Is Architecture Art?
Is Architecture Art? It’s a question that surfaces periodically in the architectural profession: I wrote on the issue around 1995 and a recent edition of Architecture Australia (March 2016) raised the question again. My answer remains the same as it was 20 years ago, but it is perhaps more interesting to ask why architects feel the need to ask the question at all.
The concept of architecture as art has, in the modern era, aligned with the conception of architecture as object. This understanding of architecture in its relationship to the broader environment is a defining characteristic of modernism. Object oriented design evolves largely from the oil age conception of the city as a place zoned into monocultures linked by mechanized transit. In the shift away from the pre-oil age necessity for walkable mixed use environments, architecture was freed of its role in generously enhancing and activating complex human scale urban realms, towards emphasis on presenting individual self contained sculptural forms to be viewed at a distance and at speed, with the ground level urban interface becoming a kind of shadowline, barrier or void to enhance the expression of those volumes.
An ‘object’ building by Frank Gehry creates a mute, scaleless and barricaded street interface (as posted by The Urbanist, http://blogs.crikey.com.au/theurbanist/2012/01/24/what-is-it-with-architects/)
Architecture prior to modernism was, in contrast, predominantly defined by a component based approach. Component based architecture saw architecture as composed of human scaled elements arranged according to a visual hierarchy or set of rules, or styles. These provided grammars for creating the interfaces with street and setting, defining entries and vantage points, framing and defining boundaries and activating the public realm. The buildings were, in turn, seen as components of that public realm, with an understood role within a hierarchy of urban spatial types. It was also clear that architecture was the servant of the public realm, its performance was judged by the way in which it contributed to making the city more than the sum of its parts.
Component based design in Collins Street Melbourne: colonnades, bays and detailed shopfronts provide human scale and activation at street level
This trend has led to the increasing disengagement of the architectural profession from the public. Just as architecture is frequently seen as not having a constructive engagement with the public realm, so architects are seen as agents of negative effects on the community. This has led to a loss of confidence within the profession, and a retreat to a self defeating cycle of ever more extreme object making in a fruitless search for affirmation and validation.
A recent object building for the Cooper Union in New York by architects Morphosis results in a street interface that appears like a void or shadowline, with a mute and fortified façade above (as posted, with commentary, by The Urbanist, http://blogs.crikey.com.au/theurbanist/2012/01/24/what-is-it-with-architects/)
The modernist myth of the irrelevance of history reinforces this trend, a view that the only valid architectural expression must derive from the ‘spirit of the age’, which for modernism has focussed on the opportunities afforded by oil age materialism. This has led to a constant restless search for the ‘new’, but in so doing has ironically generated its own traditions and grammars of object oriented design.
The modernist promotion of object architecture is probably a primary driver of the tendency to see architecture as art. This fails to understand the fundamental difference between architecture and art, which is habitability. Buildings are things you live and work in. They support social structures. They provide protection and comfort. Above all, they define the quality of public realms. And as such, they engage with the timeless values and requirements of humanity, ways of creating social engagement and consensus at both interpersonal and societal levels. It is a difference which devalues neither architecture nor art. It just asks for them to be seen as performing different roles, and to be assessed fully against those roles.
We are now rapidly approaching the post oil age. We already understand that the profligate use of resources that has underpinned modernism and modernist urban structures are unsustainable and environmentally damaging. We realize that with population growth there is increasing competition for resources of all kinds. We need once again to create dense, walkable, complex, mixed use, low energy urban environments that support the universal and timeless requirements for constructive and equitable human engagement. Far from being irrelevant, a skilled generalist such as an architect has a more important role than ever before. This means fully integrating new skills in urban design, building physics and community engagement into routine practice, and also reintegrating the qualities of component based design into contemporary practice. This will give architects the richer and more adaptable vocabulary to create buildings that can more generously contribute to the overall environment.
The profession should not be overly defensive, but we do need to break down the ‘Bauhaus wall’ that has prevented, for the last 100 years, a more broad ranging and open minded re-examination of all ways of creating successful human settlements from antiquity to today, in finding solutions relevant to our current predicament. Worrying about whether architecture is art or not should be the least of the profession’s concerns.