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sharp angles

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Dennis Sharp claims that concrete art has been given a new life with the form-generating qualities of concrete bringing recent architecture, engineering and sculpture closer together

Walking along the shore of Lake Trasimeno in Umbria this summer I came across a great circle of modern sculpted figures. Many were in poured or shaped concrete. The group, commissioned some time ago, consists of an extensive 'Solar' circle of standing forms created by international artists. Sited amongst Italy's most famous olive groves, the whole ensemble exerts a strong local presence in the way it defines a public space in an outstandingly beautiful place.

The quality of the pieces varies of course, but one work stands out. It is by the Milanese sculptor and environmental artist Francesco Somaini. He has created an evocative timeless figure on the edge of the lake struggling to force her way out between the shards of a huge split column that encloses her naked shape. Somaini's earlier work, mainly in metal and polyester, which was published in the aa Quarterly (1982) showed a more relentless - and restless - interest in abstraction and artistic urban interventions reflecting the current trends in architectural form giving.

This was the time prior to a new expressive and form-making period which developed rapidly through the use of the drafting computer. Before, that is, the experiments and exercises of Eisenman, Johnson, Gehry and Santiago Calatrava in sculptural, organic and dynamic forms.

Indeed, of these architects Calatrava brought about a revolution in form creation for architects, artists and engineers through examples of his work in all three fields. This fact he underlined in his acceptance speech last month in London on receipt of the Concrete Society's Millennial Medal when he spoke of concrete's supportive role and its historic and current form-giving potential.

Like his art-world contemporaries, Calatrava seeks to find inspiration from nature and movement. Recently he has built up a whole new body of sculptures but his earlier design for a roof for the Swissbau Trade Exhibition, Basle set the scene. It was made up of mobile concrete roof elements creating a flowing wave movement. Later shown in New York's Museum of Modern Art, it formed a link between art and architecture in a city that had earlier thrilled to both Frederick Kiesler's sculptural 'Endless' designs and Paolo Soleri's concrete city shapes.

So where is the relationship between architecture and sculpture going? The direction is certainly confused. We now have a situation where critics argue that Gehry's Guggenheim Museum or Calatrava's new airport both in Bilbao, Johnson's new gate house in New Canaan or Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin are more sculpture than architecture. At present there are no exhibits in the Berlin Museum and critics have suggested that Gehry disposes of the art in Bilbao to leave his own metal-covered shell as a piece of sculpture in its own right.

Perhaps the last word on this subject should be left to the nonagenarian architect Philip Johnson. As a living architectural icon of the century he should know. Throughout his lifetime he has been absorbed with the form-giving ideas of other people but has stamped out many of his own, including his first major sculptures with the Wiener Trio (1995-96). 'Now I am doing sculpture and I call it architecture,' Johnson said recently. So do many other architects.

Routledge will publish a new and revised edition of Dennis Sharp's monograph on Santiago Calatrava next year.

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