Soaring above an alley, ContraFuerte surprises and delights

A sculpture at 13th and Cuthbert streets

An integrated sculpture by artist Miguel Antonio Horn of aluminum plating was installed at 13th and Cuthbert streets in Philadelphia. The eight figures, if erect, stand 15 feet tall, and are installed on a bridge that connects a parking garage to a hotel. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

When Miguel Horn completed installing his public sculpture for a new hotel in Center City two weeks ago, he and the property developer were planning to install lighting and clean up the garbage-filled alleyway before the official ribbon-cutting for Contrafuerte later this month.

But the world would not wait that long.

The piece, showing eight larger than life figures holding up a bridge ramp into a parking garage, has already been around the globe via Instagram, online arts influencers, and blogs. Spanning over the otherwise inhospitable Cuthbert Street alley filled with pungent dumpsters and loading docks, the piece offers an element of surprise that is both intimate and aspirational: the two clusters of figures appear to be bodily supporting one another as they collectively lift the bridge.

When asked by a reporter what the piece means, artist Miguel Horn lobbed the question right back.

“Everybody comes up here and asks me, ‘What is it?’ I find it more interesting hearing everybody’s individual take on what it is,” he said. “It’s a group struggle, but there’s also the individuals within that. I think the way people relate to that connects with their own internal struggles and experiences.”

Artist Miguel Antonio Horn with his aluminum-plated sculpture
Artist Miguel Horn with his aluminum-plated sculpture on Cuthbert Street, a small alley in Center City Philadelphia, with a bridge that connects a parking garage and hotel. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Literally, the name of the work is the Spanish word for buttress, a structural element projecting from a wall that supports the wall. One person told Horn that Contrafuerte resembles an office workplace, with workers upholding managers. Another told him it represents a life balance: “they’re trying to keep each other from falling down.”

The piece was made as part of the city’s Percent for Art program, in which construction projects that go through the city’s Redevelopment Authority must spend 1% of construction costs on a site-specific public artwork. The commission was triggered by the construction of Home2 Suites by Hilton, a hotel developed at 12th and Arch by the Parkway Corporation, which had also built the parking structure behind it.

“I like science fiction, and these figures are giants,” said the president of Parkway, Robert Zuritsky. If the figures stood upright, they would each be 15 feet tall.

A closeup of a sculpture by artist Miguel Antonio Horn
An integrated sculpture by artist Miguel Horn of aluminum plating was installed at 13th and Cuthbert streets in Philadelphia. The eight figures, if erect, stand 15 feet tall, and are installed on a bridge that connects a parking garage to a hotel. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Although installed in an alleyway that passersby would normally move quickly past, it is in a prime location: the entrance to the Convention Center is a half block away, and people exiting the Reading Terminal Market immediately get a full view of Contrafuerte. Last November that corner received global attention as huge numbers of people rallied and demonstrated during the 2020 presidential election vote count.

“The reactions of people, it’s phenomenal,” said Zuritsky. “It’s inspiring to hear people taking pictures and pointing and looking.”

The figures are made from thousands of ½ inch thick aluminum plates cut into incremental cross-sections of the figures, then assembled into 3D human shapes. The figures wrap around three sides of the bridge: underneath, along the face of the bridge, and looping over the top.

A driver enters the parking garage on 13th and Cuthbert streets, where a statue is pictured
A driver enters the parking garage on 13th and Cuthbert streets and is greeted by the sculpture by Miguel Horn. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Although they appear to be supporting the concrete bridge, the figures in fact do not touch it. Because aluminum and concrete expand and contract at different rates, the materials have to be kept apart for their own long-term integrity. If one looks closely: the figures are anchored to the structure at key points, but their body parts never come within about ½ inch of the bridge’s surfaces.

Contrafuerte took at least six years to design, engineer, fabricate, and install. Horn was already getting attention for this project four years ago for its tricky engineering challenges.

“It’s engaging on this structure on every face of the bridge and the surrounding buildings. The engineering to create it so that all of the support and structural connections are blind – you don’t see that – was part of that massive development,” said Horn. “It takes a lot of work to make it look like nothing happened.”

The appearance of ContraFuerte on Cuthbert Street is the only reason many people might enter the alleyway. In the tradition of public spaces being referred to by their most prominent sculptural attraction (i.e. Love Park), Horn mused that perhaps the street would be renamed after his creation.

St. Cuthbert would be offended, probably,” Horn chuckled. “I think it would be great if there was a street in this city that was in Spanish, named after a piece of art that I made. I’d be impressed.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal