Art + Architecture

Art in the public realm is increasingly popular, perhaps due to its ability to assist humanity with contemporary levels of change. A recent article in Region suggested that “geographies of change” may utilise art as “an instrument of investigation, understanding and [toward a] change of reality”.[i] Yet there are also new models afoot in the way art is commissioned, and new levels of fusion visible in its relationship with architecture, particularly in some of the most visionary projects of our time. These sit outside state patronage, with privately funded public places emerging to reflect a new urban landscape.

A high profile project that illustrates an appetite for iconic design outside government-led priorities is New York’s The Vessel (Heatherwick Studio). This project is described as a new public landmark in the city’s Hudson Yards, and is funded wholly by developer Related Companies (to the tune of US$250 million). The Vessel is like a beehive, a 16 storey stairway with 2,400 steps. Its interactivity, activation by and for the public (including an elevator for the disabled), and its ambition offer a new style of art/architectural fusion, requiring private patronage at new levels.

Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, known for his sculptural bridges and innovative buildings inspired by nature and created with advanced engineering solutions, has also been significantly supported by private individuals. His architectural fee ($US6.5 million) for the visionary Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Dallas (USA) was raised from private donations. It would seem that this style of architecture, which sits well outside the ordinary, inspires public-spirited private funding.

Another visionary project is the memorial, Al Karama (Oasis of Dignity). This monumental arrangement, some 90 metres long, recognises the balance that exists between soldiers, families and citizens during adversity. Leaning tablets clad with 850 aluminium panels feature poetry and the names of those whose lives have been lost in service. It was commissioned by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, who is also Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces. Its powerful sculptural presence was recognised by the Architectural Design/Cultural Architecture award in the American Architecture Prize (2017). Its ability to exemplify “the fusion between art and architecture… conveys purpose and emotion and creates a place of reflection, serenity and significance for its nation” noted the successful collaboration between artist Idris Khan and UAP/Bureau Proberts.

In China, Florentin Hofman’s playscape Kraken was funded by Vanke Group, developers of One City in Yantian, Shenzen. This colourfully stylised sea creature, some nine metres high, looks like a supersized toy knitted from rope. It hosts tubes and spaces in which children, and adults, may climb, crawl and play. Inspired by One City’s proximity to the harbour, the collaboration between Hofman and UAP created a friendlier version of the mythical Kraken monster on this monumental yet playful scale.

Inspired by environmental phenomena, specifically the aesthetics, sound and science of bees, is Wolfgang Buttress’ The Hive, located in the Royal Botanical Gardens in London’s Kew. The Hive is comprised of horizontal stacked layers (32) like an abstracted honeycomb, and elevated so that people may enter its ground layer and look upward into the interior. LED lights inside the void are linked to an actual colony of UK-based bees. Their activity is recorded and converted into lighting which pulses inside the hive. This offers a fusion of art and science, an imaginative immersion into the natural world of bees.

While the commissioning processes and purpose behind public art may be changing, the fusion of its follies and imagination with architecture increases the ability of urban spaces to entertain, challenge, and reflect the authentic narratives to accompany our futures.


[i] Anna Onesti, “Built environment, creativity, social art: The recovery of public space as engine of human development, Region, Volume 4, Number 3, 2017, 87–118.

Text by: Louise Martin-ChewImages (top to bottom): The Vessel courtesy Heatherwick Studio.  Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge courtesy Santiago Calatrava. The Hive courtesy Wolfgang Buttress.