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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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Kinetic Art and Architecture part 1

  • On November 13, 2006

I’m going to spend a couple of weeks looking at ideas around movement, in art and architecture, If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you. I’m going to start with some images from early works and lead up to whats been happening more recently.

above left – Naum Gabo’s Standing Wave, above right – an Alexander Calder Mobile

Kinetic art depends on motion for its effects. Since the early twentieth century artists have been incorporating movement into art partly to explore the possibilities of movement, partly to introduce the element of time, partly to reflect the importance of the machine and technology in the modern world, partly to explore the nature of vision. Movement has either been produced mechanically by motors or by exploiting the movements of people, air, water, and other kinetic forces in space. A pioneer of Kinetic art was Naum Gabo with his motorised Standing Wave of 1919-20. Mobiles were pioneered by Alexander Calder from about 1930. Kinetic art became a major phenomenon of the late 1950s and the 1960s.

Marcel Duchamp was the first artist in modern times to use actual movement to explore the mechanics of seeing. The above image is Rotary Glass Plates (Precision Optics), propellerlike pieces of glass painted with black and white lines and mounted on a sturdy metal rotating axle, made in 1920 with the help of his Man Ray. As the motor-driven axle turns, the lines on the separate pieces of glass appear to join up and form complete circles. The Rotary Glass Plates, however, set something of an aesthetic standard. Improvised from an unlikely assortment of materials, motorized, the movement cumbersome and somewhat alarming to watch (one dreads that a glass fragment will detach and become airborne), the overall effect remarkable–this was to become the pattern for many kinetic works over the next five decades.

Above Laszlo Moholy-Nagy‘s Light-Space Modulator (1922-30), assembled from what looks like a selection of kitchen utensils, is a classic early successor, its collection of metal plates, wires and wooden balls revolving in the beam of two powerful spotlights to create a shadow dance on the adjacent walls.


  1. The Rotary Glass is currently on (stationary) view at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC as part of the exhibit of Yale’s Societe Anonyme collection. There is a video of the plates in action though.

  2. Jerome

    You should continue on Cybernetics, as it relates somehow the work on Kinetics with the idea of interaction(feedback) and programmability. See the work of Nicolas Schoeffer for example …

  3. Thanks Jerome for the suggestion. The Interactive Architecture Workshop at the Bartlett uses cybernetics as a major influence. Gordon Pasks conversation theory has been really useful for me in the past begining to design systems behaviors, goals and states for populations of interactive objects. The work of Schoeffer is a great suggestion for a future article


  4. Asli

    If you are still into kinetic art you have to check works of Jesus Raphael Soto . I’ve seen some of his work in Long Beach, CA last year at MOLAA – The whole show was very impressive:

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