by Jerry ElengicalAug 23, 2022
Ideas and elements, styles and aesthetics, like objects, are meaningful and weighty entities in their own right. While the loot of tangible objects and visually detectable styles are easier to scope out, borrowing concepts and abstract ideas to innovate and create in a different context and location often escapes a comparative criticism from even the most perceptive glances. It is, hence, critical for makers and buyers, builders and visitors, and researchers and writers, to study creations in the realm of art, design, fashion, architecture, and allied creative fields, from a critical lens, and employ, in the process, the provisions of the latest technology to trace the influences and inspirations of particular works. Doing so not only thwarts the misappropriation of cultural entities specific to, often, disadvantaged factions, but also grants respect to the original idea, the earliest example of the style, and the people behind it. It also, in the process, helps in establishing extensive knowledge regarding the inceptive intention behind the invention of architectural elements, art movements, and design innovations, and hence, a better understanding of the cultures they were born in.
A recent design proposal that demands its viewing against a historical context is Kiosk Obelisk, a permanent public art work, proposed by Stockholm-based eponymous art and architecture studio Ulf Mejergren Architects, to be installed in the public square located in front of the city hall of Knivsta in Sweden. As the name of the art sculpture suggests, its form is inspired by that of the archaic obelisk, which traces its origin back to ancient Egypt.
The original obelisks were pillars—carved from a single piece of stone—with a square base, and a tapering top that culminates in the formation of a pyramidion. They were most often erected to commemorate important individuals and events, and represented benben, the mound on which Atum, the primordial god—associated also with the evening sun—in Egyptian mythology, is deemed to have stood at the time of the creation of the world. The structure was also originally associated with the benu bird, a precursor to its popular twin from Greek mythology, namely the phoenix. Both the benu bird and the phoenix are linked to the sun, the process of birth and rebirth, as well as the end of the world.
The obelisk's association with the sun guided its construction, such that they were built, raised and positioned in a manner that allowed the first and last light of the day to touch their peaks. Their form and positioning would also enable the structures to be used as sundials, with the movement and size of the shadow indicating the hour of the day.
As time progressed, more obelisks would come up across the region. In the New Kingdom of Egypt, the pharaohs erected more obelisks, with the belief that these structures, considered as examples of religious edifices where offerings would continue to be brought, would enable them to live on in the minds of people even after death. Later still, several obelisks were transported from Egypt to Italy upon the latter's conquest of the former. First moved by the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, in 13 BCE, from Alexandria to Rome, as a memento of his victory over the empire, the act of carrying or replicating these monumental structures—austere in appearance, and yet, somehow, the demarcators of power and reverence—in foreign lands became symbols that marked conquests, new beginnings, and bold undertakings.
From ancient Rome to Paris, Constantinople to Florence, and London to New York, almost every province and empire worthy of mention has scoped out Egyptian obelisks or their structural equivalents to decorate their public squares and ceremonial spaces. New meaning was added to the structure with every new construction—from its divine association in Egypt to its role as a demarcator of Rome’s establishment as an empire, and its status as an object emblematic of power and prestige in more recent times. Through the ages, however, the structure’s construction and installation have served as pickets that commemorate the beginning of a new age, of tangible and intangible changes initiated upon the existing fabrics of cities. Kiosk Obelisk in Sweden, too, is a public sculpture that is imagined as a marker of the ongoing transformation in Knivsta. Located north of Stockholm, it is surrounded by farmland and a rich rural heritage. It is the youngest municipality and one of the fastest-growing towns in the whole country. In summoning inspiration from the rural heritage cottages of Sweden, the obelisk-like structure, while a marker of the infrastructural development of the town, conserves the cultural iconography of the region.
"An obelisk is a landmark in its purest form. It is celebratory in its nature and since the idea was to salute the town's rich rural heritage, we decided to be very literal about it and even made the obelisk out of the components that are very synonymous with the countryside: red traditional cottages. The obelisk is a big city typology but the components that it is made of are from a small town—a duality that is just what Knivsta is experiencing at the moment,” shares Swedish architect Ulf Mejergren with STIR. Abstractions of the rural cottages are stacked on top of each other, in diminishing size, to attain the form of a tapering obelisk.
Scheduled to be constructed in 2024, Kiosk Obelisk is the winning entry from amongst various designs submitted for the competition where designers were invited to create the permanent public installation in Knivsta. Citing the ideas that guided Ulf Mejergren to create the obelisk, he shares, "The town is a bit like a big construction site at the moment and some people are against this fast development and fear that the traditional small-town atmosphere will get ruined while other people welcome the changes and want modern high-rises in the city centre. This duality and search for identity was our main drive for creating this permanent artwork." Stationed at one of the most central places in the city, just in front of the city hall, its mien defines the city’s disconcerted sway between the traditional and the modern.
In using two contrasting views regarding the extant development, the designers manage to create a design that satisfies, or at least acknowledges everyone’s vision and anticipation. "Our concept was to use two opposites as the main ingredients and create something new from this, to show that it is possible that you can have two ideas of what a place can be like instead of just going in one direction,” Mejergren asserts. “The choice of ingredients became a small-scale typology—a kiosk, and a large-scale typology—an obelisk," he adds. While a kiosk is modest in scale and is a commonly encountered architectural structure in everyday life, the obelisk is a monumental edifice, rarely witnessed. The usage of the former salutes the town’s cultural and architectural heritage, and the latter acknowledges and welcomes its current transformation.
Apart from serving as a monumental structure, the kiosk—to be built out of wood, with a structural core made out of glulam, and concrete plinths supporting its weight—is also meant to fulfil its traditional function. When built, the structure will welcome people to utilise the space for informal activities—to sell lemonade or cinnamon buns, set up a station as a small public library, or as the centrepoint for announcements and proclamations during important events. Only the ground level of the obelisk will, however, be open for usage. The rest of the towering structure is hollow from within. When standing within the kiosk, one can witness the core that supports the structure.
When asked if the colour red, used on the structure, holds any relevance to the city, the Swedish architect shares, "The red colour is synonymous with traditional rural cottages in Sweden. There is a mine in Sweden, not very far from Knivsta, where the colour was invented in the 16th century when using byproducts from mining iron. Since then, it has become almost a national colour and in many rural parts of the country, it is the prevailing house colour. At the square, there is also a large villa in this same colour that once was a hardware store that is very famous in town.”
The original obelisks in Egypt were constructed out of stone and held erect on the ground with the help of their own weight. This newer iteration of the structure, although different in materiality and structural composition, manages to allude to the form of obelisks, while also encompassing cultural references and acknowledging the inhibitions of the people of Knivsta. Apart from serving as a monumental structure, it is a source of certitude for those uncertain of the future—the obelisk's evolutionary history offers a glance into what the progression of a culturally specific entity can look like, and an assurance that change may not necessarily be such a bad thing.
Name: Kiosk Obelisk
Location: Knivsta, Sweden
Year of completion: Scheduled for construction in 2024
Architect: Ulf Mejergren Architects