I discovered Katarzyna Kobro’s work via an essay by Yve-Alain Bois.* Having been interested in De Stijl there was an immediate attraction to the abstract forms and use of primary colours in one of her most well-known work. However, what I learned about and experienced in her work far exceeded the superficial visual similarity. Her sculptures were among the earliest to do away with the pedestal which acts to separate the sculpture from the space of the viewer and render the sculpture ‘pictorial’ – that is, something separate in the world, to be looked at ‘at a distance’, as in a picture. One could say the pedestal makes the space a sculpture occupies virtual as in the painted spaces of a canvas. This is quite radical given that she was producing these sculptures in the 1920s, however, more radical is her understanding of space and what it meant for her sculpture. I had the chance to see Space Composition 4 (1929) at the Pompidou, almost by accident, and observed the following: The nature of the planes and the way the colour is applied meant that you automatically circled the piece, trying to figure it out or put it together in your head. The photographs almost capture the effect – the white planes appear as voids rather than as opacities when seen against other coloured planes. Voids, against a white background, in turn assume the character of planes. All the while the composition evolved as you walked around the work, seeing spaces, places and forms emerge and dissolve.
“The spatiotemporality of the work of art is related to its variability. We call spatiotemporal the spatial changes produced in time. Those variations are functions of the third dimension, of depth, which although momentarily hidden, nevertheless reveals its existence while transforming the appearance of the work of art, the appearance of each form, in creating variability; when the spectator moves, certain forms present themselves, others hide; the perception of these forms changes constantly.”
What is critical about this is the irresistible urge to move around the sculpture – it is produced by the sculpture. And, yet, it is not in order to ‘see’ or ‘complete’ a figurative image (a depicted object). You realise after a while that the sculpture includes the movement, the dance, around the sculpture itself, and as such involves the space you are both in, shared, in the work of art. Kobro wrote about “transforming depth into breadth”, or as Bois put it “to render visible that invisible object which is depth.” Kobro suggested that when we peer into space depth is hidden, we can only infer it. Therefore, to make something truly spatial it is not enough to make it in three dimensions but to make such that it stimulates the movement that ‘transforms depth into breadth’. Movement becomes what spatializes a work of art. But it is also what spatializes architecture. And it is this realisation, incredibly simple and very succinctly put, that popped the illusions of architecture like a tired carnival balloon. So much energy goes into the two dimensional composing of plans, elevations, sections, and even models (when all too often designed pictorially) while all the while banging on about space and spatiality.
Kobro and her partner, Vladyslaw Strzeminski, a painter, ventured some thoughts on architecture which still strike me as the clearest and most important statements about architecture ever written:
The elements of architecture are:
1. a) places where a man stops during any activity;
b) motion when he passes from one activity to another.
2. The aim of architecture is an organisation of the rhythm of consecutive motions and stops, and thereby the forming of the whole of life.
3. The final goal of architecture is not the building of convenient houses; it is also not the blowing up of abstract sculptures and calling them exhibition pavilions. Its aim is: to be a regulator of the rhythm of social and individual life. Strzeminski, 1931
“The union of man and space is the action of man in that space. We come to know space through our actions. The vectors traced by the actions of man in space are: the vertical station of man and every object, the horizontal of the environment that he encounters on both sides, and the depth, before him, of forward movement.” Kobro, 1931
These are fascinating in that they demonstrate that we did not need postmodernism to make us realise that inhabitation, agency and actions in space are critical aspects of design and the built environment. Kobro proposes a way of thinking about architecture through inhabitation, through routine, activity, in short, through acts of living, while also critiquing the dominance of the visual, the pictorial and the monumental in the spatial arts. And they did this as modernists, utopians even – those same two characterisations that were so demonised for their abstract formalism and autonomous and detached ways of thinking about objects, space and society.