary constructive elements like floors, ceilings, walls and windows from their usual context and their location in freer interrelationships. The outcome is an expressive, plastic architecture.
The ‘genesis’ of the The long, thin, yellow legs of architecture for Rotterdam resembled the process by which Coop Himmelb(l)au design a new building. To start with, Prix and Swiczinsky swap ideas, but nothing is visualized as yet. They rapidly put their ideas on paper, with sweeping strokes. Issues like functionality, costs and materials are not yet discussed; the architects concentrate on liberating the space while striving for open architecture. The two architects compare this working method with that of artists like Arnulf Rainier and Jackson Pollock, who also work in an impulsive manner. Only later does the idea of Coop Himmelb(l)au take more concrete shape. They then add more structure and detail, based on those first sketches. During that process more practical factors are also dealt with.
When Coop Himmelb(l)au was first founded in 1968, Prix and Swiczinsky chiefly focused on performances, with which they sought to clarify the mental and physical qualities of architecture. In 1983 they began to concentrate on building as such, pursuing a perception of space which differs from the traditional. Coop Himmelb(l)au, as the name suggests, want to build collectively (as in ‘co-op’) free and open architecture (as implied by ‘himmelb(l)au’ – a reference to blue skies and building). The fact that they began at a certain stage to focus more on actual building did not stop them from straying into other disciplines. The sculpture in Rotterdam is one such example. The architects believe that their work reflects characteristics of the present day – after all, it too is dynamic and fragmented.
Fragmentation and dynamics are also present in the surroundings of the sculpture in Rotterdam. At the crossing between Westzeedijk and Vasteland, overhead tram wires produce a tangle of lines in the air. The location is not just an intersection of roads and traffic flows; the urban image varies greatly too. So the spot which was ultimately found for the sculpture ties in well with the original intention of the creators of the work.

Sandra Spijkerman

Lootsma, B., ‘Architectuur moet branden. Coop Himmelblau en het expessionisme’ in De Architect, 21 (1990) 6, pp. 37-47. / Adrichem, J. van, K. Schampers, R. van der Lugt, Sculpture in the City, Utrecht 1988. / Coop Himmelb(l)au, Venice (Venice Biennale) 1996. / Werner, F., Covering and expositing. Coop Himmelb(l)au, Biel-Benken 2000.

Publicatiedatum: 12/05/2015