Paul Farber with the Rocky Statue in Philadelphia.
Gene Smirnov Paul Farber with the Rocky Statue in Philadelphia.

What makes a monument? The question has captured the design worldand beyond—in recent years, spurring conversations around not only who, or what, society memorializes but also how they are memorialized. The question also undergirds The Statue, a freshly launched podcast from Monument Lab in Philadelphia, and produced by WHYY Digital Studios. Hosted by Paul Farber, co-founder and director of Monument Lab, the six-episode series homes in on one of The City of Brotherly Love's most beloved monuments: the Rocky Statue.

Located just outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the two-ton, bronze statue memorializes the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa, as depicted by Sylvester Stallone in the 1976 film Rocky. Commissioned by Stallone in 1980, the Rocky Statue welcomes throngs of visitors each month, many eager to take pictures posing alongside Rocky. As Farber uncovers in the series, however, the statue surpasses its identity as a tourist attraction, playing into the lives of many Philadelphians. "Philadelphia is my home," Farber tells ARCHITECT. "But for years, I’ll admit, I looked past the Rocky Statue as an instructive site. It was my mother Ruth, a retired professor and life-long Philadelphian, who suggested, with a thoughtful nudge, that I pay more attention."

With The Statue's finale episode set to air on Feb. 14, Farber takes ARCHITECT inside the podcast, explaining how the series can help listeners explore the purpose of monuments and monument-making in their built landscapes. The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ARCHITECT: What drew you to focus on the Philadelphia Rocky Statue for this project?
Paul Farber: Monuments are my life’s work; I study, teach, and build them. My organization, Monument Lab, conducted the first audit of the nation’s monuments in 2021. As we discovered, the Rocky Statue routinely receives more than double the amount of visitors than the Liberty Bell each year. To unpack the phenomenon, I began teaching about the Rocky and Creed series in my Urban Studies class at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2017, I learned from a group of colleagues at A Long Walk Home, a Black feminist arts organization, how to see the site in new ways. I started seeing the line of adoring people that visited the statue everyday to pose with it—no matter the weather or time of day—as a vantage point to understand both the monument and the museum behind it.

Back in early March 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns began, I decided to research the history and legacy of the statue, approaching it as a biography. I spent two years visiting the statue almost every week, observing the line around it, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art's iconic steps. I watched every Rocky movie sequel and the documentaries on the subject; read collected works by Sylvester Stallone and scholarly accounts including Laura Holzman’s Contested Image; poured over memes and parodies; visited museums, boxing gyms, cemeteries, and a wax museum. I traveled around the city, around Hollywood, to get perspective on Rocky.

For The Statue podcast, along with the thoughtful team of producers at WHYY—Tom Grahsler, Michael Olcott, and Michaela Winberg—we put that research to use, chatting with people in line to see the Rocky Statue and others we met in related ways. We dug into the dynamics of Philadelphia, and the blurring of art and life in the story of the statue. Even during the pandemic, we encountered people who socially distanced themselves and still visited the statue en masse. Again and again, we found that the Rocky Statue was a place to consider presence and absence in our monument landscape, in Philly and beyond. In other words, the statue and the nearby steps served as sites from which to consider who is and who is not represented, acknowledged, and elevated at the city’s grandest stage for public art and memory.

How do you hope this exploration evolves our dialogue around the purpose of monuments and the act of monument making in society?
In the first episode of The Statue, we share Monument Lab’s definition of a monument “as a statement of power and presence in public.” This includes bronze and marble symbols on high, as well as other ways we make our mark—projection, poetry, and protest, for example. Monuments are not permanent in themselves. They require maintenance, money, and mindsets to keep them up. My hope is that the Rocky Statue and its particular history offer a lens to understand how we memorialize. And, how we can grasp what happens at the Rocky Statue and museum steps is profound, and at the same time, acknowledge how our larger monument landscape needs to respond to calls of deep injustice and inequity of representation. For example, we talk through Monument Lab’s National Monument Audit, in which we found more monuments with mermaids than actual U.S. congresswomen. In a top 50 list of the most monumentalized individuals, we counted more Confederates than Black Americans. As my colleagues and I have written elsewhere, monuments are not just facts on a pedestal. They are shaped, honed, crafted, and presented to reflect authority of those who raise them and to serve the power dynamics of the communities in which they are based. When we ask questions about them, learn about how they have changed over time, and see them as dynamic and part of a world constantly moving and evolving around us, they become unfrozen. We bring them to life in more meaningful ways than just passively accepting their fate and form.

Given that this topic is rooted strongly in Philadelphia’s built environment and urban network, did you find it challenging to translate elements of the story into a narrative form?
I found it profoundly exciting and challenging. I encountered a steep learning curve, and without the producers at WHYY, the engineers, and the broader team, this series wouldn't have been possible.

One element that drove the production: The narrative audio form naturally amplifies multivocality. I appreciated the ability to layer sound. For example, we wove together interviews, archival footage, music, and essay writing. We worked with some incredible sound designers at Rowhome Productions and the band Moqita to remix the Rocky theme song to bring this to life. And most importantly, a big shoutout to the producers at WHYY Digital Studios—Tom Grahlser, Michael Olcott, and Michaela Winberg—for their careful work and meaningful collaboration.

As you developed The Statue, did you find that the monument in question had any surprising impacts on—or connections to—Philadelphia’s urban landscape?
All the time! I love my city and that love only deepened in this experience through research and production. We heard from Philly neighborhood advocates, public artists, and people who came here to seek asylum and medical care. The fact that many of us had complex and nuanced Rocky stories was fascinating, mind-blowing really. I no longer think of Rocky as a symbol for tourists. The statue is a bellwether and point of reference for shaping belonging for Philadelphians and visitors alike.

The other point that emerged for me is the relationship between the Rocky Statue and other statuary. Even if Rocky was made to appear in a film, and thus came into this world as a prop, it is now understood as a monument by the broad public. I hope people bring the same level of scrutiny to other statues, especially ones we have inherited, and unpack their relationships to power.

What insight do you hope architects and built environment professionals can glean from the project?
I hope they are reminded that there are no neutral public spaces or symbols; to understand what is remarkable and uncanny about the Rocky Statue, and what it also points to in terms of our evolving monument landscape. We idolize a mythical white champ in a city known for its real-life boxing history driven by the legacy of Black and Brown athletes. For example, to consider the story of Joe Frazier—especially his gym that we cover in episodes two and three and the role of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in this narrative—should be a call to action to address historical gaps, erasures, and under investments in the people and institutions protecting Black history. I hope listeners engage the series, whether as the episodes come out weekly or as a complete arc, and find something that makes them ask questions about other monuments toward productive reflection and change.