How Pythagoras helped inspire iconic work

On this day 25 years ago, I installed the architectural fragment in front of the State Library in Swanston Street, Melbourne. Since I still receive so many queries about this work, I thought I would explain how this, by now iconic work, came about.

PROCESS: The island where Pythagoras was born played a part in the artistic process that led to Petrus Spronk's iconic public artwork in Swanston Street, Melbourne.

PROCESS: The island where Pythagoras was born played a part in the artistic process that led to Petrus Spronk's iconic public artwork in Swanston Street, Melbourne.

It had its beginnings in many different sources. For instance, it came as a result of what my mother told me, that as a kid, I was always playing in the sandpit which my father had built for us in our tiny backyard in Holland. Many years later, it came as a result of walking around the island of Samos, a place with architectural fragments lying around in abundance, like a free sculpture park. The place where Pythagoras was born, he of the Pythagorean theorem.

It also came about as the result of having a love for sculpture, and in a strange way it came about as a result of the economic recession off the time. I don’t know if it was the recession we had to have. But the fact was we had it, and as a consequence it closed a lot of galleries, this made it difficult to sell my ceramic art work.

I thought about what my mother had told me and decided re-visit that creative time of my childhood and use sand for the next part of my art journey. Since there were too many cliched images made with sand, I wanted to think of something more inspiring. I noted that in the centres of the nearby towns most of the original architecture on street level had been remodelled during the ’50s and ’60s with stainless steel, glass and plastic. I suppose, in order to make them more attractive to the modern shopping audience.

I thought that as a project I could, using sand, create an architectural detail on the footpath across the street of that part of the building which hadn't been affected by the change. Thus creating an awareness of the architectural styles of the past. 

If I wanted to be serious about this, I had to have a convincing portfolio of images. So, returning to my studio, I bought a load of sand and set out, through play, to learn about this wonderful material. To make friends with it. To see what it would allow me to do. Each day I created an architectural detail.  I then photographed and destroyed it. I used the same sand for another building detail the next day.

This was the start of using sand, an unusual and cheap art material. It was here also that my art became ephemeral. I worked this way until I became good at it and I felt confident to take it to the street.

Next, I took my portfolio to the various art festivals. I presented the idea as one of those old-fashioned artists I had observed as a child, at their easel creating a landscape painting – only my work was in three dimensions. It received just as much attention.

A few years into that successful project, with commissions for the Adelaide and Melbourne art festivals, a friend send me a brief for a public sculpture in The Age newspaper. The brief was for a public art work for Swanston Walk. I knew at once what I would propose. The same image I made in sand, but this time made from bluestone. I chose bluestone because this stone was so representative of Melbourne. All the paving had been made with it, as had the whole of the forecourt of the art precinct. Although an important stone in central Melbourne, to my knowledge no artwork had been made from it.

So I set out to create a piece of blue-stone art, based on the works I had made of sand which had attracted so much positive attention. I designed the front of the work, using the Pythagorean theorem, and created it to the dimensions of three by four by five metres. I took these dimensions to Melbourne and laid them out on the street using a piece of string of the same dimensions, secured the base of the triangle into the footpath and got a friend to hold the apex up to a point at which I was happy. I took the measurements and went home to prepare my expression of interest.

After an exhaustive design time in my studio, I received the commission and moved into whole new world of public art. The rest is history.

Petrus Spronk, email