What Are These Kids Doing Here?

by Michael Djordjevitch

In Albany a pair of sculptures frame the entrance to the New York State Education Building, designed by Henry Hornbostel and completed in 1912.  The bronze sculptures were created by Charles Keck (1875-1951) and dedicated in 1913. 

These sculptures serve a more than merely picturesque purpose.  By their size, the precious bronze they're made of, and their high level of enrichment and ornamentation, the sculptures are full participants in the architecture of the Education Building and an essential part of its decor. They are major focal points in themselves as well as the main framing elements for the building's entrance.  For all these reasons the sculptures belong to a special category of sculpture, that of architectural sculpture.

This means they play a major role in conveying the purpose and character of this building, which is concerned with education and specifically the education of the young.  The major figures in these two sculptures are therefore children, engaged in the process of learning.  A closer look, however reveals a larger vision for educating the young, where the sustained focus of learning is balanced by play.  Thus, we are offered a diptych, and between the two sets of sculptures we are given a meditation on the whole of childhood.  Above the children  we also find a flock of roosting owls.  As attributes of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, the owls also represent wisdom.  Here they preside over youngsters who, through various activities embodying the dynamic of learning, are growing towards wisdom.

There is also more to these sculptures than the figures of just children and owls. The other parts of this ensemble--indeed the larger part of the whole---are made up entirely of architectural elements.  The children are perched on A highly enriched classical columnar base, itself set upon lion-headed feet.  Above the children rises the form of an urn crowned by owls which carry a set of linking wreaths in their beaks. The entire urn is made up of the Acanthus 'leaf' in its various forms, from compact to fully-manifest, a form we recognize as belonging to the capital of the Corinthian column. For the same reason we might think of the whole urn as Corinthian, that is, expressing organic sculptural form through the representative curves and contours of the leaf. The inclusion of all these architectural elements--along with their specifically architectural character that in this case is Corinthian, is also part of what makes these examples of architectural sculptures.


Furthermore, the sculptural and architectural elements are working together to create EVEN LARGER architectural elements, in the form of giant lamp standards that frame the building's main entrance.  These lamps light the threshold of this institution in a metaphorical sense as well as a literal one.  The bulbs of the lamp at the top of the sculpture, for example, also represent the wisdom already identified with the owls supporting them, the light of learning.  The children, the owls, even the light-bulb lamps are all Iconic Figures, speaking to the purpose of the institution in the cultural shorthand of recognizable symbols and motifs. 

This cultural shorthand extends to the entire composition, which we can recognize as a giant candelabrum, itself an element of classical furniture on a monumental, architectural scale.  Such candelabra are well known from many Ancient Roman examples, and they have their origins in the Greek Classical Period. 

In all these varied ways the Arts of Architecture and Sculpture can work together to make a greater, even a magical, whole. This is what sculptor Charles Keck created here.

For more Images of the Candelabra