architecture is not a fine art. Schools should stop teaching it like one.
Spoliated Capital in the Met Cloisters.
This essay is a work in progress. Human beings, in the broadest sense, make two kinds of things: tools and art. What sets art apart from its quotidian counterpart is the fact it has intellectual content. Art can thus be understood as form which expresses an idea. Conversely, form without idea is called craft. This latter type of utilitarian object may be created artfully, with great skill, perhaps so elaborately decorated that they become impractical, but they are still in their essence a kind of tool.
These categories are simplistic but satisfactory for our purposes. One type of object has meaning, the other has utility.** The question at hand is what kind of thing is architecture — art or craft? It clearly falls into the category of a useful object, insofar as the medium of architecture is the building and the building is a dwelling, a shelter, a tool. Yet this is where many architects tend to recoil.*** Architecture is not mere building ... it is more, they say, for this would be to mistake the paint for the painting. Architecture is something above and beyond the mere building. It has meaning, ideas, symbols; it participates in an historical linneage, makes references and allusions, it can signifiy the identity of a culture, and all of this elevates it to an art.
The building as building, displayed in the Met Cloisters.
Yet the mistake here is to assume that architecture needs to be elevated at all. This is a prejudice that pervades (in the 'west') as the vestige of aristocratic values that celebrate the life of the mind over the work of the hand. Consider a Stradavarius, the stuff of legend. It is just an instrument. Must one add to it ideas entwined in theory, and interweave impressive concepts borrowed from music and maths, anatomy and psychology, to understand its worth? No. These instruments are valued because of what they do, and because they do it best. One could write volumes about one such violin, but that would be nothing compared to hearing it with the right ear; and having heard it, one needs no explanation. The violin is an extraordinary thing in its own right. So too is the building.
And to continue with the analogy, is it possible to say that one is more important, among the instrument, the composer, and the musician? No. Each has a crucial role to play, none are exempt from the final product.
Architecture is no different. It requires all three elements of the performance: the idea (musical composition), the instruments (buildings) and the musicians (building trades). Beautiful architecture must be played on beautiful buildings — and who but architects will design them? A good building cannot be assumed. The more architects focus exclusively on the composition, in the same measure do they lose the skill and ability to affect the medium of the building itself. That is someone else's problem, they say; Those are practical matters. We are in the idea business.
Ironically, this process reinforces itself. The more buildings become generic, placeless, and disposable, the more architects think they need to elevate the basic building to something more significant. They are not wrong when they assess tI contend, however, that it is not the idea which is missing from this equation. Rather, it is the gradual abandonment of quality building practice that . It is only because the craft has been stripped out of making them that modern buildings seem so empty.****
Consider the Met Cloisters (pictured), which provides another rare example of tool-qua-toolbeing celebrated by the 'art establishment.' Shown is a recreation of a medieval cloister using original, spoliated material. Immediately upon arrival the effect is profound: light, proportion, texture, scale, the sounds of running water, the humus fragrance of earth. This space is just like music; the instrument on which it is played is the building. The two are intricately entwined, neither architecture nor experience less important than its counterpart.
The obsession with elevating architecture to an art by focusing on its idea ignores the nuance between instrument and performance and effectively overwhelms the experience entirely. The instrument has now become the performance: architecture is a static object commanding the attention of a captive audience. These sculptures that adorn the modern city may be creative, wild, preposterous, unique, novel, and spectacular things, but they drown out the music of life.
No. If we want to make places again, if we want to restore the fabric of communities, we must make good buildings first. Given the monumental tasks civilization is faced with — social, ecological, and economic — the world needs them more than ever. Architects should design them. The way to make good buildings is to focus on their necessary qualities which are intimately tied to questions of use: for whom are they designed, and how well are they serving these people?
It doesn't matter what a building says, or worse yet, what an architect wants it to say. It only matters what it does.It doesn't need to win awards or look interesting or even attract attention at all. More often than not, a good building goes without notice, operating in shadows of consciousness, quietly supportive — a balance to the chaos and shock of modern life. Whatever beauty or drama is added to this baseline is warranted only insofar as it serves this basic mission: to enable those who visit, live, and work therein to thrive.
Good buildings will make a human future possible in light of the serious challenges we face. I believe they are one of the essential conditions of civilization, like agriculture, politics and medicine. Sadly, I also fear contemporary architecture, especially as it is taught in schools, has strayed far from this calling.
No amount of intellectual content which you could add through symbolic interpretation can make this space any better. That is not to say meaning does not exist but only to say it is not necessary. Stripped of an apparatus for intellectual apprehension this space loses nothing. Buildings, like all tools, succeed without this layer of interpretation. When it comes to buildings, meaning is auxiliary, a gloss, a trifle, a curiosity, the basis of arguments which give purpose to a cadre of connoisseurs, a thing for books that are read in rooms far away from the actual room in question.
There are two reasons for this. First, and quite bizarrely, the value of these architectural "ideas" themselves goes untested, so the arguments are tautological. In other words, a work is judged to be good simply if it demonstrates the student's intent. Bizarre, but true. Shouldn't we really be asking if the intent itself is any good? A student may chose a concept out of the proverbial hat, and as long as the work demonstrates this chosen concept it is considered successful. This is only a test of accuracy. What we need is way to measure integrity.
Second, the way design awards are structured and the way feedback is given, in general, disproportionately reward designers who impress professional architects instead of actual users. This applies to schools as well as professional organizations who confer awards (of which there are a silly amount). Architecture, to architects, is essentially a form of entertainment to be "enjoyed" (or criticized, which is a sick form of enjoyment). But architecture is not enterntainment. This does not mean it cannot be done with artistry and skill, but to treat it as such inverts the real value of a building, placing its most superficial, photographic, spectacular and fleeting qualities at the forefront and neglecting the parts which matter most (e.g. cost, durability, and other quotidian realities spread across decades) to the people who rely on these buildings every day for their livelihood and security.
And the bottom line is that 99% of buildings have more important things to do than express ideas that matter to architects.
* I will use 'art' and 'fine art' interchangeably. ** This is not to say art does not have a purpose, but we do not confuse the paint with the painting. To precisely dissect this dichotomy between art and craft would take volumes, and would expose much overlap, inevitably, between the two. Nonetheless, this categorization is a good place to begin to understand the problems that arise when we have trouble differentiating, and appropriately valuing, the nature and worth of each kind of object. *** Not all, it is important not to essentialize, but a preponderance of those who hold this position gravitate toward academic institutions — mind you, about the ony place you can be paid as an architect NOT to build buildings. This development (of architecture as art) is a topic worthy of its own inquiry, but generally started in the early 1900s and was unmistakable in the 1932 Exhibition of International Architecture at the MoMA. See also: "Architecture School, Three Centuries of Educating Architects in America" ed. Joan Ockman. **** A close reader will inquire whether good buidings are necessarily expensive. The short answer is no, not necessarily, but it is easier with a decent budget. Don't forget, though, that massive budgets beget horrific monstrosities, too. There is no necessary relationship between cost and quality, but the design must accomodate the cost. Designing to one figure and building to another is almost guaranteed to fail.