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Conflict of interests

Richard Serra Edited by Hal Foster with Gordon Hughes.MIT Press (October Files), 2000. 205pp. £13.95

Architects have a natural affinity for Richard Serra's work. Our response to his treatment of scale, his raw use of steel and the powerful presence his works have on their site, is much like an architectural experience.

The attraction, however, is not reciprocated. Although Serra is deeply influenced by architecture and respects the work of engineers, he has found architects difficult.

This book illuminates his apparent conflict.

It is a collection of six essays, all of which are reprints of articles from October magazine, published during the past 20 years.

These essays are classics in their own right - authors include Yve-Alain Bois, Rosalind Krauss and Hal Foster - and are eminently readable. October Files is the first of what promises to be an excellent series: not only will it allow wider access to what is otherwise a relatively academic journal, but it will be able to show how a critical discourse of a subject has developed over time - something that the 'nowness' of magazines cannot achieve. This series could truly bridge the gap between an academic and a general audience, without reduction to the lowest common denominator.

Serra's main contention with architects revolves around the critique of both site and power structures. Architects, or certainly the architects Serra has come into contact with, believe architecture can provide this critique, whereas Serra is adamant that only work such as his - work that is neither figurative nor image-based, that is nonfunctional and not commercial (all aspects he regards incompatible with architecture) - can do so.

This powerful sculptural role is exemplified by Tilted Arc; a 120ft long, 12ft high, 2.5 inches thick, arcing steel wall commissioned by the General Services Administration's art in architecture programme, for New York's Federal Plaza in 1981, which Douglas Crimp discusses in his essay, 'Redefining Site Specificity' (1986).

Tilted Arc held the site hostage, both physically and metaphorically. It forced people to walk around its gentle curve, blinkering their view, making them use and see the plaza in a different way. It confronted the axial, somewhat pompous, court buildings and divided the otherwise 'controllable' ordered square, to the obvious annoyance of some sections of the public.

To others it was beautiful; criticism, however, was heavy and quite extraordinary. The tilt on the arc, it was argued, could magnify the force of a bomb explosion, the wall could hide undesirable people and actions, and it was an obvious security threat - it certainly intimidated those with power.

This piece of torqued metal became a carbuncle with criminal intent, and after a venomous and lengthy court case it was destroyed. Architecture may sometimes be hated, but rarely provokes such an emotional and political response.

The most overtly architectural text is the most recent, 'The Un/making of Sculpture' (Hal Foster, 1998). Extending Kenneth Frampton's thesis, Foster suggests that tectonics is the common ground that architecture and sculpture share. This is hardly revolutionary, and reads more as a peace offering than a powerful new insight. While both disciplines do share tectonic concerns there is, sadly, a view that an over-emphasis of tectonics (as in highly crafted buildings) is an indulgence society does not want to afford.

Why build beautifully to last, when consumer culture demands constant change?

There is a much more obvious link between Serra's sculptures and architecture, and it is a theme that runs through all the essays. Movement, and how we experience through movement: this is what Serra's work is about, and what is so important for architecture too. In his process art (Krauss' subject), his films (Benjamin Buchloh's), and the physical and psychological effects of his large steel works (Bois' essay, 'A Picturesque Stroll around Clara-Clara'), we find the common ground.

The experience gained from Serra's sculpture is no different, in principle, to our experience of the built environment. We have to move, walk, respond - not rely on images or shallow promises. This collection of astute essays explores how Serra tackles those themes.

Sarah Jackson is an architect in London

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