Levy Park, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
Aluminum painted with polyurethane enamel
16 ft. (4.9 m) diameter x 10 in. (0.3 m) thick
Height from ground when sited: 4 ft. 11 in. (1.5 m)
Commissioned December 1978 by the University of Pennsylvania, with a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts
Installed June 25, 1981
Inaugurated November 6, 1981
In December 1978 we received a commission assisted in 1980 by a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, for a sculpture in front of the Library on the newly developed campus of the University of Pennsylvania. After a visit to the site, Coosje proposed a button, which led us to experiment with the subject in models made of paper, polystyrene and cardboard. We tried rolling it, breaking it in half and bending it in different ways. In the end, we came up with a design in which the button was split and the two parts were set together at an angle. Then the button was fastened to the ground in a tilted position, acquiring a unique presence.
In 1980, the design was first realized in a wooden model in which the top surface was given the shape of a stereotypical button whose cross-section could be seen in the sides of the split. After its approval by a university committee, the design was translated into aluminum in a diameter of sixteen feet.
The Split Button was installed in 1981 on a small plaza before the entrance to the Van Pelt Library, across from a statue of Benjamin Franklin. Seen from the upper floors of the Library, the startlingly white Split Button creates a focus for the landscaping around it. Its four holes recall Philadelphia founder William Pennís design for laying out the center of the city around four symmetrically placed parks.
While the sculpture has moments to be itself, it often serves as a place to rest or play. Children like to stand in the holes and students sun, study and recline on its surface. The University band and sports teams pose for yearbook photos on it and the sculpture is decorated for special events. The Split Button was once shrouded in black, as a memorial to students who died of AIDS.
The late Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who was nearly blind, encountered the Split Button on his travels and wrote of it afterwards as follows: "I am quite sure that Mr. So-and-So, whose name I can no longer recall, saw something at a glance that no one had ever seen before the beginning of history. What he saw was a button. He saw that everyday artifact which so engages the fingers and he understood that in order to transmit this disclosure, the revelation of something so simple, he must augment its size and execute the vast and serene circle we see at the center of a square in Philadelphia." (Atlas, 1985, "a personal geography of writings and photos from around the world.")
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