Dakota Datebook

Tall Tower Three

Friday, December 10, 2004

We’ve spent the last two days talking about the highest and second highest land-based, man-made structures in the world – both of them are in North Dakota: the KVLY tower near Blanchard and the KXJB tower near Galesburg. Today we bring you the story of another tower that was planned for the state but never happened. This mythical tower was the brainchild of internationally acclaimed artist, Siah Armajani. Armajani is Persian by birth; he was born in Iran in 1939. He came to the US in 1960, became a naturalized citizen and lives in Minneapolis.

It may seem unusual for somebody to study philosophy and mathematical theory, but not for a man like Armajani; he is a man who appears to see things in life as a possible artistic – but also practical – experience.

Since 1967, Armajani has built bridges, houses, reading gardens, towers and sculptures that combine architecture and design with text and lines of poetry. He is probably best known for the Olympic Cauldron, Tower, and Bridge he designed for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He also built an elegant bridge in Minneapolis that spans a 16-lane freeway to link the Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden with Loring Park.

Art historian Hans Ulrich Reck writes, “In this work we can see some essential features of his way of working: art, he believes, needs to be included in…everyday life and in the discourse of ordinary activity. Armajani’s art is not based on the notion of the creative individual. His work is context-oriented; (an) interpretation of the individual features of a particular local geography.”

For example, Reck describes a “reading house” that Armajani built at Lake Placid in 1979. “Before he built the reading house,” Reck writes, “Armajani brought furniture onto the site, tested the positions of objects and lighting conditions, tried out a variety of possibilities. The reading house was designed so (it wouldn’t) need external electrical connections and therefore had to be built as a consistent set of actions from the inside out.

“Armajani’s basic conviction is simple, but not so easily carried out: art has to be useful. But the claim of a work of art to be ‘useful’ is only justified if it is also ‘public art’. For it must be created from the lifestyles, the traditions and the geography of a particular place and a particular time…”

Reck gives an example of two Armajani bridges built in Seattle in 1983, which incorporate texts from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. As you cross these bridges, you can read Captain Ahab’s words about seafaring – which he spoke from a different bridge – the bridge of his ship.

Some of Armajani’s ideas were so large and powerful that they can’t be carried out – at least not yet. For instance, in 1972 he used complex computer programs to do calculations for building a sound chamber that would work from inside the Italian volcano, Mt. Vesuvius. He wanted to capture the dull rumbling of the erupting volcano while using the wind for background noise.

Another impossible project was planned for North Dakota. In 1968, Armajani came up with the idea of building a tower in the Red River Valley. He wanted it to be high enough so that, at dawn, it cast a shadow so long it would extend across the entire state. He was so taken by the concept that he worked out the scientific calculations. Reportedly, the tower would have been 18 miles high and 2 miles across at the top.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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