PRINT March 1979

Charles Simonds' Emblematic Architecture

“LET US SUPPOSE,” WROTE George Kubler, “that the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of man-made things, including all tools and writing in addition to the useless, beautiful, poetic things of the world. By this view the universe of man-made things simply coincides with the history of art.”1 Kubler’s remark, made in 1961, begins a well-known book in which objects and ideas, artifacts and “mental culture,” tools and expression are united under the common rubric of form. The Shape of Time proposed to align these divided and divisive terms as the elements of a temporal morphology. By this means the plural traces of time might be interrelated and revealed, despite their differences, as relations in an emerging form—as visual objects composed “under the guidance of connected ideas developed in temporal sequence.”2 And as a vision of metamorphosis through time it provides, I think, an appropriate entry to the emblematic architecture of Charles Simonds.

For nearly a decade Simonds has constructed a small, highly coherent series of street works, models and community projects. All have dealt with architectural principles, represented different types of dwellings and employed the psychological dimensions of shelter as a function of belief. Like much current sculpture,3 Simonds’ has stressed habitation, using its connotations to suggest a close connection between nature and art. But it has also stressed the patterns worked by time, art and artifacts as common functions of time, and the way the two can be related to imply a comprehensive artistic model. So much so that one can speak of an intricate play between these varied temporalities in producing social change.

In the late 1960s Simonds began to construct a Merzbau of discrete, highly personal objects. Made over four years and laden with fetishistic connotations, these objects were distant from the welded sculpture and plastic boxes that he had produced as a Berkeley student only three years before. Some of their feeling comes through in an interview with Daniel Abadie:

. . . Basically it was. . . . an elaborate project that transformed my loft into “stations” using clay, my body (hair and fluids), fantasy images, and art historical and architectural image quotations as a means of creating a fantasy history of a thought. The ingredients were in all different scales; there were fragments of “the colossal dream,” small biological specimens, child-like paintings, shadows made with hair, broken and bandaged timbers, tadpoles in various stages of growth, sculptured reliefs of a voyage to Cythera, figures with bird-heads, sacrificial columns, fragments of a large stairway covered with plasticene. . .4

All in all, a complex and involuted assemblage hovering between object and environment, beautiful and grotesque. While such images can be linked to primitivism seeping through a Minimal period, Simonds was working in almost total isolation, making objects for himself and only a limited audience of friends. The pieces are characterized by an obsession with the body and with the sexual latencies of clay. In some, architectural fragments, earth-coated and juxtaposed with various body secretions, indicate the building used as the wellspring for fantasies. The fragments are employed as “signatures” for ideas—concise means of capturing and releasing information on different spaces and times.

The narratives formed by allusions, which move out through time and always back to the body, crystallize in a large project in which “stations” connecting tubes of fluid (blood, urine, saliva) to fragmentary reliefs transformed a room into a circular “situation.” Simonds moved from point to point in a meditative arc. There are equations between this progression, the body’s history in the separate tubes, and an art historical allusion fashioned through the internal references of reliefs. Other contemporary pieces, including childlike scrawls, plus tadpoles of unequal size, surrounded this early work. Intimations of biological rhythms and stages of growth and analogies between personal and cosmological clocks, universal time and vegetal patterns hint at the body/landscape/dwelling homology underlying subsequent work.

In these early pieces place is associated with personal space and with ritual activity. Around 1970, the self was extended to civilization, and the idea of a people emerged. Simonds traces this development to a series of images spawned within minutes over three or four days. Their emergence reflects clay’s allusive implications: laying down a piece, for instance, sprinkling it with sand, and having it become the earth; allowing cracks, fissures, and having it simulate the erosion of time. Conversely, it evokes the origins of building. Shaping the simplest conical or cavelike form stimulates suggestions of an absent people. Ritual circles, huts, roads, steps and gates that read as barricades dot the surface of this developing territory. We see accumulations of forms like Mouster-ian spheroids. Elsewhere breast and lip forms marking caves and pits evoke the primitive sensuality of clay. Mother Earth, mother architecture, the sexual and psychological meanings of shelter: such announce themselves as developing themes. Moreover, the blood-filled and seeded bricks alternating with conventional clay accent the fusions of land, body, building.

At about the same time Simonds began to build such dwellings outside so as to make them more accessible to view. Gradually the life world of a civilization of “Little People,”5 embracing dwellings and sacred spaces, customs and rituals, developed from metaphoric extensions of signature fragments. Lodged in the crevices and corners of real buildings,and made from from clay bricks, tiny twigs, sand and stone, their erection and gradual erosion simulated the Little People migrating through the urban environment. Each building in this sequence, which continues to this day, registers a moment in time, elided in turn into a continuum. Through this means a temporal shape is developed, along with a civilization that can be “archeologically” reconstructed from traces left behind. Some, like one built on East Houston Street in 1972, are pure dwellings. In others, ritual structures joined to roadways and walls allude to a total pattern of life. In all, the structures are built out from their surroundings, assuming compact and open forms, jagged or wide, airy configurations. Large, “real” bricks abut their reduced analogues.

Simonds defines an important aspect of this work as “allusive qualities of time and space related to the real environment, political activity and beliefs.” The layering becomes literal when the landscapes are superimposed over New York, Buffalo, Paris or Cologne.6 Such connections, as on the Lower East Side, where Simonds worked from 1973 to 1976,7 permit an imaginary inner history to develop within a given geographical area. The dwellings are internally linked, as common elements in a temporal shape, and externally associated, as the community recognizes, acknowledges and claims parallels to the developing process. In a similar way, the contours of the temporal shape repeat themselves within the specific boundaries of place. Allusions are made through time to time: the récit spun from the signature term provides a correlate of the life-world constellated around the real city’s buildings and lots. The parallels are both large—community history, in its cycle of life and death, resembles the history of objects—and small, as the construction and decay of buildings parallels the erection and disintegration of the delicate clay structures. In this manner, the structure of civilization is conjured in its primitive sway between movement and settlement, precariousness and security.

Related to this coexistence of fantasy and reality on the same historical stage are references to an actual past, the Pueblo Indian culture. Clay brick dwellings, terraces and walls, underground kivas and other ritual places recall the structures Simonds saw on childhood visits to the Southwest. Never are the proportions accurate enough for plans, even for prototypical pueblos. Since they are not so specific as to suggest architectural reconstructions, the citations can be construed as a strategic device, using the whole range of reference to address other issues. By this means past and present are carefully intercalated in a functional relation in the viewing imagination. Thus the Pueblo reference presents a fragment of collective memory, an image of the past that has subsisted into the present, and a part of the general American culture that is yet drastically distinct and organically unified. Moreover, its characteristic architecture expresses, or represents, a consistent attitude toward existence. Thus there is allusion by a fragment, or piece of an equivocal past, to a large parallel present.

In another medium Simonds’ films—Birth, 1970, Dwellings, 1972, Landscape↔Body↔Dwelling, 1973, Body↔Earth, 1974, Dwellings Winter 1974, Niagara Gorge, 1974—reiterate these soundings on the distant levels of cosmogony and ritual. Earth, body and original time, the vocabulary of creation myths, intermesh with building’s function in a way that recalls annual razing and construction in primitive rites. In Birth, for example, Simonds buries himself in the earth and is reborn from it. In Landscape↔Body↔Dwelling, he lies down on the earth, covers himself with clay, transforms himself into a landscape with clay, then constructs a fantasy dwelling on his body/earth. These films, with their enunciations of personal religion, are the private side of Simonds’ works, underscoring the primal analogy of dwelling and self. Similarly, in an interview Simonds stressed the dwellings’ “peculiar way of transforming a manmade space (such as niches of broken bricks in a wall) into a natural landscape, a cliff where a dwelling can be built.”

The purpose of these ambiguities, whether temporal or cultural, is to bring the viewer to a deeper awareness of the present time. With their inhering associations that can be expanded and reshaped (Simonds describes the dwellings as “the medium through which we talk”; they are “suction on people’s psyches” and they “elicit all sorts of comments”) the dwellings offer a framework for studying the social and psychological meanings implicit in habitation. In this way, the perhaps seemingly indulgent Little-People theme emerges as a disciplined, pragmatic tool. Placed against an urban present, the Little People are rather like Doxi and Epergos, those supernatural beings used by Viollet-le-Duc to chart a travelogue-overview of architectural history. As a visual theme, the fantasy provides a way to indicate, through a simple instigating form, what a world might “look” like in totality.

Miniaturization is a measure of economy (“The small dwellings are most economic in terms of the time and space demanded to make them”) and a means of magnification, blowing the surrounding city up by contrast with a reduced form. Moreover, as with historical dioramas, the dwellings mediate between individuals and the vast, supra-personalism of civilization. These functional, nonartistic aims separate them from “small sculpture” and “miniature objects,” to which they otherwise superficially relate. The refined detail and make-believe urge of the doll-house imagery do not show regression to a previous stage as much as to a child’s vision used as the entrance to another world.8 Since everyone has associations to the lapsed time of toyland, “everyone,” hypothetically, is prey to its seductive employment for other ends. Like the “primitive” Pueblo reference, miniaturization is a transubjective aid; it is posed between artist and audience, a pathway between past and present.

Linear time, the Little People’s chronos in their endless migrations, provides one modality, to which the circular time of endless recurrence is the symmetrical concomitant. Such attitudes shape the distinctions in societies, depending on which aspect is accentuated. Hence the anthropologist Ruth Benedict: “One builds an enormous cultural superstructure upon adolescence, one upon death, one upon afterlife”;9 and Octavio Paz, writing with the Mexican poet’s sense of multiple time and rhythmic repetition:

The idea of a “primitive mentality”—in the sense of something ancient, anterior, and now surpassed or in the process of being surpassed—is merely one of many manifestations of a linear conception of history . . . each time they dream, fall in love, or take part in their professional, civic, or political ceremonies, other human beings “participate,” return, form part of that vast “society of life” that Cassirer regards as the source of magical beliefs. . . . The “primitive mentality” is everywhere, covered by a layer of rationality or out in the open.10

This kind of critical vision, exercised within the meta-space of anthropology, informs the many models Simonds has made since 1972. As “synchronous,” “structural” visions rather than, historical enactments, they are related to the street dwellings both as distillations and theoretical informants. They offer “emblematic states” instead of “small-scale gestures,” “object states” abstracting philosophical attitudes: these are terms Simonds uses for his condensed imagistic forms.

In the economy of Simonds’ work, their premises are reflected, whether reproduced or inflected, in practically all the individual objects and projects. These are the meditative, museum-scaled structures, the eternal vehicles of theory whose practice is the time-bound activity in the street. Simonds attempts, in them, to delineate, on the most reduced, hence, expansive, level, the basic social and metaphysical meanings of shelter. Architecture is viewed as a symbolic transformation by which world experience is summarized in the transmittable form of images. As archetypal patterns of experience, line, circle and spiral recall the symbols Kepes has called “dynamic organizers of life,”11 both expressing attitudes to existence and controlling its development. (In a current series, closed defensive and open receptive forms are mirrored as fire and water in an opposition as old as Thales and Heraclitus.)

The ideas in these series are seen as complete in themselves, shaping patterns of experience in consistently groupable terms. The bulbous, rough-crafted grounds surrounding Simonds’ models evoke a primitive earth that, once humanized, becomes the vehicle of these distinct and cohesive meanings. The individual worlds may be conjured as a physical totality, in projects like Picturesque Landscape, 1976, or verbally described in Simonds’ triplicate tales, Three Peoples,12 where words provide a correlate of what can visually be gleaned through the imaginative extension of models. There are repetitions on levels of personal and historical memory, in social customs and ritual, in ways of perceiving human cycles and vegetal growth.

Of course the simplest temporal mode is linear time, the clock time supplying both our daily chronos and the conventional historical view. In a drawing from 1975 its image is a “road-house” or path moving resolutely from the past into the continuum of the future. The Little People, in their wanderings, are its avatar. Migration mimics the impulse of time as a succession of present moments (“Fortified with a feeling of here-we-all-are, ✴ moved on”). The razed bricks from abandoned buildings indicate the discards of these present times. In People Who Live in a Circle, 1972, the rubble is subjected to constant reuse; “stories and memories were woven around these mementos and the past was reconstituted in ◯ minds, just as the old bricks were fitted into the new buildings.” Two concentric rings circumscribe a womb/dome in equal stages of construction and destruction. The allusions to past and present, to archeological remains eclipsed by the slowly advancing structure are shaped through this rotational motion into a cycle of rebuilding. Indeed rhythm, repetition and the Eternal Return underlie the related pages in Three Peoples, where there are seasonal cycles and biological rhythms, returns in time being manifest in memory or emblemized by ceremonial chants. A rebirth ritual enacted in a central pit suggests building’s ties to the “other” time of original creation, while a ladder in the model effects this transformation, joining dwelling and pit, profane and sacred time.

Simonds conceives these models of present, past and future-oriented societies according to how they use their pasts—whether as memory, history or the geological past. Thus the regenerative cycle which is informed by the past and actively employs it is countered by the spiral, where it is negated, “constantly buried, serving as building material for the future.” The model (1974) of this is a tri-stepped, incrementally advancing coil: hierarchies, division of labor and predictive computation comprise analogues to this tiered structure of progressive specialization which is quite as evocative of the modern city in its inevitable self-consumption as the circular model is, say, of Mayan civilization with its “mythic” temporal sense.

But as a visual form, the spiral corresponds with other models through a radicular linear schematics. By a simple upward, inner inflection, the linear road becomes a ramp, serving as conduit to an undefined end. Moreover the cyclical lesion of present to past can be broken, adjusted, through the intrusion of an interval to read as a different, now progressive, image of time. By a Klee-like wizardry these simple manipulations transform a single line into vectors of meaning. And there is a point to be made as well: these models trade time between them. Although different in modes of habitation, their implied cultures are common functions of time. The primitive earth that supports them as a zero-point also supplies their grounding, or a background on which they can be interrelated as well as judged. What Simonds seems to imply is that, much as spiral can become circle, so a highly eclectic culture might use these archetypes of time and habitation for political referents, forming a closer alignment to nature and an organic social image.

How are we to read these hybrid images, which yoke the scalar manipulations of art and the cultural references of architecture to a pragmatic, almost tool-like function? Since the images are provocations, not information, they presume an engaged consciousness rather than a passive organ of sensation. Closure and completeness of description are abandoned to the allusive action of evocative imagery. In this Simonds’ work is as distinct from archeological reconstructions or “anthropological art” as it is from the internal discourse of form. Moreover, the mobile viewpoint demanded by most sculpture yields less than intellectual motion through time or correlations in space. We observe the models from a single, bird’s-eye perspective and in a drawn-out, generally meditative time, while the street models are “happened upon,” grasped as a kind of oneiric crevice in the wall of contemporary space. The core images well out in collateral allusions that we are asked to compare with each other, one to one.

Grasping these allusions depends on transformations involving continuity and change, the past’s persistence in the present and in the relations of unfolding events. In this likening the links are provided by analogies as invariable factors uniting the varied levels of difference. The joints of common function work like ladders linking sacred and profane, architecture and earth. And here time’s function, by furnishing analogies, operates in a similarly ritualistic, restorative way. Analogy is used as a heuristic device: in the street dwellings the traces of an imagined past bestow new meanings on the unravelling present. We compare the “real” fragment with its metaphoric analogue, seeking parallels in the illusionary past and projecting their avatars in the future. This strategic element undercuts the sentimentality of the Little People, who, precisely because they are imaginary and placed against an urban scale, accentuate the ideological dimension of Simond’s enterprise.

In the dwellings the analogies can be direct; in the models, where terms that are physically absent are theoretically present, they can be implied. Removed from the specific historical plane, the modes of being in these elemental symbols can be released or manipulated in a variety of directions. Line, circle and spiral thus approximate the irreducible images discussed by Bachelard13 as transhistorical, transcultural and, hence, supremely susceptible to poetic play. Trans-subjectivity supports an imagery of endlessness, roundness and upward, inward motion that embodies widely shared feelings. These can be read as values and can, therefore, be manipulated in social or political terms. Thus Simonds’ spiral provides a key text, with its intimations of a progress-oriented society squandering its resources to future ends. And it is enough to visually round the circular enclosure to recall cyclical time and to experience the self-containment epitomized by rondeur. These attitudes can be abstracted, in the meditative emblem, or invoked, though the realized project.

The hope is that reference to a prior, or specifically primal, state will elicit greater awareness of present needs. Roundness as regeneration, particularly, in the sense of reclaiming the environment, underlies a series of projects dating from 1973 to 1977. In each the model’s conceptual material is applied to a particular situation so that its visual, contemplative effects can be activated in the social sphere. Here the timelessness of models gives over to a sharply “operational” time. Yet, while pragmatic, these projects, grounded in archetypes, are not ruled by the temporal conditions of sites: short-range effects are based upon long-range approaches to societal functions.

In La Placita (in New York), 1973–75, for example, an abandoned city lot was resurrected as a community playground. Smooth, gently curving mounds of dirt evoke a primitive landscape dialectically related to the surrounding city territory. A similar lot in Cleveland (1977) became a garden, play area, and more, according to local demands. In each case decay and reuse exactly coincide with destruction and rebuilding in the circular model. There are echoes of the Little People, who in their tenuous nomadism constantly re-inhabit and reuse architectural fragments. The lots are also metaphors for civilization, which moves from polis to necropolis, living core to charred remains and on to recommencement. Much as “a vacant lot . . . is a piece of earth which has been given form by habitation and then returned to ground level,” rebuilding begins from root level to construct another state that will later be jettisoned when altered conditions emerge. Old bricks, in this sense, are continually refitted into new dwellings in a process showing the political articulation of the earth.

With its hills and valleys, its breast- and lip-like shapes, La Placita evokes a landscape both preexisting and predetermining the surroundings of civilized man. Such a primordial environment, in its sexual intimations of fertility, accentuates Simonds’ central equation of body and dwelling. The metaphoric fusion of land and body, daily existence and rite, which is common, for example, to the Latin imagination, is offered as a basic, “primitive” feeling that can be mined for specific social use. Rebuilding is equated with rebirth, and with ritual renewal; the function of building in regenerating time through cosmic repetition here informs some most practical projections for urban renewal.

Metaphoric ladders linking layers of time and temporal function are everywhere. In Niagara Gorge (at Artpark), 1974, Simonds enacted a creation rite beside the stone cairns and shelter that he constructed from the remains of a 19th-century tunnel. Here linear, historical chronos is deftly aligned with the mythic time of origins. Simonds’ ritual was a personal instance of the rebirth echoed, in its secular, social form, in the reactivation of a clear historical moment. Although he shares his sense of historical time with Sonfist, Trakas and others, Simonds’ mythic, primordial reference plants him further afield. In another allusion, specific and original time intermesh in the sexual symbols of cave and cairn, hollow and upright forms. We find the same multilayered historical sense in Growth House (Artpark), 1974, or in the Stanley Tankel Memorial Hanging Gardens project (Gateway National Park, Breezy Point), 1976, where Simonds proposed that an abandoned, unfinished high-rise be conserved, planted with wisteria, and reused as a hostel and symbol. Vegetation and gardens, with their universal meanings, are here analogues to, and emblems for, the “human” cycles of recurrence and renewal.14 And in the recent “Floating Cities” series, 1978, the future takes on the properties of biological time as microorganismic structures provide models for civilization. Dwellings, factories, churches and stores are all poised over water to shift, adjust, form and re-form into different arrangements which, as propertyless Utopian societies, reveal and correct the realities of a spiral economic world.

Something like Bachelard’s phenomenology of “ex,” present in the poetic urge for immensity and awe, surfaces in Simonds’ own drive for renewal, reuse, rethinking and revision. Because our world-views are embodied in buildings, architecture affords a vehicle, through its emblematic action, for reconsidering the terms we live by, for ourselves and in the community and environment. Through the appeal to other states and precedents, the functional shelter works as a cognitive tool, operating in this political sphere much as did the primitive hut to resume the reform of corrupt custom and practice. Thus Joseph Rykwert’s name15 should be mentioned, and particularly Robert Smithson’s, both as a specific influence (Smithson encouraged Simonds in planning La Placita) and a general one, showing his ideas’ affinities with other contemporary artists. Simonds shares Smithson’s interest in emblematic forms and primordial time, in the dialectic of man and nature (and its specific reflection in reclamation). What he does not share with otherwise related artists is an interest in Earthworks, artistically recycling the environment, or the conventional, esthetically conceived monument. As implements of social order, his land projects are esthetic only, and primarily, in the root-level sense of altering perception. Instead of extending art into nonart contexts, they propose broader, more flexible definitions of art. And this reorientation of esthetic objectives is perhaps the most important thing that these objects, like Simonds’ dwellings and models, are about.

As elements of social order they have a long, honorable history as art. One effect of Simonds’ work is to impel examination of the varied concepts of art corresponding to different temporal shapes. In his Sociology of Art, Jean Duvignaud lists as different forms of society “tribal and clannish societies; magical-religious theocratic societies; patriarchal communities; city-states; feudal societies; centralizing, bourgeoisie, liberal societies; and industrial societies,” noting that, in each, art is invested with functions “so contradictory to each other that it is difficult to speak of a ”universal function of art."16 Obviously we know that art is defined by the society that consumes it. What is seldom acknowledged is that an eclectic, pluralistic society can use these shapes of time and artistic function as precedents for a wider, socially useful definition.

Kubler suggests that art and artifact may ultimately be commingled within the common lens of historical interpretation. Simonds’ models, by suggesting patterns of perceiving art,17 ask that the spiral of modernist specialization yield to definitions that are “closer to the earth,” in the widest sense of social integration. Work in the streets, as in a folk community, or in large, community-oriented projects, is not necessarily an antiart approach. Rather, as art evoking social precedents, it is, for Simonds, the vehicle for a deepened content. It belongs to a broad enterprise to extend the esthetic range of art. That enterprise both comments on the world and intervenes in its structure, doing so in visual, emblematic, entirely esthetic terms.

Kate Linker



1. George Kubler, The Shape of Time, New Haven, 1962, p. 1.

2. Ibid., p. 9.

3. See Lucy Lippard, “Complexes: Architectural Sculpture in Nature,” Art in America, January-February 1979, pp. 86–97.

4. This and subsequent quotes by the artist taken from interview with Daniel Abadie, published in Charles Simonds, Paris, 1975, trans. in Charles Simonds, Temenos, Buffalo (Albright-Knox Gallery), 1977, pp. 6–14.

5. Simonds uses this name to refer to the imaginary civilization whose dwellings he has been building over the past decade Though many cultures have mythologies of "Little People—the Irish and Southwest Indian versions are examples—Simonds’ use of them was arrived at independently of specific sources.

6. Simonds’ general practice is to execute street works in conjunction with all indoor exhibitions.

7. Simonds’ work with community groups on the Lower East Side is a constant part of his art, interrupted only recently when he worked in Cleveland and in Germany. He plans to recommence this work this spring with the rebuilding of La Placita (described here) and another lot under a local group the Family Union.

8. Lucy Lippard in Dwellings, catalogue of an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 1978, p. 7.

9. Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture, New York, 1934, p. 22.

10. Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre, Austin, 1973, pp. 103–04.

11. Gyorgy Kepes, The New Landscape in Art and Science, Chicago, 1956, p. 50.

12. Charles Simonds, Three Peoples, New York, 1975.

13. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Boston, 1969.

14. Recently the local government authorities decided to destroy the high-rise structure, thus adding Simonds to the roster of unrealized projects.

15. Joseph Rykweri, On Adam’s House in Paradise, New York, 1972.

16. Jean Duvignaud, The Sociology of Art, p. 98.

17. The models of linear, circular and spiral peoples easily lend to reading their art according to chronological succession, cyclical theories embracing transhistorical, transcultural developments and the progressive “purifications” of Modernism.