Stop and See: Construction in Aluminium

Tom Smeeton 13 November 2018

Failing to notice the large Jenga-like sculpture, Construction in Aluminium (1967) on Trumpington Street is understandable. But, once spotted, it’s worth a proper looking. This large, aluminium construction of plank-like strands stands at the gates of the University’s Engineering Department and is best viewed from the street. As any tourist quickly learns, stopping to stare in the streets of Cambridge is a dangerous game. Nevertheless, if we don’t, we miss the architectural and sculptural gems hiding in plain sight – Kenneth Martin’s piece is no exception.

Martin was born in Sheffield in 1905 and studied at Sheffield College of Art and at The Royal College of Art. From here, he began to produce his first abstract paintings, quickly becoming a key member of the generation of artists who looked back to abstraction in the 1940s. His inclusion in Whitechapel’s Galleries seminal ‘This is Tomorrow’ exhibition in 1956, alongside the likes of Alison and Peter Smithson, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull, established him as a forerunner of British Constructivism. It situated him amongst a generation of artists, architects and designers who sought new technologies and means of mass production as inspiration for their work.

Construction in Aluminium is a great example of this new approach to art making, which was underpinned by modular systems, formulae and rhythms. The Cambridge work is the culmination of a series of studies titled Oscillation, one of which is in the Tate Collection. The form itself is based on a formula for a helical screw propeller (one for the engineers…), and uses a proportional system of repeated bars which, when stacked, creates a semi-regular wave form. Martin equated this form to musical rhythms, especially those of jazz music, with its flexibility within the regular system to which it conforms. However, given its location, the scientific roots of the work are appropriate, especially as the department workshop helped with its construction.

It’s fair to say that the delicacy of the wave form is perhaps lost in the overall size of the work. At their best, the Oscillation studies present a fragility with their spindly protrusions, a fragility shared by another, more successful Martin work which in Cambridge, Screw Mobile (1969), gracefully hanging in the conservatory at Kettle’s Yard. However the sculpture on Trumpington Street, with its solid, unmoving forms, deliver a sense of mass and volume, establishing it as the gate-keeper of the Department, although perhaps too often ignored.