When I was studying art history in grad school, one question that always popped up was, “What is art?” After hashing out many theories, it remains a deep and complex idea with no easy answer.
When I was studying with the Chicago Architecture Foundation, we pronounced, “Architecture is the only art we all live with every day.” I loved sharing that with people. Sometimes I still do.
But the certainty that architecture IS art is far from settled – in architecture circles most of all.
Doing a bit of combing online, I discovered passionate debate on this question. The dead certainty I encountered was kind of shocking: one architect screaming in all caps, “ARCHITECTURE IS NOT ART!” while another concluded a highly opinionated comment with, “I know that I am not wrong.”
The discussion is fascinating. Can architects be considered artists? Isn’t architecture really just craft? Some argue that because architecture has discrete function, it cannot be art. Some say that intentionality matters – are you purposefully creating art? Others contend that some architecture can be considered art – it has transcended – but certainly not most architecture.
The late Philip Johnson characteristically weighed in: “Architecture is the art of how to waste space.”
We have the lovely 19th-century voices of Goethe: “Architecture is ‘frozen music’… Really there is something in this; the tone of mind produced by architecture approaches the effect of music,” and of Ruskin: “No person who is not a great sculptor or painter can be an architect. If he is not a sculptor or painter, he can only be a builder.”
One of the leading voices in 20th-century architecture was Ada Louise Huxtable. She, without a doubt, believed that architecture was art. She asserted that people react with awe to dense urban environments like New York and Chicago because they are “in the presence of massed, concentrated, steel, stone, power and life.” I definitely need to dig deeper into Huxtable’s thought.
But I came across something that addresses the question of architecture as art in a spare and elegant way. American architect Steven Holl uses four words in What is Architecture (Art?):
Abstract: While artists work from the real to the abstract, architects must work from the abstract to the real. Architecture, under all of its constraints of engineering safety, function, climate responsibility and economy, sometimes transcends to inspire us with ideas in space and light—qualities achieved in the abstract.
Use: A “function” of architecture is to inspire with a construction of luminous spatial energy. Its highest “use” is to deeply move us.
Space: Drawing us from one location to the next, architecture is the art of space.
Idea: A work of architecture has an idea—an organic link between concept and form. The phenomena of space, light, material/detail—as understood by others—convey the art, whether or not the organizing idea is fully grasped.
I welcome your thoughts – and look forward to pursuing these ideas more in future posts.
Photographs by Bob Segal
Given one of the definitions I found, I can see the conundrum, “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Architecture would seem to meet the first half of the definition, but probably not the second half. Is architecture created primarily for its beauty and emotional power? Umm, I would say not. But, does it really matter if we consider architecture as art? I would argue we can appreciate it in whatever category we place it.
Great points, Bob. Perhaps the question matters in part because it dictates policy. If Sullivan’s work had been widely viewed as art in the 1950-60s, so much of it wouldn’t have been mowed down.