“In the 19th century, enormous granite obelisks were transported from Egypt to be re-erected in Paris, London, and New York. Surely we could move the Chillida sculpture two blocks north,” MFAH director Gary Tinterow recalls thinking, at the outset.
Yes. But Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida’s monumental, 42-ton granite Song of Strength (Abesti Gogora V) asserted its resolute character throughout the entire process of being relocated from its original, 1966 placement on the Museum’s South Lawn to its new home—The Brown Foundation, Inc. Plaza in front of the reimagined Glassell School of Art building, designed by architect Steven Holl.
Initially, because of the work’s immense weight, the plan was to disassemble the parts of the sculpture, move them, and reassemble them on-site. But the granite forms were so tenaciously locked together that they defied dismantling.
So the engineering and art-handling team regrouped. Willard Holmes, the Museum’s chief operating officer; Dale Benson, the chief preparator; Winston Hesch of McCarthy Construction; and Chris Cozart of Cardno began to figure out how to move the sculpture as it wanted to be moved: in one piece. That would require, above all, stabilizing it. And that meant custom-building an immense steel cage and securing the piece with padding and rigging—a strategy that took almost a year to develop, and one made perilous by the possibility that any shift in weight could send fissures through the stone.
On Saturday morning, April 14, Chillida’s Song of Strength left the South Lawn, packed for the journey in its massive crate. The sculpture was lifted gently and shifted onto a grid of custom-built iron supports, then hoisted up and over to a waiting flatbed truck by an 800-ton crane. Chad Keeling, a trucker from Baytown whose oversize cargo usually comes from the oil-and-gas fields of East Texas, patiently steered the sculpture the half-mile up the street to the site of the new Glassell School, with a police escort and dozens of curious onlookers in tow. Keeling took a detour lap around Mecom Fountain to avoid scraping the heirloom live-oak trees overhanging Montrose Boulevard.
Finally, facilitated by the team of two dozen that included riggers, engineers, welders, and the Museum’s art-handling staff, Song of Strength was craned off of the truck once again, and lowered carefully into place.
Commissioned from Chillida by the MFAH, Song of Strength was installed on October 4, 1966, on the lawn in front of the Museum’s original, 1924 building. The creation of the piece was stewarded by then-director James Johnson Sweeney, a former Museum of Modern Art curator and Guggenheim Museum director who championed Chillida as “the foremost sculptor of his generation.”
The Chillida coup marked the culmination of Sweeney’s efforts toward establishing monumental public sculpture in Houston, installing “a major civic monument in a public place … critics and writers from all quarters of the country will be here to recognize and publicize its unique character as a civic monument.” And they did. Praise appeared immediately in Time magazine, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.
Sweeney once said that “Chillida’s art owed its essential character and quality to … a sense of the architectonic—that is, a basic feeling for architectural organization.” Chillida, who started out studying architecture, called himself “the architect of inner space,” referring to the play between the full and empty spaces of his work and communication between them.
Both references resonate even more with Song of Strength now installed on The Brown Foundation, Inc. Plaza in front of the new Glassell School of Art. As one writer had noted, “The solidity of the granite is lightened by the alternating rhythms of openings and voids that create a palpable interlace of presences and absences.” Those words could just as well describe Steven Holl’s vision for the facade of the Glassell School of Art, with its “porosity" and its "rhythm of verticals and slight angles.”
The new Glassell School of Art and The Brown Foundation, Inc. Plaza open to the public on May 20. Learn more.