How To Make Architecture, Not Art

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?

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "How To Make Architecture, Not Art" 01 Mar 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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