Arnaldo Pomodoro – Inspiring Architecture in Relief

Discussing the work of this influential sculptor

Fill a room full of designers and empower them to brainstorm for their own new studio space, and the sky’s the limit. It’s when our soaring visions collide with the cold, hard reality of budget constraints that we’re faced with the choice to dismiss the vision altogether, or pursue a clever solution. My colleagues and I were presented with precisely this assignment just a few months ago. Encouraged by the adage that limited funds should not deter a great idea, we set-to and mined books, the internet, and our own collective memory for inspiration. Ideas abounded! Some were feasible, others were pipedreams. But surely a truly brilliant design can still be brilliant on the page, even if it is never realised in bricks and mortar (…or should I say, “glass and cable net”?)

After much deliberation is was determined that the centre piece of our future office would be a timber crafted theatrette that links two office floors and introduces a light well into the middle of space. When complete, this intimate auditorium will incorporate stairs and tiered seating for workshops and presentations and become the primary destination in our new studio. Whilst this particular space has been the focus of our creative efforts, there are still opportunities to design moments of delight into other nooks and crannies of the studio. I’d like to share here just one idea we’ve explored for a feature artwork in the entry way…

A powerful message

This idea takes for its muse the work of Italian sculptor and jewellery designer Arnaldo Pomodoro, born 1926. Whilst he’s hardly a household name, you can appreciate his calibre when you consider that his works stand before renowned institutions including the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, Trinity College in Dublin, and the Vatican Museum. Pomodoro is best known for his “Sphere-Within-Sphere” series, a collection of striking bronze sculptures, their smooth surfaces broken by deep, geometric cut-outs revealing a second sphere inside. I’ve read that these works were intended to be representative of the coming of the new millennium. Metaphorically, they suggest rebirth or the possibility of a new world coming… a world less troubled then our present one. Look for yourself! What do you think?

Sphere-Within-Sphere bronze sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro, Vatican City

‘Sphere-Within-Sphere’ bronze sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro, Vatican City

Pomodoro the stage-designer, goldsmith and provocateur

Pomodoro had a diverse training, and multiple influences are apparent in his work. His early experience as a stage-designer and goldsmith perhaps explains his preference for semi-precious metals and theatrical volumes. He began to explore sculpture on moving to Milan where he met fellow artist Lucio Fontana. You could easily draw comparison between Fontana’s Concetto spaziale natura (1959) and Pomodoro’s Sphere-Within-Sphere works. It’s interesting to see how one artist can encourage another, and how a good idea can have a life beyond its original context.

Concetto spaziale natura by Lucio Fontana 1959 - The Hoge Veluwe National Park, the Netherlands

‘Concetto spaziale natura’ by Lucio Fontana 1959 – The Hoge Veluwe National Park, the Netherlands

I’m no art critic, but my guess would be that Pomodoro intended to provoke a reaction by interrupting the perfectly smooth and shiny metal surface of his spheres with disorderly – almost savage – abrasions that invite the viewer to touch and explore. This interaction would surely please Pomodoro who himself said, “I like to see people lean their bicycles on the sculpture, and pigeons come to rest.” There is a scene in Roman Holiday, the much loved 1953 film, where Audrey Hepburn is enticed to place her hand in La Bocca della Verità (Mouth of Truth), a simple marble carving of the face of a man. Legend has it that anyone who lied with their hand placed in the mouth would have it bitten off. Yes, it’s superstition. But the tradition that has evolved compels visitors to physically engage with the image…perhaps with tragic consequences!

Sphere-Within-Sphere by Arnaldo Pomodoro University of California, Berkeley, USA

Sphere-Within-Sphere’ by Arnaldo Pomodoro University of California, Berkeley, USA

Grande Disco

My favourite piece from Pomodoro’s repertoire is a giant, disc-shaped sculpture in gilded bronze that stands in the middle of the Piazza Filippo Meda in Milan. There are several reasons why I like it. Firstly, I love the material. I love how the bronze has aged differently in the cavities than it has on the surface. It has a beautiful natural patina now. The situation of the sculpture is also very appealing, holding court – so to speak – in the middle of a grassed plaza before the stately Banca Popolare di Milano…the glistening artwork stands in striking contrast to the old, stone buildings surrounding it. But foremost I like this work because I imagine that I see in Pomodoro’s trademark abrasions a plan of city streets and lanes. It’s almost as if the artist has etched into its skin a map revealing the future address of the sculpture. It’s very geographic. And did I mention that this sculpture rotates? Who doesn’t like a giant rotating disc?!

Grande Disco, left, and close up view, right, by Arnaldo Pomodoro, Piazza Filippo Meda, Milan, Italy

‘Grande Disco’ , left, and close up view, right, by Arnaldo Pomodoro, Piazza Filippo Meda, Milan, Italy

The language of the materials

The appeal of Pomodoro’s work is partly the beauty of the bronze. The natural patina of the material has a life all its own. But more significantly, the intrigue lies in the peaks and troughs created in the object…could it be a city skyline, or a map, or a façade detail that is revealed behind the smooth and shiny surface? This prompted me to explore the idea of representing an architectural design in relief. Zaha Hadid did it for her 2007 Conceptual Paper exhibition at Arndt & Partner gallery in Zurich. The restrained use of simple white card draws attention to the voids and volumes of her represented buildings. It makes a lot of sense to use a three dimensional technique to represent a building, and Hadid’s relief panels successfully convey the spatial quality of her buildings without needing to be a literal representation.

I love the idea of using an architectural material to convey an architectural idea. In our new studio, I can picture a floor-to-ceiling tableau in weathered brass, with a section…or a city map…or an abstract design cut in relief. It could be a reinterpretation of a traditional architectural drawing, but one that could be explored with your fingers and would draw you in for a closer inspection. A little tribute Mr Pomodoro’s beautiful expressions of a new world coming.

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