It’s been a year since the curtain lifted on Atlanta’s $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the city’s most dazzling new work of outdoor art: an aggressive falcon sculpture comprised of thousands of stainless-steel pieces and a huge bronze football, standing about four stories tall and weighing 73,000 pounds.
Titled simply the Atlanta Falcon, the installation’s impact, according to Budapest-based artist Gábor Miklós Szőke, was immediate, and it hasn’t ebbed.
“I’ve been getting a lot of praise and love thanks to the Falcon from different parts of the world every day since,” Szőke told Curbed Atlanta.
On the eve of the Atlanta Falcons’s 2018 season, the internationally acclaimed sculptor and contemporary artist recalls in the following Q&A, translated from Hungarian, the immensely complex process for pulling off his most famous work to date—the world’s largest avian sculpture.
It was Szőke’s second commission in the U.S., following a 2013 piece at Smithsonian Park in Washington D.C., and it took a team of 200, four massive shipping containers, and a six-month stay in Atlanta to pull it off.
Szőke fondly recalls being “treated as a superstar” in verdant Atlanta, but the city’s landmark big bird almost didn’t happen, thanks to an email spam filter.
Curbed Atlanta: Why animals?
My fascination with animals started in my childhood. A memory from when I was four stuck in my head: I stepped into the family stables at night, and in the dark, the sheer power of the muscular and fearful animals, which seemed gigantic to me at the time, had a profound effect on me.
Generally most people know me for my animal sculptures, but I have non-animal-themed works as well, and I also create abstract statues and furniture too. However, animals inspire me the most.
How’d the Falcons approach you about tackling an art piece like this? Had they seen your work elsewhere?
Yes, they had. I had an art performance in Moscow, where in early spring we bid farewell to the harsh Russian winter during the Maslenitsa festival. I set fire to a wooden installation, which opened up like burning flower petals with a loud rumble, and in the middle of the flames a large stainless steel bear appeared. A photo of the performance was published in the Wall Street Journal, which aroused the interest of the Atlantans, and they looked me up.
The Savannah College of Art and Design, who were the curatorial team of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, contacted me. They wrote me an email with the subject line “New opportunity,” which ended up in my spam box. It was very fortunate that I discovered the email after a few days, which contained a jaw-dropping 3D video of the stadium. They asked me if I would be interested in designing a monumental sculpture in front of the sports venue.
Naturally I couldn’t say no to this commission, and a long negotiation and planning process began. They visited me in my studio in Budapest. I showed them my FTC Eagle sculpture, which is the largest avian sculpture in Europe, and my Colossus sculpture, which is the largest equine sculpture in the world. These were the main reference points for the Atlanta Falcon. After this it was obvious that I was going to design the iconic sculpture for the American football team. I presented the first designs to Arthur Blank himself.
What’d you know about Atlanta before you got the call?
The 1996 Atlanta Olympics were very memorable for me. I was still a child, but I attentively followed the games. I remember many Hungarian athletes won gold medals.
Atlanta has been developing ever since. It has become a true metropolis, one of the biggest U.S. business hubs. The memory of the Olympics can still be felt in the city, and the direct impact of it can be seen in the parks, the sports venues, the squares, and the monuments to this day.
I also love old films. I knew that Gone with the Wind was set in Atlanta. I travel a lot, so I was aware that the headquarters of Coca-Cola and CNN are located there. Atlantan hip-hop culture is also world-famous. This I had known before, but when I went there with my team to install the Falcon, I got to know an even more colorful and versatile city.
You’ve completed monumental works around the world, but was the Falcons’s massive statue on another level, in terms of difficulty?
Yes, it was. This statue is one of my most complex works; therefore, I’m most proud of it. It was a huge task to execute a project of this scale more than [6,000 miles] away. Not only because this is the largest avian sculpture in the world, but also because it required immense logistic and static preparation [related to the engineering of non-moving components].
We constructed and reconstructed the statue four times: First in my studio, then we took it apart, and with the help of packaging engineers we transported it in four 40-foot containers for one and a half months across the Atlantic to Savannah, and from there to Atlanta.
All in all, 200 professionals worked on the statue including my team of sculptors, welders, project managers, 3D modelers, and static engineers.
When we arrived, we started the reconstruction of the statue in an old General Motors factory [south of downtown, near the U.S. Penitentiary, Atlanta], and when the stadium was ready for the installation, then the Atlanta Falcon was once again rebuilt from the pedestal all the way up to the wings.
There we saw my statue in its entirety for the first time. It was a touching moment when we hoisted the parts of the bird together. Two years of work went into the project, including a lot of planning and designs.
It really took two years to finish?
Yes, it did. In the first six months I was designing and working out the statics of the sculpture with my engineers, and organizing the visas and the permits. In the following one and a half years came the logistics, the construction, and the inauguration.
Can you give an idea of the sheer materials it took to pull this off?
Of course. Most of my public sculptures of a similar scale are made of stainless steel with different surfacing techniques. The Falcon is no different: Its eyes for instance got a mirror bright finish, which reflect the iconic buildings of the city, and the feathers were polished to a silky silver hue.
Aside from the 32 tons of stainless steel, I also used a new material for the first time; the cast ball was made of bronze. The body consists of several thousand laser-cut steel plates of different sizes, and the skeleton of the bird was constructed from massive stainless steel plates, which took months to procure.
It gets soupy here in the summer and windy from time to time. What should Atlantans know about the sculpture, in terms of how it’ll withstand the elements in coming years?
No need to worry—this bird was tested extensively. During construction we had a tornado warning. I was in constant contact with the static engineer, so we did take the deflecting force of the wind into account. This was a very important aspect of the design.
My sculptures don’t require special maintenance. They should be cleaned once a year, but luckily the air quality in Atlanta is quite good, so it won’t get dirty as fast.
You spent months in Atlanta working on the sculpture’s installation. What’d you enjoy about the city?
The city has a lot to offer in terms of leisure activities.
My team and I went to the Coca-Cola museum, and the Georgia Aquarium. The latter was especially inspiring, because at the time I was designing a group of sculptures, the Water Legends for the Water World Aquatics Championships. We made excursions to Stone Mountain and Tallulah Falls. We bought funny clothes at Five Little Points. We travelled a lot to Savannah. We acquired a couple of antiques. We discovered a few amazing seafood restaurants, and after work we often went to the bar on the ground floor of the CNN for a cooling cocktail.
What should Atlanta be doing better, in your opinion?
Big European cities are very different from the ones in America. I especially liked the diversity in Atlanta, the different neighborhoods, the multicultural environment, and the greenery, even in the center of the business district. The garden culture of Atlanta is also remarkable and very refreshing.
Perhaps we found road safety a bit questionable in some parts. This was the only negative thing we could hear of, but personally we didn’t have any bad experiences. For a European it could be strange that you can only get around by car, because the distances are bigger, but this didn’t bother me at all. I love driving, and I adore American cars.
Have you gotten the chance to see fans interact with the big bird, during Falcons’s games or Atlanta United matches?
Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to return to Atlanta yet and experience firsthand what the big bird is like in interaction with people after matches, but next year I’m going to the Super Bowl with my partner, and we’re sure it’ll be a great experience.
I understand you’ve done commissions for celebrities. Can you elaborate?
Most of my clients are influential businessmen, who avoid being in the public eye. Most of them aren’t on social media, at least not with their own names. Nevertheless they have a tremendous impact on the life in their cities or countries. But of course, I’ve done pieces for famous people as well, like Arthur Blank, or Wiz Khalifa, for whom I created a skateboarding puli dog.
Lastly, how do you like the Falcons’s chances to win the Super Bowl this year—at home?
I absolutely think they have a chance; they almost had it in 2017. I’m very happy that I can cheer them on in person next year.
I think that my Falcon sculpture and the futuristic retractable roof of the stadium is really going to boost morale and help create a collective experience.
Editor’s note: The interview was edited for clarity and space.