Figuratively speaking: Barry Svigals reunites art and architecture

Hank Hoffman

Barry Svigals. Image courtesy of Svigals + Partners

Barry Svigals’ Erector Square studio is modest and functional. Big windows invite a warming wash of early spring sunlight. Gestural figure drawings and face sketches on paper are tacked to walls, rendered in playful rainbows of pastel and crayon colors. A maquette for a sculpture integral to an architectural commission from Albertus Magnus College stands in one corner.

But for Svigals, an architect and sculptor, this high-ceilinged room is not an isolated garret of creativity. Rather — in keeping with his philosophical approach to architecture and art — working in his studio is something he sees “as interpenetrating with the current that runs through all life, the current of our vitality that’s awakened in the act of creativity.”

Referencing educator Sir Ken Robinson, who said at a 2006 Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference that “creativity now is as important in education as literacy,” Svigals asserts that creativity “is the engine of our future economic lives as well as social and political.”

This valorization of creativity is intrinsic to Svigals’ work as an architect and to the work of his firm, Svigals + Partners, founded in 1983. In 2007, Svigals was elevated to the College of Fellows (FAIA) of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for his commitment to reinvigorating the tradition of integrating sculptural ornamentation — and particularly figurative sculpture — into architectural designs. Svigals often works on the sculptures himself, saying, “From the beginning I put sculpture in the architecture because I loved to sculpt and I saw them as being connected.”

Among the signature projects Svigals has completed are additions to the twin buildings of the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, the Albertus Magnus College Center for Science, Art, and Technology, and the Wallace E. Carroll School of Management at Boston College. Sculpture in various guises enlivens the several school projects that Svigals’ firm has completed in New Haven. In each case, sculpture complements and expresses the building’s narrative.

A political science major at Yale University, Svigals says he discovered architecture after graduating “literally as satori, a Japanese word for ‘kick in the eye.’”

He recalls sitting in a class at Boston Architectural Center and “recognizing what was being done, what the whole thing was. They were making places, making things that had space in them, that had form, an inside and an outside. It was not like sculpture. It was space in form and form in space. And there was a process that got you there of talking to people, finding out things, a very gregarious process. And being a kind of gregarious guy, I loved that aspect of it. I got all that within the space of 15 minutes. I grokked it, as Heinlein would say.”

Undeterred by the fact that he had no portfolio — he had taken some art and sculpture courses as an undergraduate “but didn’t think much about it” — he attended and graduated from the prestigious Yale University School of Architecture. He worked for a number of years doing architecture at the firm of Herbert S. Newman, whom Svigals terms “a wonderful architect, great teacher, and elegant human being.”

At the insistence of his wife that before they have children they needed to live in a different place, he took a sabbatical and spent a year in Paris. Despite fears that the interruption would “ruin” his nascent career, it turned out precisely the opposite. He met Maurice Calka, “one of the last great professors of figurative sculpture. I managed to wheedle my way into his atelier and did sculpture 24/7.” He was entranced by the sculpture on the buildings of Paris, and particularly its figurative expression in the faces of gargoyles. After a year, Svigals and his wife returned to New Haven. He rejoined Newman Architects but eventually formed his own firm in 1983.

Sculpture had been part of architecture for centuries. This partnership was severed by the Modernist movement, which eschewed ornamentation. But, Svigals says, “What was not diminished was peoples’ interest” in figurative sculpture as part of architecture.

“When it appears in any setting — architectural or otherwise — people find it interesting. It’s a reflection of who we are — whether true or untrue, whether ironic, sarcastic, or revelatory,” says Svigals. “We are searching for ourselves. Somehow we recognize that we’ve been disconnected. Sculpture, in a small way or maybe not such a small way, is a connecting force to that search for self. It has a vitalizing force, an enlivening force.”

This is true whether the project is for an educational, corporate, or scientific client, argues Svigals.

“I like to think there isn’t any project that wouldn’t be enlivened by this. Creativity is important for any endeavor. How could it not be? The problem is that we’ve marginalized what art is, what it’s for, or where it should appear. Why not appear in a laboratory where creative things happen all the time?”

Of course, one way of accomplishing this is to just put art on the walls. But Svigals feels “a more powerful way is to conceive art from the very beginning as part of the architecture.” From a project’s inception, Svigals and his partners search for ways to incorporate art into the buildings on both metaphorical and structural levels, and, according to Svigals, in both “traditional and contemporary ways.”

One traditional way is to include a caryatid, a figure that functions as a support column. The maquette in the corner of Svigals’ studio was for a statue of St. Albert the Great, namesake of Albertus Magnus College. Designed by Svigals for the Albertus Magnus College Center for Science, Art, and Technology building, the actual caryatid stands almost 10 feet tall, a support column for the Center’s entrance. Unlike most caryatids, the figure is in motion, walking.

“The sculpture is of a piece with the architecture. You literally could not take it away. And you also wouldn’t want to take it away. You would miss it,” says Svigals. “Albert was an extraordinary individual who brought contemplative life to the world. He was a pillar of the church who moved it out into the world. The architecture and sculpture are evocative and expressive of that.”

The brightly colored and playfully abstract caryatid supporting the entrance canopy at the L.W. Beecher Museum School of Arts and Sciences in New Haven depicts a figure blowing a horn. The symbolism, like the purpose of the sculpture, is two-fold. The figure could be Gideon calling the children to school or the Pied Piper of Hamelin leading them astray should the educational system fail them.

Cost can obviously be a consideration. Svigals says it is important for architects to think strategically, conceptualize different ways an idea can be realized. For friezes intended for an addition to the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education building, the idea was to combine letters with walking figures to symbolize the concept of an active learning community. But, according to Svigals, they couldn’t afford to create molds for all 26 letters. One of his collaborators, University of Connecticut graphic design professor Randall Hoyt, suggested just using 12 letters.

“I said, ‘What 12 letters?’ The 12 in ‘University of Connecticut.’ Suddenly, instead of being a problem, it becomes a meaningful aspect of why those 12 letters,” Svigals recalls.

In an article in the Hotchkiss School alumni magazine, Svigals — a 1966 Hotchkiss graduate — opines that the integration of sculpture and figurative art into building projects gives “poetic voice to a school or college’s mission while providing evidence of the human touch largely absent in contemporary architecture.” The latter clause is particularly telling. His work, and the work of his firm, is both an embrace of an older tradition and a reaction against the coldness of much modern architecture. But rather than being reactionary, it reflects a synthesis of the humanity of the old with the freshness of the new.

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