How to Move a 450,000-Pound Sculpture

After a tumultuous six years, ‘Sudama’ has settled into its new home at American University in Washington, D.C.

View of Sudama
Elyn Zimmerman's Sudama in its new location at American University in Washington, D.C. Dylan Singleton / American University

In 1984, sculptor Elyn Zimmerman installed a dozen granite boulders around a reflecting pool outside the National Geographic Society’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Now, 40 years later, she has relocated—and reimagined—the piece. 

The move was no small feat. The sculpture, originally called Marabar, weighs 450,000 pounds.

Now, it has a new home on American University’s campus. With the new location comes a new name: Sudama.

“You could say that it’s been revived,” says Charles Birnbaum, president of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, which helped save the sculpture, to the New York Times’ Rebecca J. Ritzel. 

A view of Marabar at the National Geographic Society's headquarters Elyn Zimmerman via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

He adds that the relocation is similar to a theatrical revival, “where the original artist is reconceiving the work in a different context.” 

The name Marabar came from the E.M. Forster novel A Passage to India (1924), which mentions the fictional Marabar caves. Zimmerman was inspired by a previous trip to India, during which she had seen the real caves that Forster’s were based on, according to the Times.

About six years ago, National Geographic told Zimmerman that the sculpture would have to go, as it was in the way of planned construction. At first, she was distraught by the news. 

“I didn’t know what was going to happen to my sculpture,” she recalled at a dedication ceremony this week, per Washingtonian’s Jessica Ruf. “... I was really heartened by a phone call from [the Cultural Landscape Foundation], whose mission is to preserve works of sculpture architecture.”

Initially, the group worked to keep the sculpture at National Geographic’s campus. Many big names in the field also got involved, writing letters to D.C.’s Historic Preservation Review Board, according to the Architect’s Newspaper’s Matt Hickman.

Student at sculpture
Students flocked to the sculpture hours after the fences surrounding it came down. Dylan Singleton / American University

Eventually, however, all parties agreed to relocate the sculpture to American University. After rejecting several potential locations, she settled on a spot on a hill near the university’s Kay Spiritual Life Center, alongside cherry trees and daffodils. 

“I came across this site and thought it was just the most perfect spot,” Zimmerman tells Washingtonian. “It was really different from where the rocks had been before and yet it had the same kind of quality of occlusion and creating a place, not just creating a thing.”

In September, over the course of a week and a half, workers transported the boulders across the city, an expense that National Geographic covered. The move went smoothly, even finishing ahead of schedule. 

Trucks with sculpture
A crew at American University unloads one of the boulders of Sudama. American University

At the new location, Zimmerman tweaked the placement of the boulders to better fit the space. The new name, Sudama, also comes from Forster’s novel. 

“The site is totally different from the National Geographic headquarters,” says Zimmerman in a statement. “Instead of a rectangular narrow granite plaza between buildings, the new location is a large oval space with grass and trees. I responded to the difference by making the pool longer and crescent shaped and adjusting the relationships of the large rocks to the changed form of the pool.” 

Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of American University’s museum, was initially skeptical of the location. “Even when I saw the design, I thought, ‘How does that fit?’” he tells the Times. “But I guess I didn’t have enough of an imagination. It really works.”

The spot Zimmerman selected seems to be a hit, as students began gathering around it just a few hours after construction finished. 

“There were so many,” Sylvia Burwell, the university’s president, tells the Times. “Some of them contemplating, just sitting and thinking.”

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