PRINT December 1985


THE OLD DEBATE over the relationship between individual biography and enclosing environment is an interesting and thorny place to begin the story of Siah Armajani. The artist arrived in the American Midwest from Iran, 25 years ago, at the age of 21, to study at Minnesota’s Macalester College, and he has remained in Saint Paul to this day. Here he has developed a body of work genuinely devoted to the idea of character—not personality, not style, but the underlying makeup of human life. He is far from an outsider to American culture and geography, but he has been able to sustain a fresh, enthusiastic sense of its particularities and promises, a sense that may be more common among immigrants to the USA than among those brought up here and perhaps dulled to the country’s idealistic heritage. Armajani’s art has been endlessly analyzed as a hybrid of sculpture and architecture, but I believe that the essence of his vision has to do with the peace he has made between individualism and collectivism.

One cannot write about Armajani without describing the landscape, social and physical, that has shaped the content of his emphatically American project. Minnesota is the spiritual center of a part of America that still symbolizes progressive attitudes and the promise of a fecund land. The network of small cities in the region has traditionally resisted the social stratification of conservatism in favor of a decentralized populist agenda. Long-standing agrarian values have coexisted with innovative social and economic policies, confirming that one can respect tradition and fresh thinking at the same time. In the Minnesota area, populist and progressive leaders have not been forgotten: Robert Marion La Follette, the Wisconsin governor and senator from the first quarter of the century, seems as much a presence as Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and other contemporary figures of optimistic liberal thought. The area shows a deep-felt sense of community, and it is this that sustains the currency and significance of Armajani’s prolific but sensitive production in the slippery realm of public art. An avowed public artist, Armajani seeks to foster the debate of an involved constituency of viewers; he is, in fact, a “citizen artist.” This said, it needs to be immediately pointed out that in addition to being accessible—or, in the artist’s word, “available”—his constructions are consistently challenging and intellectual.

Armajani’s project is to invent locations that become special places when exposed to the communal memories and associations of their public. The relationship between architecture and geography is a great source for Armajani; acute sensors seem to direct his visual observations and visceral reactions to the peculiarities of a given landscape. He is interested in commonplace buildings and structures whose design extends beyond simple functionalism, showing an intrinsic, even if sometimes naive and limited, logic in their development of form and their choices of materials. Here he finds a narrative of adaptation through common-sense construction and imaginative innovation, a narrative holding within itself a set of beliefs and ideas about order. These ideas may not be generated by geographic factors, but for Armajani they are at least informed by them. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in a journal entry in 1828, wrote, “I like to have a man’s knowledge comprehend more than one class of topics, one row of shelves. I like a man who likes to see a fine barn as well as a good tragedy.”1 The construction techniques and structural systems of barns and other commonplace buildings form a legacy passed on to many generations, and their continuance is evidence of enduring agreements about scale, function, and esthetics. Through abstracted representations of these types of intuitive buildings, Armajani constructs familiar but truly new places, which seem to operate like communal cues or codes generating psychic maps of the world.

Armajani uses ideas about the landscape of vernacular structures, domestic as well as industrial, to position himself in the present. Neither futuristic nor historicist, his work relates to an observation of Kenneth Frampton’s: “Architecture can only be sustained today as a critical practice if it assumes an arrière-garde position, that is to say, one which distances itself equally from the Enlightenment myth of progress and from a reactionary, unrealistic impulse to return to the architectonic forms of the pre-industrial past.”2 A label such as “Modernist-populist” may sound like a contradiction in terms, but Armajani has found a common ground between populism and the inventive, challenging, oppositional critical legacy of Modernism, in which he fiercely believes. Populism was also an oppositional movement, but as it emerged in the Midwest in the 1890s, it was securely placed in society While it sometimes lead to demagoguery, it was the opposite of demagogic in its ideas, and it helped shape the character and social geography of the region. In his book Democratic Promise (1976), on the failure of American populism, Lawrence Goodwyn writes, “the triumph of Populism—its only enduring triumph—was the belief in possibility it injected into American political consciousness. [It] made too many mistakes to serve as a model, but the manner of [its] failures pointed to much that was potential in the democratic spirit. Tactical errors aside, it was the élan of the agrarian crusade, too earnest ever to be decisively ridiculed, too creative to be permanently ignored, that lingers as the Populist residue.”3

That Armajani can be a Modernist populist, drawing a consistent, creative personal philosophy from these overlapping but also contradictory realms, is probably best understood through the writings of the educator and philosopher John Dewey. Although Armajani’s work is informed and infiltrated by a variety of influences, including the works of Thomas Jefferson, Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Martin Heidegger, it is Dewey whose thinking most fully prefigures his; it is Dewey’s essays and books that most helped set the artist’s cohesive, lucid agenda. Dewey was never timid about ideas, and realized that positions often must incorporate inconsistencies. For example, he was an untiring advocate of universal education; he was a pragmatist who, like Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and others, understood that a responsible and active citizenry must be equipped with the tools to think critically and respond effectively. Yet in his Davies Memorial Lecture “Construction and Criticism,” delivered in 1930, at the Institute of Arts and Sciences of Columbia University New York, Dewey lamented the inevitable homogenization that was the side effect of inclusive, nonsectarian education. He wrote, “This similarity is the outward counterpart and symbol of the forces that make for mental uniformity and that tend to stifle mental independence. I do not suggest that these conditions are at all fatal to the creative mind. But they render it a deliberate aim, something to be sedulously cultivated, instead of its being a kind of by-product of social conditions as it once was. . . . Our laudable effort at universal education adds to the premium upon the ready-made article and its mechanical transfer.”4 As a follower of Dewey, Armajani has learned from the educator’s observations. While his objective is communication with the general public, he works via the small idiosyncratic model.

Armajani studied philosophy in college, pursued painting and sculpture for a time, but ultimately arrived at architecture, a field that embodies—cannot avoid—public discourse. All buildings have exteriors and interiors, public and private skins. Architecture is the context and forum in which Armajani projects his private visions and transmutes them into public conditions. Without the consequence of public engagement, I doubt that he would ever have pursued this obsession. The way that he applies information is a metaphor for his entire creative process: instead of proceeding from the raw to the refined, his work is additive and grows incrementally. He works like the untrained builders of the common landscape who learned their crafts by looking and talking, and developed innovations from both functional and esthetic perspectives.

Armajani began his investigations of the relationship between a culture and the geography it lives in with a series of bridges. All were developed in model, and some were constructed for particular sites. The early ones dealt with sequence, passage, and the relationship between the viewer’s perception and the viewer’s position; later pieces investigated the movement of light through structure as it is affected by location. In 1970 Armajani constructed the full-scale Bridge over a Tree, in Minneapolis. A covered wooden bridge, now dismantled, appeared to race along the ground before leaping humpbacked over a small evergreen tree in its path. From the entrance to the piece one could not see the exit, because of the structure’s dramatic undulation in its middle. While many interpretations of the work are possible beyond its obvious affectionate irony, more than anything else Bridge over a Tree addressed architectural accommodation, or lack of it, to geography. Much as builders make adjustments to topography, Armajani made adaptations to a witty and improbable situation of his own devising. Except in the arch-like form straddling the tree, the work was structurally reminiscent of 19th-century covered bridges. Built for a reason, but without any obvious function (its span was unnecessary), it registered a striving for purpose in its paradoxical attempt to give meaning to its site. Heidegger’s thoughts on bridges illuminate Armajani’s idea: “To be sure, the bridge is a thing of its own kind; for it gathers the fourfold [earth and sky, mortals and divinities] in such a way that it allows a site for it. But only something that is itself a location can make space for a site. The location is not already there before the bridge is. Before the bridge stands, there are of course many spots along the stream that can be occupied by something. One of them proves to be a location, and does so because of the bridge. Thus the bridge does not first come to a location to stand in it; rather, a location comes into existence only by virtue of the bridge.”5

In contrast to the ordinary but disfunctional structure of Bridge over a Tree, Armajani’s Skyway Bridge, 1980, proposes two walkways, one above the other, as passages between the upper levels of two Minneapolis highrises. Suitably, given the city’s harsh winters, these bridges also are covered; meeting at one end of their spans, they diverge upward and downward in a sideways V shape, almost as if a single bridge had been sliced horizontally and pried apart at one end. The proposal was never built, but it is a significant indication of a direction that Armajani has pursued in his most recent work. In all his projects since the late ’70s he has attempted to integrate an idealized concept, a concept involving search or striving, with a functional objective. By introducing programs of possible human activity to his situations, Armajani has more firmly implanted his idea that architecture is participatory public art. He insists that his constructions involve the simultaneous engagement of perceptual faculties and physical encounter.

Another bridge project exemplifies an idea in Armajani’s work that is intrinsic to architecture but that usually remains unconscious: that of the text, the building as a record. Armajani has taken every opportunity to include passages from Dewey, Emerson, Whitman, Robert Frost, Herman Melville, and others in his pieces, giving them a cognitive layer of experience to complement their perceptual and physical dynamics. In 1983, the office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle commissioned him to create a work made up of two bridges, which were to span small drainage areas in its grounds. Armajani built simple concrete structures—flat slabs, with parapets, that rest on cylindrical conduits. Excerpts from Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) are inscribed in bronze along the floor and railings of both bridges, and along an adjoining path, so that one reads them as one walks.

The texts’ interaction with the structures is intricate. Melville’s grand cadences, and his sense of the power of the elements—the passages Armajani has selected talk of “the great shroud of the sea,” the “deep and dark blue ocean”—ring oddly against the small scale of the bridges and of the culverts they cross. Their plainness of design and modest, straightforward materials, and their modernity, also contrast with Melville’s metaphoric prose and 19th-century ambition. It’s often difficult to detect a direct correlation between the forms of Armajani’s work and the ideas in his selected texts; however, the texts do tie the work into an American context and consciousness. One of the quotations, for example, talks of “a ship of the old school with an old fashioned claw-footed look about it. A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.” The implicit comparisons here—between old and new, noble and common—are suggestive to a reader trying to imagine Melville’s America’s sense of itself—a young democracy, opposing itself to the monarchies and aristocracies of Europe, which, “claw-footed,” are perhaps crippled, their superseded nobility inextricable from melancholy. In contrast, the simple circles and planes of Armajani’s Seattle bridges seem almost styleless, impossible to outdate, and their matter-of-fact design and concrete substance are the antithesis of nostalgia for a noble past or an aristocratic ornamentalism. Armajani’s use of language is as complex as language itself. He uses it as common ground, as operant symbol of an educated citizenry and therefore of freedom to information, but he also reminds participants, as Dewey and Heidegger would have, to be cautious of language. Heidegger has written, “Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man. Perhaps it is before all else man’s subversion of this relation of dominance that drives his essential nature into alienation.”6

Armajani’s passion for excerpting and applying passages from the works of his favorite writers in his art eventually led to a series of curious spaces dedicated to reading and building. During the late ’70s, when a semiotic analysis of architecture was dominating its criticism, Armajani took the ideas of reading and buildings for reading in a witty direction opposed to the heavy academicism then wide spread in the field. He constructed a series of reading and gathering spaces, some of which are permanent installations, in communities and college campuses. These spaces accommodate the solitude of the single reader as well as the requirements of the group gathered for discussion and debate. For Armajani the creation of a place of assembly is a significant publication. Heidegger’s thoughts again convey Armajani’s intentions: “It is proper to every gathering that the gatherers assemble to coordinate their efforts to the sheltering; only when they have gathered together with that end in view do they begin to gather.”7 For the Winter Olympics in 1979, in Lake Placid, New York, Armajani built a small reading house which still stands unobtrusively on a quiet residential street. In an inversion of construction convention, in which a building is typically situated, constructed, and then furnished, he placed the furniture—benches and reading tables—on the site, and then decided where to put the windows to maximize the play of the sun in the interior, which was not provided with artificial light (or even with electricity). Finally, he erected the walls, placing the windows where he had imagined they should be. At a quick glance, Reading House looks like a large garage or small barn; it seems to rest quite appropriately in the domestic landscape around it. A closer look reveals walls with strange protrusions, four dissimilar facades, a subtle disjunction of all the conventions in question. Everything seems slightly out of alignment from the outside, yet the interior feels just right. The project is a good indication of Armajani’s remarkable ability to sustain the tension between conditioning and invention while being gracious to the needs and peculiarities of a specific site.

In 1974, though he was to continue to explore bridges, Armajani began the ambitious ongoing project called Dictionary for Building, a visual catalogue of different building forms and conditions. Extracting and abstracting the planes, surfaces, lines, windows, walls, ceilings, stairs, and floors of traditional domestic American architecture, Armajani uses the project as a laboratory for the testing of his methodologies, convictions, and the inevitable contradictions in his ideas. Dictionary for Building is a series of constructions representing furniture, architectural elements, and spatial conditions, built to actual scale; these constructions are freestanding but dependent on their placement in the exhibition space for the completion of their meaning. To an artist who considers the public in every project he does, regardless of size or location, these experiments are crucial in assessing the availability of the work and the applicability of the quotations set into or stenciled over them. Dictionary for Building is a rational methodological enterprise, based on the social sciences approach of research and observation, but it is also Armajani’s most intuitive series of forms. He has recalled and visualized the ties and symbiotic exchanges that occur in the humanized landscape—the convergence between culture and site that Heidegger discusses in his “Building Dwelling Thinking” essay. Often two passages of text overlap, creating a changing cadence of perception and understanding; a sentence is one thing, then another, then both. Words float in and out of focus; the reader must concentrate on them in order to puzzle out what are often two very different thoughts.

Armajani is interested in participating in complex social and public programs; someday, for example, he hopes to build low- and moderate-income housing. His earliest houses are schematic constructions that represent “home” but permit no entry. They are as dense and confounding as many of the bridges he built at the same time. Through study of Jefferson’s thinking on architecture, Armajani began to open his houses for physical intervention, though not occupancy. Jefferson believed in the possibility of an architecture that expressed the American political experiment; an architect himself, he came to believe that political thought and design activity were indivisible. (His Notes on the State of Virginia [1782–84], for example, includes a scathing critique of public and domestic buildings in its assessment of the condition of the state as a whole.) Armajani has based models of houses, and larger houselike constructions, on studies of Jefferson’s own house, Monticello, which may not be as sophisticated as his work at the University of Virginia but remains brilliant and important, the first attempt to adapt European conventions to create an indigenous American architecture. Jefferson took Palladian ideals and proportions, and stretched and compressed them to build a red-brick structure of great sensitivity; Armajani analyzed Jefferson’s house and isolated the innovations embedded in Jefferson’s adaptations. In other words, he looked for those parts of Monticello in which Jefferson achieved his goal of a unique, indigenous, and democratic architecture. Thomas Jefferson’s House; East Wing, Night House, 1975, is Armajani’s representation of the earliest structure on the Monticello site—the small pavilion that Jefferson constructed there in 1770, and that he lived in while he supervised construction of the main house and service wings.

Armajani’s current work is taking him in two directions; both are public, and both conform with the goals of this citizen artist as they appear in his earlier work. One direction is that of large outdoor projects. With the artist Scott Burton, the architect Cesar Pelli, and the landscape architect Paul Friedburg, he is collaborating on an ambitious program of landscaped public space for Battery Park Plaza, in lower Manhattan. (Pieces by artists including Nancy Graves and Mary Miss are planned for other sites in the Battery Park City development.) He recently completed a park in College Park, Maryland, and is working on one in Sacramento, California, as well as on a proposal to design the top of a San Francisco highrise (in collaboration with the architect), and on a bandstand in Mitchell, South Dakota. The bandstand in particular is a wonderful compressed collage of the visual cues that Armajani persistently seeks in the vernacular landscape. The second direction picks up on several earlier projects, including Newsstand, 1980, at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center; Office for Four, 1981, at the Hudson River Museum, in Yonkers, New York; and Hirshhorn Employee Lounge, 1981, in Washington, D.C. In all these projects, which have now been dismantled, Armajani interpreted the needs of institutions for specific kinds of space (in his reading rooms he developed his own program more autonomously). His work in this mode signifies the vitality that he seeks from real-life situations. Among the projects he is currently working on is a plan for a family waiting area in the intensive-care unit of a small Minnesota hospital. There are no models of the work yet, but the very premise suggests an optimistic direction for public art, which is still commonly perceived as an occasion for an artist to “express” him- or herself in public. On this subject Armajani has said,

Public art should demystify the concept of creativity. The production of public art requires collaboration. The idea that an individual artist is the only creator for public spaces is misleading and untrue. Many other people become involved. The artist applies his or her expertise, but the cultural needs support the artistic level. It is not quite independent.

Public art’s immediate concern is not with the artistic but with the work it is meant to perform. It should be open, available, useful, common and near public places. By emphasizing usefulness, public art becomes a tool for activity—sitting, walking, eating, talking. Public art depends upon some interplay with the public based on some shared assumptions. In Battery Park City, we created amenities for the neighbors and for people who come to visit the area—furniture, gardens, places to get closer to the waterfront with poetry from Walt Whitman and Frank O’Hara. It is the public that allows public art to be, at least in America. In Europe, the patron was generally the church. Different cultures produce different public art. Here it is secular.

Public art should not intimidate or assault or control the public. It should be neighborly. It should enhance a given place. The word “art” in public art is not a genteel art. It is a missionary art. The public artist is a citizen first. . . . 8

Armajani has never left himself with the choice of being anything but a public artist. Simultaneously familiar and eccentric, his work emphasizes the role of art as a catalyst in generating an interplay between the public and an individual vision. For Armajani, public art leads to a discourse that enhances not only the quality of life, but also the powers of individuals to effect change.

Patricia C. Phillips writes regularly for Artforum.



1. Quoted in John Stilgoe, Common Landscape of America, 1580–1845, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982. p 1.

2. Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic Essays on Postmodern Culture, Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay Press, 1983, p 20.

3. Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, p. xxiii.

4. John Dewey, “Construction and Criticism,” Davies Memorial Lecture for the Institute of Arts and Sciences, New York: Columbia University Press, 1930. pp 8–9.

5. Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” in Basic Writings, New York: Harper and Row 1977, pp 331–32.

6. Heidegger, p. 324.

7. Heidegger, p. ix.

8. In a statement prepared for a panel discussion sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, Los Angeles chapter, and printed in the The New York Times, September 22, 1985, section 4. p. E22.