How To Make Architecture, Not Art

  • 01 Mar 2013
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4x4m house – Ando Tadao. Image © Dessen Hillman

Dessen Hillman is currently a graduate student at MIT, pursuing his SMArchS degree in Architecture and Urbanism. He is interested in investigating the role of architecture in various urban settings through the scope of architecture design. 

Since the modernist movement in architecture (early 1900s), building design has been majorly focused on expressing itself as a unique entity, becoming more of an art than architecture. Buildings are now formally expressive more than ever. After pondering the differences between the two, I have, for now, come to a conclusion on one fundamental difference:

Art is a form of self-expression with absolutely no responsibility to anyone or anything. Architecture can be a piece of art, but it must be responsible to people and its context.

Read on to find out how changing the way we snap images coud change the way we evaluate architecture, after the break…

This is not to say that art cannot have any impact on people. It is quite the opposite. Many art pieces have become very influential, even politically potent. Many of them, in fact, are created as a form of critique to a certain concurrent event, government, movement, etc. For example, Chinese artist Ai WeiWei‘s series of photographs cleverly titled as “Study in Perspective” show a number of politically charged buildings with an arm extending out towards them, flicking off the middle finger.

As powerful a tool as art is, having potential is not the same as having responsibility.

Architecture, before it is an art, must first be conscious of people. It is worthless to explore form and do formal (shape) experiments as architecture without constantly being aware of people’s perception and experience. However, it is quite common for formal experiments and explorations to inform architecture in design and construction.

As mentioned before, architecture can be a piece of art. In fact, many successful ones are terrific art pieces in their own ways (formally active or passive). By having the responsibility to respond to people, architecture is indeed a more challenging task than art. It is undoubtedly more limited and less expressive.

I am in no way a proponent of mundane architecture. I am simply trying to remind myself, and hopefully other architects, that architecture must begin with its fundamental task. It must provide an inspiring and terrific experience for people inside and outside of it. It must be responsible at the very least to its immediate context and inhabitants. It then becomes an amazing piece of architecture when it is also a piece of art and environmentally responsible in some way or other.

Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center by Kengo Kuma. Right: Audi Forum Tokyo by Creative Designers International. Image © Dessen Hillman

For example, the left image above shows a piece of architecture in Asakusa, engaging with its corner location through its shape and its facade. It is not easy to imagine this building to be located anywhere else. Its exterior planes are lined up with its surrounding buildings and its material appropriately identifies with the traditional temple district context of Asakusa.

The right image shows a piece of sculpture near Harajuku that stands in isolation and screams for attention (notice it ‘wiggles’ its way into the space between the two buildings without touching them, expressed by its shape). This building can easily be ‘transported’ and placed anywhere else and will still be equally as contextual as it is currently.

I have discovered a rather easy and simple way to test whether a building is more successful as architecture or an art piece through the lens of a camera. I realize that the majority of people (architects, architecture students, as well as non-architects) look at architecture as objects. They look at designed buildings as sculptures. This can be seen through the way they capture photographs of the building. Often times, I see people take photographs of architecture as the centerpiece of the image. It takes the spotlight in the composition through the viewfinder of a camera. It is understandable and instinctive as we are drawn to beautiful objects.

However, as architects, we must be aware that this thinking process fundamentally alters our own designs. If we see buildings as sculptural objects (often unwittingly), we will undoubtedly design them as sculptures as well. This is quite apparent as we look over the computer screens of working architects in a school or an office. It is common practice today for an architect to design an object (the architecture) in his virtual 3D world of modelling software as an isolated object floating in space, meticulously paying special attention to the form, details, and structure of, as well as circulation within the object. It is quite rare to see surrounding context taken seriously through the process of design. If anything, a “site analysis” is often done as a separate exercise that feeds into the design in a one-way trip. Architects rarely hold hands with the context of the building he/she designs and walk through the design process together.

National Museum of Art, Osaka – Arata Isozaki. Image © Dessen Hillman.

By capturing panoramic photographs, we are able to include much more of the context around the architecture we are observing. Although distorted, panoramic images are terrific ways to see the context of a building (formal, programmatic, and cultural). It is an easy way to quickly see how much a structure qualifies as a piece of art or an architecture. By doing this, we may make it our habit to be critical of context in architecture and hopefully push us towards better architecture.

After all, what is left of architecture without context?

Cite: Dessen Hillman. "How To Make Architecture, Not Art" 01 Mar 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 29 May 2015. <>
  • Adam Brcic

    I would love to see some published work…Please let us know if something is in the works

  • Nicolò Zanatta

    Most, if not all, of the post-war Italian Architects were heavly focused on the relationship between architecture and its context. Vittorio Gregotti, Edoardo Gellner, Bruno Morasutti and many more, paid always attention on the surroundings of their works. Aldo Rossi especially, in his book “The Architecture of the City”, explored this very subject. It’s relieving to see that this way of thinking is coming back

    • Alexan Stulc

      Nicolò is certainly right; the concept of building context following the first wave of modernism was explored by Rossi and his Italian counterparts… one could also say that Venturi and Brown in the US were also trying to combat the ubiquity of context-less architecture. I question whether it was modernism that introduced the building-as-object phenomenon or if it has been around for longer (or..later, such as Eisenman’s early theory. Please also keep in mind that the introduction of photography as an “art test” introduces a host of variables that severely limit the objectivity of a given example. While I fully support buildings that perform well and engage in an urban dialogue, I am not sure this critique fully captures the problems that you have so keenly noticed.

      • Nicolò Zanatta

        As trivial it may sounds, it’s a matter of balance. The building-as-object is not an invention of the last century, since most of the monuments in the classicism, acted on the same bases. The problem that emerged recently is that, while some of the buildings that make up for the city can act as oversized scupltures, not all of them can be based on this concept. In the past monuments were used to create landmarks where needed, in addition to the glorification of the client. Thinking now on what Dubai, Beijing, and many other cities are, or aim to become, it’s quite depressing, since my relief reading this article.

  • ted

    While I agree with the premise that architecture should engage its context in a meaningful way, I question the simplicity of reducing this success or failure to a simple panoramic photo, i.e. an image. In reducing ones understanding of a piece of architecture to a single image or even series of images, one looses the ability to fully understand the work. In order to truly judge how a building fits (or doesn’t) into the surrounding context one must actually see it in person, walk around it, through it if possible. It’s the reason that physical models are superior to renderings in allowing you to understand a design because it allows you the viewer to see from your own perspective, from a variety of angles, etc. Context is important, but you need more than a panoramic image to understand it.

  • ted

    While I agree with the premise that architecture should engage its context in a meaningful way, I question the simplicity of reducing this success or failure to a simple panoramic photo. In reducing ones understanding of a piece of architecture to a single image or even series of images, one looses the ability to fully understand the work. In order to truly judge how a building fits (or doesn’t) into the surrounding context one must actually see it in person, walk around it, through it if possible. It’s the reason that physical models are superior to renderings in allowing you to understand a design because it allows you the viewer to see from your own perspective, from a variety of angles, etc. Context is important, you need more than a panoramic photo to understand it.

  • Dom


  • Joseph N. Biondo

    An amazing piece of architecture is one that responds acurately to program, resonates to the history of its place, inspires, and does this quietly, generation after generation.

  • Gordon Anderson

    Architecture without context=freedom from the mistakes and limitations of the past.

    • mxthree

      Architecture without context = much more likely freedom from the great successes of the past, which actually results in more failures

  • Jim

    Everything has a responsibility to its context, especially art. Don’t play into the conservative/corporate game by dividing up the world into things that do and things that don’t have a responsibility to their context. Research especially depends on intellectual context, that’s how you begin a thesis paper, by stating the sources that feed your specific thoughts/proposals. If that contextual basis is misguided, then what follows becomes a waste of time. Don’t build your thesis on the faulty outdated worldview that some things do and some things don’t have a responsibility to their context. That’s the last kind of thinking the world needs more of.

  • -Q-

    I agree with what is said here and I’m glad to find insightful opinions about this subject.
    Todays architecture is overpopulated with “egos”. Signature architecture is a stupid way to think a building. Kenneth Frampton talks about “critic regionalism”, to link a building to its context using the “tools” of the culture and surroundings to dialogue with the buildings environment. I think thats the way to think architecture.
    I also think that we should design buildings thinking of scenaries and human scale rather than thinking about 3d sculptures buildings and displaying them on mags and websites like sacred “totems” of hype and originality.
    Peter Zumthor talks about this kind of contextual architecture, respecting its neighbours, Alvaro Siza materializes it!
    I’m really glad I read this article!

  • post

    This is certainly a relevant topic. Firstly, to compare architecture to Francis Bacon, Damien Hirst or Beethoven is absurd…I weep when I hear the term ‘frozen music’.

    I think the next Bienniale is going to address this issue in some way. Context is a broad issue, not a simple matter of regionalism. Many architects still believe that architecture is fundamentally a form of art. IT IS NOT. It carries allot of responsibility, but it is a mistake to associate this as art as we have come to understand it. A building need not ‘fit’ into its surroundings, this approach is far too simplistic. Context is an evolutionary idea.

    What I see and have experienced in the field of architecture, is an existential dilemma. It is a highly elitist profession that tends to see itself as something other than it is. Many of these horrendous forms suggest they carry complex ideas about the city, it’s people, revealing something about the nature of architecture. Most people don’t understand or care. Unfortunately architecture is increasingly a victim of consumerist narcissistic culture of image and marketing.

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  • hosseini

    i think this two articles can help to extend this note:

    A Memetic Theory of Modernism.:
    2- Architectural memes in a universe of information

    these articles explain that how the computer and internet help to Spread whats salingarous (Author of both articles) named its “meme” in architecture… especially “images base” presentation of designs!

  • effn_pele

    These 2 statements are not substantiated and seem very misinformed:
    1)”Art is a form of self-expression with absolutely no responsibility to anyone or anything.”

    2)”As powerful a tool as art is, having potential is not the same as having responsibility.”

    If you are developing this as an academic concept and not as a rant, talk with people outside your view point.

    “If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” _Sun Tzu

    • Kev

      Hi, I just enrolled in an architecture course recently so my ideas and facts may not fit the “architectural” mission, but after reading this article and scrolling through the comments, yours is the most agreeable to me.

      While agreeing that architecture is about designing functional spaces or landscapes, I think to separate architecture from art is a fatal mistake, not to the building, but to our current architectural era.

      Modern buildings like Villa Savoye are highly functional, but they are symbolic as well. The idea of Le Corbusier’s Dom-Ino house has been carried on for decades and we can see most of its concepts behind recently built edifices, whether you hate them or not. To me, ideas like this are art. That’s modernism for me.

      Then comes post-modernism, when architects questioned existing concepts and sought for their own expression. Many strange-looking buildings came about. Some detested them, like the wiggly glass building up there, but without these kind of experiments, how can you find new use of existing materials, or new technology on the whole? I haven’t been to that “sculptural” building above, but I believe a better criteria to judge that work is whether the glass panels hold weight or not. Not responding to context? Don’t make me laugh, it’s in a cold zone, glasses is best to let light in and heat up the area, while the wiggle probably a literal interpretation of setting itself apart from the concrete and masonry buildings around. So research the building extensively first before you post such thing Ms. Quirk. Another stronger example could be Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York. Does it fit into the surrounding visually? No, but its use of natural light and the inner helical path is pretty refreshing. I trust that’s why it’s remembered, not because of Wright’s fame. The point is, Wright defines “context” different from you. Well it’s not exactly a post-modern building but in my opinion the essence of post-modernism can be presented here.

      Ms. Quirk’s arguments do not conform to any of these era so I guess it’s representative of our current state of architecture, as so many people here says they wholeheartedly agree with her. I’m not sure what we can make out of this day and age yet, considering some cannot define art and context properly, but I hope at the finishing line we produce something worth remembering like Tadao Ando’s works, which emphasise the fusion of the spiritual and the physical. Then I believe it will become art.

      All in all, I think good architects design things that can influence culture and that the artistic part of this journey, be it buildings or landscape or urban planning. Now that I rest this case, the question of if we should draw inspiration from other art forms still pertains, as some food for thought.

      Just my two cents. Please tell me if I get anything wrong.

      P.S. And seriously, those who completely agree to this article without questioning a thing are pretty pathetic. I hope you’re not some forty, fifty year-old architects because that would leave this young generation a huge floor to sweep.

      • Vanessa Quirk

        Hi Kev –
        I would like to point out that while I posted this article, I am not it’s author (please see the first paragraph). Moreover, I do agree that architecture should hold symbolic value and have an aesthetic identity of its own.

        However, to defend the author, and challenge your claim, I would counter that your criticism of the author’s chosen examples of architecture vs. sculpture is undeveloped. First of all, you say that the choice of material – in this case glass – is appropriate to context because it’s in a cold zone. However, consider the form that glass has taken; when compared to the building beside it (which also uses glass and creates a light-filled interior There’s no question that, in the context of its neighbors, it’s an intrusive addition. As Dennis says, that building could be in Tokyo, New York, or London – which is not to diminish its worth as an interesting piece of architecture, but to suggest that it has not incorporated some of its locality (via material, typology, etc.) into its vernacular.

        To be my own Devil’s advocate, you could of course argue that the building is entirely appropriate for its Harajuku setting, which is a modern and colorful urban neighborhood; however, you did not point that out as part of your criticism. Similarly, you could make the same argument for the Guggenheim – within the context of New York City, a hodge-pode of architectural styles and types, anything goes. And Wright’s unmistakably “sculptural” effort can shine (were the Guggenheim in Fallingwater’s setting, that of course would not be the case).

        Of course, whether a building adheres to context will always be an entirely subjective question – as will the importance of architecture as valid artistic expression. However, I think that Dennis’ point, that we conceptualize and represent architecture panoramically, rather than sculpturally, is an important one.


  • Vat

    i completely agree, nice article.

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  • Nancy Clements

    1. To make a distinction between Architecture and Art is, itself, a highly subjective “…form of self-expression…” All would probably agree that a “contextual” approach to architecture is preferable – this is not a new idea.

    2. Be wary of the self-serving manner in which the architectural community appropriates language. “Context” is a term that has many different meanings depending upon its context (no pun intended).

    3. Your definitions of Art and Architecture are extraordinarily narrow. Art people – whatever that means (as long as we’re categorizing things) – would have trouble with your definitions, as would any self-critical thinker that attempts to scrutinize his/her own biases (for fear of ignoring the infinite context in which his/her perceptions are formed).

    4. The argument is, as you’ve presented it, unsubstantiated (effn_pele spoke some wise words)

    5. Despite my criticism I still choose to look at this text in a slightly different, yet positive, light. I see the argument’s ostensible malformation as tentative proof that it is actually a social experiment intended to satirize Architectural discourse. In that way, it is Art, and it has made a very responsible contribution to the Architectural community by allowing us to criticize our criticism. We are part of Hillman’s Art as much as we are a part of this dialogue.

    6. #criticism#art#architecture

  • mxthree

    The author makes an important case about the civic duty of buildings versus merely sculptural buildings, but I don’t think his two examples are different enough to illustrate this contrast effectively.

    The author suggests that the walls of building on the left are deliberately being located to align with adjacent buildings (to be deliberately sensitive to context), but instead its shape is merely governed by lot lines, just as the building on the right is. The building on the left actually does a better job of screaming for attention than the building on the right, despite the author’s claim, due to its corner location and its enormous size compared to adjacent buildings.

    Both buildings equally fail to engage their contexts, because they are too visually loud. For architects today to truly design in a contextually-sensitive way, they will need to tone down their designs and become more modest. However, this is a conflict of interest for the architect, as the author alludes to. I hope that architects will soon get off their high horses and address their civic duty in a mature way.

    • Kev

      While I see your aim, I hope you respect other architects’ beliefs and visions instead of telling them to get off their horses. Unfortunately, in this age of high consumption, I have to admit people like you have better chance of winning against people with bizarre ideas, until they come up with one so radical that it can change the society perspective of course.

      • mxthree

        I understand your point, and I do agree that one should never discredit visions for a better model of something. The beef that I have is with the many buildings which go up by certain vain architects who will do something, anything, to be well known or published. The more radical looking, the better their chances.

        I understand that not all contemporary architects are driven by such vanity, but many of them are. Those particular architects engage in shameless behavior that damage the public realms of cities, just for the sake of “showing off” to their friends.

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  • Toby

    Architecture concerned with form as opposed to being obsessed with function does not necessarily make it art. This art/architecture dialectic you invoke is really about form/function and not about art at all. Peter Eisenman’s essay in Oppositions (1976) Post-Functionalism may give you insight (as a starting point) as to why some architects are concerned with form. What results is in fact architecture, and not necessarily art. What I am saying is that just because a building looks ‘sculptural’, it is not done without thought. There is serious architectural theory and reason behind it that one should not disregard.

  • John Riley

    I think the writer of this architecture is very uninformed. Architecture is an extension of art. Architectural Theory and Art History together constitute such a fact. Please do your readings.

  • Dadi Dindul

    All of architecture is art but not all art is architecture. This implies that all architects are ultimately artists but the same couldnt be said for artists. Trying to take art away from architecture in the slightest since will be a flaw. Though I agree some architects today tend to focus more with form rather than functional space, quite a number have excelled in combining both form and functional space and relating both to external space and context. I see no problem with viewing a building as a sculptural piece so long as it satisfies the necessary conditions. Self expression is also style, every architect surely would have his signature with regards to the building he or she designs. While I try to read your article objectively, I must agree it is misinformed on some levels. Still, its been a good read.