On May 6, 2014, The Architectural League awarded the President’s Medal, its highest honor, to artist Richard Serra. The remarks that follow were delivered by architects Michael Manfredi and Marion Weiss at the dinner held in Serra’s honor. Additional remarks given at the event, by Annabelle Selldorf and Emily Rauh Pulitzer, are published here.
Michael Manfredi: Thank you for the opportunity and the privilege to be here tonight to acknowledge Richard’s work and its incredible impact. Early on in the development of our practice when Marion and I were both teaching and thinking deeply about the material measure of space, we came across Richard’s Verb List. It was an epiphany—a list of 108 actions: “to crease, to twist, to tear, to curve, to bundle, to enclose, and to dig.” I mention just a few that resonated. We were young, naïve, and thought we had discovered something new and fresh, and that somehow no one else knew about Richard’s Verb List.
Well, it is with more than a bit of humility that we realized that Richard wrote that piece in 1967. That list quickly became a Rosetta Stone that we continue to share with our students and use to challenge our own work; it is a lesson in being and acting physically in the material world. Thank you, Richard, for that early lesson—your piece Verb List is as original and relevant now, some 47 years later, as it was then.
Another important epiphany: Richard’s piece, St. John’s Rotary Arc at the exit to the Holland Tunnel, circa 1980. I don’t know how many of you remember that piece—a 200-foot-long arc placed off-center to the Holland Tunnel’s roundabout exit; it was seminal.
It introduced a new way to look at infrastructure and the site of infrastructure. Here, size, scale, and placement responded to the topographical characteristic of the site. This sculpture reframed that prosaic tangle of off-ramps, really nothing more than an orphan site of infrastructure, into a dynamic and cinematic experience of space and time.
You don’t just look at Richard’s work, you experience it. It is choreography and that is an elemental lesson that has deeply influenced the trajectory of our work. Looking at that empty space now, absent Richard’s sculpture, underscores the urgent, unfinished agenda of creatively leveraging infrastructure.
I should note that upon driving by that piece for the first time as a student visiting New York, I was completely seduced by the gravitational pull of that giant arc as I was exiting the Holland Tunnel. Distracted, I narrowly missed veering off the ramp, jumping the curb, and crashing my car. So thank you, Richard, for that early, visceral lesson in the relationship between dynamic and static forces.
Weight, density, shape, measure—nouns and verbs become interchangeable. Richard’s work questions the very nature of sculpture. Questions are asked and re-asked, tested and retested; material and spatial inquiries dance in a sculptural call-and-response that has remained vital for over four decades. And in questioning the fundamental nature of sculpture and its discipline, Richard’s work also brings into question the fundamental nature of architecture and its discipline. That is a great gift to sculpture, and a great gift to architecture.
Marion Weiss: I’ll fast forward now to 2005, when Michael and I were in the thick of completing the design of the Olympic Sculpture Park. Curatorial efforts were in full focus and the Seattle Art Museum let us know they were seriously considering the acquisition of a Richard Serra piece called Wake.
Like Michael, I had been a student of Serra’s writings, drawings, films, and interviews, and was moved by the undeniable material presence of his large scale sculpture. Seeing his Torqued Ellipses made me deeply aware that the subject of his work transcended definition—it was not about the steel, not about its image, but more about its irresistible invitation to walk though each work and become a part of its content.
With much anticipation, we visited his storage facility and saw that Wake barely cleared the concrete block walls. Ten sheets of curved steel, each 14 feet high and 47 feet long, joined to form five linear volumes that slipped like ships in formation. Visceral and present in storage, we wondered where in the sculpture park this very large work might thrive.
The elevated ridge was claimed by Calder’s Eagle, the Shore by Mark di Suvero’s work, leaving a swath of land near the street or a flat area near the train tracks. The inverted triangular volume we called the Valley was off limits, slated by the Museum for a core collection of early modernist works.
In advance of Richard’s visit to our office, members of the Museum prepared us with careful words, letting us know that Richard Serra would be passionate about the site of his work. We were also told—to put it delicately—that he was highly critical of sculpture parks in general, and had an even more selective appreciation of architects.
Richard arrived with senior members of the Museum, the Gagosian Gallery, and his instrumentally insightful wife Clara. Pleasantries were exchanged and we introduced the unfolding geometry of the design and potential locations for Wake. Richard listened carefully, looked intently at our model, and with great precision, identified the off-limits Valley as the only appropriate site for Wake. Further, he noted that walls might better define the site and that no other works of art should be located on the Valley floor.
Within less than an hour, Serra’s wheel not only turned, it made a complete revolution; his critique was seminal and illuminated the incredible clarity of his spatial insight. Today, Wake now has a valley of its own, framed by tapered concrete walls. Concave and convex, the sculpture invites participation rather than observation. Dynamic in form and meaning, every angle of approach offers a radically different experience, charging the thick Seattle mist with something intangibly linked to the grit of its industrial port.
So, Richard, we are honored to celebrate you this evening and all the paradoxes that you have illuminated: gravity and weightlessness, the infinite within the compressed, sure-footed inquiry and open-ended play, and also the gift of imperatives you have given us all: (perhaps additions to your Verb List) to look, to draw, to make, to be curious, to see, and, most importantly, to think.
Thank you, Richard, for giving us art of enduring consequence.