Hajek Plaza, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide, South Australia. Photo: Tom Balfour. Image courtesy of Hassell Studio

The vandalisation of art: (de)commissioning art in public space

Hajek Plaza, Adelaide Festival Centre
Hajek Plaza, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide, South Australia. Photo: Tim Horton

The Plaza of Adelaide is well-known in the world of art and became acknowledged as an artistically outstanding creation of the last quarter of the 20th century. Should a destruction of this complete artwork occur, it would be, I am afraid, seen as sheer vandalism that cannot be accepted in the civilised world of today.
Katja Hajek, artist, poet, wife of Otto Hajek[1]

From 1973 to 1977 Czech-born, West German artist Otto Herbert Hajek created the immersive public artwork Adelaide Urban Iconography[2], as a response to what he perceived to be the “ruthless onslaught of technical, industrial and so-called civilised progress”. Commissioned by the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust during Don Dunstan’s leadership to act as the flamboyant centrepiece of the Adelaide Festival Centre Plaza, the vibrant geometric structures have been a point of controversy since being launched on 22 March 1977 by Queen Elizabeth II.

Almost four decades on, Hajek’s artistic rationale has proven strangely portentous. In early 2013, the South Australian government announced their intention to redevelop the Adelaide Festival Centre Plaza, sans his work. Could it be that Hajek’s vision foretold its imminent demise to this “ruthless onslaught”?

Over his career Hajek created a series of sculptures and public works that explored the relationship of space and form, in which material and emptiness played equal parts. He worked in periods – “broken surfaces” (from 1954), “spatial constructions” (from 1955), “space walls” (from 1957), “colour ways or paths” (from 1963) and “city signs” (from the late 1960s). He believed that architecture should be adapted by the sculptor to become a stimulating part of the environment and his often-controversial designs established him as one of the leading figures of post-war European art, exhibiting in the Venice Biennale (1958), Documenta II (1959) and Documenta III (1964).

Hajek’s walk-through sculpture in Adelaide was an exploration of the environment that aimed to leave the boundaries between art and the viewer behind, to encourage new forms of perception and to allow for the close experience of art. The artist’s opening speech stated that the Plaza’s “landscape varies in significance and focus. It becomes a positive form – space to be experienced in contrast to the negative forms of the surrounding buildings. This place will also act as an element of provocation because it will stimulate an awareness in the people of Adelaide of the values of other open spaces, squares and streets of the city.”

With its vibrant (though now faded) colours and vast scale (at the time, it was “the largest artwork in Australia”[3]) it plays an important role in the cultural memory of Adelaide. The work is immersive, bold and of international significance, yet has always received a mixed response from the people of Adelaide. Adelaide Urban Iconography was awarded a brickbat by the Civic Trust in 1977 but was then honoured in 1986 by Australia Post with a commemorative stamp issued to celebrate South Australia’s sesquicentenary.

Given the significance of Hajek’s work, it is surprising how little discussion it seems to have prompted from either the general public or the arts community about its demise. When using Adelaide Urban Iconography as inspiration for a new body of work, contemporary jeweller Peta Kruger said: “Growing up with this artwork felt like being in a magical land, it was like a giant garden with its waterfalls and streams. I’ve recently realised that Hajek’s sculpture garden has had a huge influence on my practice as a whole.”

Being in the public eye ensures public art has greater exposure than most art to public opinion, and the subjective nature of art means that most work in the public realm will be the target of considerable scrutiny and opinion; its very publicness is both its virtue and its curse. Theatre Designer Silver Harris remarked that: “Hajek’s hard-edged sculptures and Plaza surfaces are a harmonious surround to the beautifully angled slopes of the two major theatre structures. They provide necessary breathing space for such visually significant buildings, and the whole contrasts nicely with the soft lines of the river and its lovely tree plantings and the rather stoic lines of Parliament House and the Railway Station.” Artist and critic David Dolan stated at the time of the Plaza launch that Hajek’s work had “next to nothing to offer except the chance for some debate on public art”.

Regardless of personal opinion, the artwork’s possible fate – to make way for office and apartment buildings – seems worthy of greater debate. Media reports have dwelt upon the possible form of new developments but have provided very little discussion about any potential impact upon the public artwork that lies in the way, or the removal of public space and public assets to make way for private usage. A clear decision-making process that considers the public value of Adelaide Urban Iconography and possible preservation options is necessary, as without such a process its willful destruction is surely tantamount to vandalism, as suggested by Katja Hajek.

The dilemma facing Adelaide Urban Iconography raises some interesting questions around the role of art in public space as well as the nature of vandalism. Who is responsible for preparing a de-commissioning strategy for threatened public art when there is no apparent steward? Which body or process should determine an appropriate course of action when public art needs to be altered, relocated or destroyed?

Being a public asset in the public realm (the common lands shared by the citizenry, including the city streets and parks maintained by government) means that decisions about it are rarely made by individuals, rather they are usually made by government and committees, and sometimes not one organisation but a collection of organisations. Elaborate and complicated processes must be completed to the satisfaction of the consenting bodies in order to approve a work in the public realm.

Vandalism and art

This is certainly not the first time that differing values and agendas have created controversy over the preservation or perceived vandalism of art.

In 1997, Russian performance artist Alexander Brener spraypainted a green dollar sign across Russian Constructivist Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematisme (1920–27) in the Stedelijk Museum in the Netherlands.[4]  Was this an act of vandalism? Or was it, as the artist claimed, an “artistic discourse” with Malevich’s work? A protest against “corruption and commercialism in the art world”. The judge deemed it vandalism and Brener served several months in a Netherlands prison for his act.

Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War series of 82 intaglio prints created between 1810 and 1820 are some of the most revered prints in existence. Jake and Dinos Chapman acquired eighty of them and “systematically defaced” them by reworking all the visible faces of victims as clown or puppy heads.[5] Their work, titled Insult to Injury, riled the artworld. But when questioned, the Chapmans’ plausible justification cited a 1950s precedent where American artist Robert Rauschenberg erased a canvas by the older, more-famous Willem de Kooning. Rauschenberg admired de Kooning, just as the Chapman brothers admire Goya, but Rauschenberg was able to ask the living de Kooning for permission – and permission was granted. Goya, long since dead, was unable to provide permission for the “reworking” of his prints, but The Guardian newspaper described the Chapmans’ “destruction as an act of love”.[5] The dilemma facing Adelaide Urban Iconography is that the work adorns, and is also embedded into the space. If the work was smaller, such as Bert Flugelman’s Tetrahedra, also on the Adelaide Festival Centre Plaza, it could (and would likely) be moved.[6] Moving art raises some questions about site specificity but complete demolition begs the question – are there less destructive alternatives?

Adelaide Urban Iconography is already in a poor state of repair due to complicated management of the space that has seen the work deteriorate. In 2003 the first cracks to the integrity of the work were made when part of the Plaza were removed to reveal the undercroft – effectively splitting the space into a North and South Plaza, and adversely impacting on Hajek’s work against the wishes of the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust.[7]

A purist approach would argue for the preservation of Adelaide Urban Iconography – but both the Plaza and the Festival Centre buildings suffer from concrete cancer, and the multi-million dollar redevelopment of the Riverbank Precinct will address this. The high cost of the proposed redevelopment provides a financial case to justify demolition of the Plaza, to release the development potential currently locked up in the site. But such an approach ignores the inherent cultural and financial value of the existing artwork. Demolition of the remaining artwork would destroy a valuable cultural asset. But if this is to be the case, perhaps the following scenario might be considered in order to recognise the loss: An independent financial valuation could place a price on the work with a requirement for the developer to provide equivalent funding for new public artworks, of similar significance, to offset the cultural loss of Adelaide Urban Iconography.

Could it be possible for the redevelopment of the Plaza to include funding (possibly a developer contribution) allocated to a competition for a sympathetic “Plaza artwork redevelopment” in a manner that was not “prejudicial to the honour or reputation of the artist”?[8] Might it be possible for the work, or parts of it, to be salvaged and reworked without infringing upon the “moral right of integrity”? Possibly not. But would this be better than losing the work entirely to the tip?

Considering the rich outcomes that occur when an artist respectfully (or cleverly) reworks another artist’s work (eg. Rauschenberg, the Chapman brothers), could such an approach lead to new high profile work that simultaneously helps build Hajek’s legacy in a more constructive way than complete erasure and the relegation of Hajek’s artistic work and ideas to Adelaide’s history? Opinions are bound to be divided. But ultimately there needs to be greater debate around public art (and particularly its decommissioning). Options are particularly challenging when dealing with such a large-scale work as Adelaide Urban Iconography. The debate might include preservation or demolition but are there other more creative possibilities too?

Hajek Plaza, Adelaide Festival Centre
Hajek Plaza, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide South Australia. Photo: Tom Balfour. Image courtesy of Hassell Studio


  1. ^ Letter of 8 February 2001, from Katja Hajek to the CEO of the Adelaide Festival Centre Kate Brennan. Courtesy Adelaide Festival Centre archives.
  2. ^ Amongst the Adelaide Festival Centre archives this artwork is variously titled Shorthand Adelaide, City Iconograph, and City Iconography. According to both State Government and Adelaide City Council records, the title of the artwork is City Sign Sculpture Garden. Throughout this article, the title Adelaide Urban Iconography is used as it was the name used by Otto Hajek.
  3. ^ See www.cityofadelaide.com.au/sights/city-sign-sculpture-garden.
  4. ^ See www.artcrimes.net/suprematisme-1920-1927
  5. a, b Jonathan Jonees, "Look what I did", The Guardian, Sunday 30 March 2003.
  6. ^ Incidentally, there seems to ba a fair bit of art shifting going on in Adelaide, with Flugelman's Spheres (aka the Mall's Blls) and the Queen Victoria statue in Victoria Square – both moved within the last year to make way for new development without any clear protocol for decision-making regarding shifting the works.
  7. ^ S. Niven, "Surgery and repair", Architecture Australia, vol. 90, no. 3, May 2001.
  8. ^ Australian Copyright Council, Artists and Copyright, INFORMATION SHEET G033, v. 15, 2012.

Giles Thomson is an Adelaide-born, New York based urban designer and researcher interested in place-making, sustainability and the arts.