“A bridge is something in between”: the works of Siah Armajani, artist and poetic bridge builder

In November 2016 we traveled with our CEE418/VIS418 class, co-taught by visual artist Joe Scanlan, to Kansas City and discovered the fascinating bridge models and drawings of Siah Armajani, brought together for the first time by the curator of Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Erin Dziedic. A superb opportunity to delve into the philosophy and work of Armajani.

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Photo credit: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/OaIDsR8_9kQ/hqdefault.jpg

Siah Armajani was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1939. He was raised in a family of highly educated individuals and himself attended a Presbyterian missionary for Iranian students. After having joined the National Front (which drove out the monarchy in place at the time) for several years, Armajani finally moved to St. Paul, Minnesota to attend Macalester College, a private liberal arts college. He continued to study philosophy as he searched for a framework for his social and political ideas.  Since then, Armajani has continued to produce art which reflects these ideas, with a few designs of his becoming realities in the form of public bridges.

One of the primary ideologies behind Armajani’s bridge designs comes from German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). As he expresses it, a bridge is a phenomenological gathering of “the fourfold”, a sustaining connection with object and idea, a gathering or “simple oneness” of “earth and sky, divinities and mortals”. Heidegger applied this to a table:

A table is a thing.

A table is a public structure.

A table is something in between.

A table unites the people and brings people together.

Armajani’s designs were founded on the principle that these four concepts could be applied to bridge in the same way they can be applied to a table:

A bridge is a thing.

A bridge is something in-between.

A bridge which is something in-between has a shadowy side until it becomes public.

What us before the bridge, after the bridge, above the bridge, and below the bridge

brings them together and makes them one neighborhood.

A bridge is part of the public landscape.

Many of his small-scale sculptures demonstrate these concepts. For example, his House / Bridge series achieves these four criteria, with a particular emphasis on the importance of what is before, after, above or below the bridge.

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From left to right: House Above the Bridge, House Before the Bridge, House Below the Bridge, House After the Bridge (1974-1975)

However, Armajani also created designs which explored defying these concepts. His Limit Bridge series included sculptures that were similar to his earlier bridge designs, with the glaring difference that they are not passable. 

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Limit Bridge III (1972-1978)

Limit Bridge III, shown above, demonstrates this inconsistency. While similar in construction and style to his earlier Bridge with Base series, a grade separation and a wall between two sections prevent passage across. This strips the bridge of its practicality; as a result, according to Heidegger’s principles, the bridge no longer unites the people or links what is before and after the bridge, disqualifying it as a true bridge.

In addition to Heidegger’s fourfold principle, Persian poetry culture has had a major influence on Armajani’s work.

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The Khaju Bridge (Esfahān, Iran)

A source of inspiration was the Khaju Bridge in Esfahān, Iran. Its design is laced with elements of Persian architecture, such as its arches, but it is also decorated in Persian art and text in an effort to integrate it into its environment. Armajani borrowed from this method; in a less conventional approach to American architecture, his public bridge designs had physical text from certain poems inlaid into the structure. The ultimate goal of this was to allow the bridge to be “site-specific”; that is, using excerpts that allow it to integrate into the landscape.

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A line of Ashbery’s poem

The ideal result is a public work that harmonizing, useful, and aesthetically balanced. An example of this is one of Armajani’s most well-known bridge, the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge. While the design is more in line with modern American bridge styles, a poem is also inlaid directly into the structure, visible to all who use it. The poem was written by American poet John Ashbery specifically for the bridge; as a result the text allows the bridge to integrate more fully into its environment, achieving Armajani’s goal. The text of the poem can be viewed hereOverall, these influences helped form Armajani’s unique architectural approach, which have created a number of bridges which integrate with their environments.

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Stuttgart Bridge (1994)
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Bridge Over a Tree (1970)
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Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, St. Paul, Minnesota (1988)

You can view the full exhibit here and watch an interview with him here.

author: Emre Robbe

editor: Sigrid Adriaenssens

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