Siah Armajani was born into a highly educated and cultured Christian family in Tehran. He was educated at a Presbyterian missionary school, where he thrived in his studies of Western philosophers such as Socrates, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.1 It was there that he received his first lessons in American history as well. He recalls, “When I was in high school in Iran, one of my teachers was very familiar with American philosophers, especially Emerson, who had translated Hafez, the great Persian Sufi poet, from German into English, which earned him a special place in Persian literature. That teacher knew a lot about Jefferson and Adams, and instilled in me a passion for democracy.”2 Yahya Armajani, the artist’s paternal uncle, who was already in the United States teaching history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, recognized Siah’s intellectual curiosity and encouraged his nephew to join him. The younger Armajani immigrated to the United States in 1960 and took classes in mathematics while majoring in philosophy. This course of study reacquainted him with the work of Emerson, who, according to the artist, “underlined the excitement, the unpredictable madness of America in terms of daily life. Unpredictable because the past is forgotten intentionally; Emerson wanted to break away from Europe intellectually and to develop a truly American context. This led to pragmatism rather than metaphysics, to anthropology rather than philosophy—to John Dewey’s insistence that all ideas be tested according to their applicability to life.”3
Emerson’s words continued to inspire Armajani as he searched for a way to bring his political and social consciousness in line with his lifelong dream of being an artist. He set up a studio in downtown Minneapolis and continued producing paintings in the same vein that he had in college. Prayer (1962), which Armajani completed prior to graduation, was included in the Walker Art Center’s 1962 Biennial of Painting and Sculpture and entered the collection that same year.4 Despite his inclination toward all things American in his studies at the time, Armajani retains in this work a vestige of his Iranian heritage and native language, Persian Farsi, which he continues to speak and write fluently.5 He selected poems from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, including the works of Sufi writers Rumi and Hafez, and transcribed them by hand in black ink onto the canvas. By including only excerpts and sentence fragments from these poems, he severely restricted the narrative flow, rendering it virtually unreadable, and in so doing, accentuated the all-over, cumulous pattern. Created in the abstract idiom of the time but with text instead of expressive gestures, the work connects the past to the present and the literary to the visual, thereby bridging the gap between cultures and time periods. The artist’s use of text as image also reflects the widespread practice in Islamic art and architecture of including Koranic quotations as integral decorative and thematic elements rather than incorporating figural embellishments, which are considered profane.
In conjunction with his ongoing, autodidactic studies of American history and populist ideologies, Armajani had also begun educating himself in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American building techniques of anonymous structures, such as log cabins, barns, covered bridges, shingle-style schoolhouses, Quaker reading rooms, and other vernacular forms. This background, coupled with his interest in the socially relevant and utopian art of the early twentieth-century Russian Constructivist and Suprematist movements, helped him clarify his focus toward public art and his commitment to democratic ideals. Over the course of his career, Armajani would go on to build pragmatic structures out of wood and metal, including bridges, houses, reading rooms, and various other indoor and outdoor dwellings (both ephemeral and permanent) as well as freestanding sculpture. Not interested in building monuments to his ego or anyone else’s, he unequivocally states, “I am interested in the nobility of usefulness. My intention is to build open, available, useful, common, public gathering places. Gathering places that are neighborly. They are not conceived in terms of wood and steel, but in terms of their nature as places at hand, ready to be used.”6
His first forays into sculpture came with the creation of bridges, some intended to exist only as models, others as temporary constructions or large-scale, permanent installations. Bridge for Robert Venturi (1970), in the Walker’s collection, is one of many nonutilitarian bridge models that he fabricated out of balsa wood between 1968 and 1975.7 Typical of his early Limit Bridges series, none of which were produced full scale, the primary function as a thoroughfare is rendered defunct by structural blockages and bisections. By placing the bridge entrances at the midsection rather than at either end and creating steep inclines in both directions, Armajani frustrates viewers’ expectations of normative passage and challenges preconceived notions about the role of architecture in the built environment.
This and other architectural projects ultimately led to one of Armajani’s most important commissions, the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge, which opened to pedestrian foot traffic in September 1988.8 This 375-foot steel-truss construction—a combination of suspension, arched, and closed steel trestle bridge types—spans fifteen lanes of traffic to connect the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden with the urban oasis of Loring Park. The bridge has become an icon for the city as well as a metaphor for the peaceful coexistence of the diverse backgrounds and interests of the population. Armajani collaborated with then-director Martin Friedman, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Minneapolis Park Board, and countless engineers and steelworkers to bring the project to fruition. The bicolor treatment of the bridge’s armature was the artist’s antidote to the harsh midwestern weather and a nod to one of Armajani’s architect-heroes of old, Thomas Jefferson: “The yellow is from Monticello. Jefferson called it the color of wheat, of the harvest, but it is also the color of happiness. The blue is just—well, the sky. Minneapolis has these long, gray winters, so I felt that colors should be light.”9 Armajani has long integrated poetry into his sculptural compositions, and this project was no exception. He commissioned New York School poet John Ashbery to compose an original work that could be read by pedestrians traversing the bridge. Upon its completion, Friedman aptly described Armajani’s masterpiece as “a symbol of serenity as well as transition.”10
Since 2000, Armajani has expanded his repertoire of materials to include glass and plexiglass, and in so doing has been able to capitalize on the metaphoric possibilities of transparency, fragility, metamorphosis, and transcendence.11 Enigmatic, yet literally and conceptually accessible, Glass Room (2000) is a contemplative space set on wagon wheels that incorporates many of the artist’s familiar sculptural forms borrowed from domestic architecture—an aluminum-frame Dutch door opens onto an ethereal chamber containing a bronze folding cot and an oversized chair of slatted wood. In addition, a model of a nineteenth-century American clapboard house rests on a platform projecting out from one of the exterior walls. The notion of flexible and mobile architecture is contained in the glass metaphor, where forms are not fixed and measurable. With this piece, Armajani has succeeded in his mission to provide an environment that is at once “open, available, and useful,” encouraging us to enter, sit, and contemplate.
For more information on the artist’s biography, see Calvin Tomkins, “Profiles: Open, Available, Useful—Siah Armajani,” New Yorker, March 19, 1990, 48–72. ↩
Quoted in Martin Filler, “Designed to Bridge Two Cultures, Two Arts,” New York Times, November 17, 2002, 36. ↩
Tomkins, “Profiles,” 53. ↩
This acquisition ushered in what would become a major institutional commitment on the Walker’s part to the collection and exhibition of Armajani’s work early in his career, and for more than four decades. Important early group shows included 9 Artists/9 Spaces (1970), in which the artist was commissioned to create Covered Foot Bridge (1970), often referred to as “Bridge Over a Nice Triangle Tree,” in the empty lot of what would become the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden; Works for New Spaces (1971); and Scale and Environment: 10 Sculptors (1977), which included numerous bridge and house pieces. ↩
In a conversation with the author on December 4, 2001, Armajani explained that Persian calligraphy uses the same alphabet as Arabic but has its own peculiar sensibility that might be missed by Western readers. ↩
Quoted in Tomkins, “Profiles,” 49. ↩
This work was dedicated to American architect Robert Venturi, whose book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966) was an important influence on Armajani’s burgeoning artistic practice. A champion of vernacular architecture, Venturi rejected the monolithic and austere forms found in modernist architecture in favor of structures that retain a historical sensibility. ↩
The bridge was a gift of the family of Irene Hixon Whitney to the citizens of Minneapolis, and it is owned and maintained by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Although not part of the Walker’s collection, it is a major component of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. ↩
Quoted in Tomkins, “Profiles,” 48. ↩
Martin Friedman, “Growing the Garden,” Design Quarterly 141 (1988): 15. ↩
Armajani has acknowledged that his glass works have been influenced by architect Bruno Taut’s Glass House (1914/1915) and an article written by architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter entitled “The Interpretation of the Glass Dream—Expressionist Architecture and the History of the Crystal Metaphor,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 40, no. 1 (March 1981): 20–43. ↩