Anish Kapoor | icon 002 | May 2003

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photo: David Levene photo: David Levene photo: David Levene
words Marcus Fairs

Anish Kapoor has never heard anything like it. He has been asked by the city of Naples to design a new underground station - a complex piece of infrastructure that is usually the preserve of architects and engineers. "They're mad," he chuckles. "It's folly! They don't know what they've let themselves in for, ha ha! But it's wonderful; I can't imagine anything better than doing a tube station."

Artists are no strangers to architectural projects - Anthony Caro worked with Norman Foster on the Millennium Bridge in London, and Kapoor himself has collaborated with Foster, John McAslan and Richard MacCormac among others. However, most of these projects have involved creating sculptures to occupy or respond to architectural space.

Naples is different: the station itself will be a work of art. Kapoor cannot think of another instance when an artist has been asked to design such an important building alone, and he laughs at the absurdity of the proposition. "I'm an artist, not a bloody architect! I don't want to be an architect; I really don't."

Yet in recent years the work of Kapoor, one of the world's greatest living sculptors, has become increasingly architectural in scale, if not in content. In the summer of 1999, his monumental work Taratantara - a 50m-long, double-ended trumpet of stretched red PVC - occupied the hulk of the Baltic flour mill at Gateshead. Even larger was the 155m-long Marsyas installation, which graced the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall until last month, while a major work for a new park in central Chicago - a giant "drop of mercury" fabricated in mirror-finished stainless steel - will be 25m long and higher than a house.

"But you see these are not buildings," Kapoor says. "They are toying with form at architectural scale but they are not buildings. I loathe making anything practical whatsoever. The funny thing about art is that it's useless. It doesn't do anything. That's very important, ha ha!" At Naples, Kapoor will be denied the luxury of producing something useless, but he is untroubled. "It's a work of art that happens to be a tube station," he explains. "Not the other way around. It's really a sculpture that you enter."

Kapoor admits that he was reluctant to take on the project at first. He changed his mind, he says, once he saw for himself how seriously the Neapolitans take their art. The city is expanding its underground system and has already built a string of new stations. "They've invited artists to, so to speak, decorate them," he says. "There are some major works inside the stations, and the respect with which the station art is held astounds me. Naples is a rough, tough city of two million and I'm amazed that there's no graffiti. Incredible! Astounding! It wouldn't last ten minutes in London."

Realising that he couldn't handle the project alone, he asked London architect Future Systems to work with him. He had already collaborated with the practice on a couple of unrealised schemes, including competition entries for the Diana, Princess of Wales memorial in Kensington Gardens and the South Bank Centre, and says that he was keen to bring at least one collaboration to fruition.

Early models of the Naples project show hollow mounds erupting at street level; inside, rough-walled tunnels painted in rich hues plunge towards the bowels of the earth. The idea is to transform the mundane journey between the surface and the platforms into a metaphysical voyage into the underworld.

"In most situations where one is going underground, [architects] seem to propose that there is some kind of palace of the sky; a palace of glass and light. What we're trying to do is the opposite. We want to acknowledge that it is underground - a journey into the world of Dante. Rather than into the light at the end of the cave, it's a journey into the back of the cave. And if one acknowledges that, then maybe the experience of passage, of moving through, of travelling, can also be one of art. Definitely not architecture!"

Metaphysical polarities - dark and light, presence and absence, solid and intangible - are the themes of much of Kapoor's work. His sculptures often instill a sense of disorientation in the viewer: concave reflective surfaces that distort the surrounding world; seemingly bottomless chasms carved into blocks of stone or excavated from gallery floors.

However, a mass transit system requires a rigorously functional approach that would seem to be at odds with Kapoor's artistic intentions. "It has to be hugely practical, with the number of people that will be going through," he concedes. "But it seems to me one can retain both the aesthetic purity of the idea and the need for it to be practical. I've insisted that, as part of the brief, the visual integrity of the thing has to hold true. Yes, we will have escalators going down into these holes, but we're trying to make the escalators in such a way that they are self-evidently what happens; what I'd like in a way is a bog standard, straightforward escalator access. As easy as it could be; not something that's specifically designed for the situation."

Kapoor's studio occupies three industrial sheds in Camberwell, South London. It has the feel of a light-engineering workshop: technicians wearing lab coats and respirators work away on vast metal and fibreglass forms, and the din of angle-grinders fills the air. Kapoor takes me on a tour of the sprawling works, stopping occasionally to play with models of some of his latest commissions. One, to go inside an old cinema in Italy, features two spiralling walls that entwine like Yin and Yang symbols. Kapoor flicks a switch on the back of the model but nothing happens. "We'll come back to it when it's warmed up," he says. About an hour later, he remembers the model with a start. We dash back to the workshop where the model is now engulfed in a smoky fug. "Look, look!" he says, adjusting another switch which controls a tiny fan inside. Gradually the smoke cloud reforms itself into a twisting column stretching from the roof of the cinema to the floor. The mini tornado dances in the void between the spiral walls and the effect is quite beautiful. "It's a crazy idea, crazy," laughs Kapoor.

Kapoor, 49, is the opposite of the brooding artist that one might have expected. He laughs constantly, swears liberally and lightens his artistic theorising with playful anecdotes. Like the time he showed Frank Gehry his plans for Naples: "I had dinner with Frank and he did a little benediction on me and said: 'I now declare you an architect.' " What was your response to that? "Fuck off! Ha ha!" His light-heartedness surprises me, I tell him. "Well that's your fantasy; that artists need to be dark and brooding," he responds. "I don't know what to say to that. It's as if modernism was able to sweep away many myths, many 19th-century ideas about what it means to be an artist, but there are two it has not been able to sweep away. One is this idea of the artist as some romantic figure who is somewhat bohemian. Crap, crap, crap! I'm not bohemian; I'm terribly ordinary. And the other myth is that art is born out of pain. It is not. I'm sure that the best art - and maybe that's a very Eastern thing - is born out of joy. So phooey to that!"

Kapoor was born in Bombay to a Hindu father and a Jewish mother. After a boarding-school education in India, he spent a few years in Israel before coming to London in 1973 to study art, and by the late 1970s he had established himself as an artist to watch. He represented Britain at the 1990 Venice biennale and won the Turner Prize the following year.

His Indian upbringing provided much of the inspiration for his work - he cites the great Moghul observatories at Delhi and Jaipur and the intense colours of the subcontinent - although he says it was only later that he realised the significance of these memories. "I went back to India and realised all those things I'd been proposing were part of my cultural memory. And that was a great awakening."

From the start, architecture has informed Kapoor's art. "My inspiration as an artist from as early as I can remember has been symbolic architecture. Perhaps some of the most deeply philosophically coherent objects of all time are buildings; not objects, not sculptures. It is something to do with the symbolic. To do with the fact that when a form is isolated from its need to function, it can take the role of something that is metaphysical. Whether it's the Juntar Muntar [observatories] in India, or early mosques like the one at Samara [in Iraq], or the pyramids, there are two things that come together. One is the ritual procession that those structures seem to describe, evoke, even prescribe. And the other is that they define themselves with a certain self-evident gestalt. What they seem to say is that if you look at the object from here, or if you look at the object from there, it's the same object. It doesn't give you partial views of itself. It's as if one view is all. There's something iconic about that. I've always made objects, even now, that are frontal. There's a front to them and that's all there is to them. You may experience them as three-dimensional but in fact they're kind of singular."

Kapoor also admires the vernacular honesty of uncontrived buildings such as Second World War air-raid shelters and 19th-century factories; structures he describes as "self-evident". Yet he claims to despise buildings or objects that are styled and declares himself emphatically opposed to the self-conscious act of design. "I don't believe in design. I think the best design occurs without being designed." Curiously, though, he has a collection of highly styled 20th-century chairs in the library at his studio, including Marc Newson's Embryo and George Nelson's Coconut Chair. Odd things to have, given his distaste for styling? "Ha ha ha! Well there you go!"

Rather than being a process of design, Kapoor's approach to form-making is, he says, a quest to discover "content". The process is intuitive: "You cannot intellectually discover a content. It's in some mysterious interplay with material, with form, with scale; somewhere, perhaps, a content emerges. It's about having the intelligence to hold it, work with it, help it grow and let it help you grow. And I feel that's what the real work is: to discover a content. The rest is peripheral."

According to Kapoor, the great tradition of loading buildings with symbolic content was lost by architecture during the cleansing purge of modernism. Only now, he feels, are architects beginning to rediscover that tradition. "There's something in the air; something is happening to architecture," he says. "Somehow or other we have to - or I have to - rediscover that old path back to metaphysical structure. I've always felt that that's where my mission as an artist lies."

But it was not until 1992 that Kapoor attempted a work that was symbolic and architectural. That year, he created Building for Void for the Seville Expo with the architect David Connor. It resembled an ochre minaret with a spiral ramp wrapped around a short, cylindrical tower. Inside, the half-egg-shaped interior of polished plaster was bare except for an oculus in the ceiling. "I must say it was really important to me," Kapoor recalls.

Was it a building or a sculpture? "I don't know what it was!"

Architecture and art are not the same, however. Kapoor accepts that there is a point at which art - especially large art - demands to be considered architecturally, and he likes the way that the viewer is drawn into a very particular relationship with objects of an architectural scale. Yet many architects erroneously consider themselves to be artists, he says. "Corbusier painted; he struggled with himself as an artist. He wanted to be an image-maker in a way. It is an old conflict. It's very clear architects are not artists - they do something else.

"Some architects think they are artists and they're not. It's not just the practical; it's a difference in the way you think. The intentions are so hugely different, it amazes me they can be confused - but they can be confused. Vito Acconci, the great conceptual artist from the 1960s, once said that when an artist grows up, he wants to be an architect. I think that's wrong."

Architects who have worked with Kapoor say they find his methodology liberating; his thinking is uninhibited by practical considerations and he encourages them to think about form without getting bogged down in design. Last year, Norman Foster asked Kapoor to help his team resolve the problems they were having with their entry for the World Trade Center competition in New York.

"They were struggling with it, that's the truth," Kapoor recalls. "Struggling with the biggest problem of that site, which is symbolic rather than formal. You can't avoid that on a site with that potential for resonance of memory and history. Norman very kindly asked me to come and look at it, so I went along and, as I'm sometimes prone to do, I just kind of mouthed off."

Kapoor says that the team had developed a novel structural solution - towers composed of huge tessellated triangular frames - but the resulting forms failed to work as a piece of architecture on such a poignant site. Foster originally proposed three towers but Kapoor instead suggested that there should be just two. He then pushed the two towers together so that they "kissed".

"They had come up with a very ingenious structural plan which resulted in this triangulated form that had, from my reading, overtones of Brancusi," says Kapoor. "If the forms were already speaking of Brancusi, well why not go a little further towards Brancusi and make them kiss? And with the triangular geometries, when you bring the two towers together you get this enormous gash of light; a slit of light some 70 storeys high. A very powerful image, I thought."

In the event, Foster's design was beaten by Daniel Libeskind's Memory Foundations, which was loaded with symbolic references to the September 11 attack. It is intriguing that while Libeskind played up this symbolism in his barnstorming presentation speech last December, the hyper-rational Foster barely mentioned the symbolic "content" of his kissing towers. "It's not Norman's style to play that up," says Kapoor. "And if a mistake was made it was to not understand - and I think this is increasingly true - that the great buildings, the great monuments, are ones that have intrinsic symbolic truth and value."

He returns to the distinction between the processes of art, architecture and design. Successful sculptures and buildings, he says, share an intrinsic need to be in the world; whether they are useful or useless, functional or symbolic, the artist or architect merely reveals a content that is already there. "The word architecture refers to the modelling of form; to the internal fashioning of a notion in three dimensions. Design, it seems to me, quite contrary to that, refers to the surface of a thing; it's what happens on the skin; it's how a thing looks. Skin is often very interesting but I would say architecture is a very much better, a much deeper route. We've got to be wary of how a thing looks, because it's not the point."

Painting, Anish Kapoor's solo show, Lisson Gallery, London, www.lisson.co.uk, from May 14 to June 28 2003

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