You are here

Sculpture and the Architectural Frame

From its apocryphal origins in the Greek temple to the formal styles of the French École des Beaux Arts, architecture has a long history of engagement with sculpture.

As a means of plastic and symbolic expression, sculpture and the allied arts were integral parts of the architect’s training well into the 20th century. Modern architects moved away from applied ornament in favor of the direct expression of the materials and technology of building, yet the relationship between architecture and sculpture was never truly broken. Movements such as Art Deco in the United States fused the clean lines of modernism with monumental proportions and dynamic murals, while Modernism’s focus on volume and mass allowed sculptural considerations to be expressed on an architectural scale.

By midcentury, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other architects of the period explored the modern building as an ideal frame and backdrop for showing and viewing art, leading to a new era of museum design, as well as a new type of public space for sculpture in the modern plazas accompanying skyscrapers in large cities. Public art in these spaces marked a seminal shift in the relationship between architecture and sculpture, which played an important role in revitalizations of major American cities in the last two decades of the century. After neoclassical ornament and public sculpture such as Pablo Picasso’s sculpture in Chicago, the rise of Postmodernism in the 1970s would further challenge the separation of art, architecture, and popular culture, while arguing for the return to meaning and communication in the design of the built environment.