This article was originally published by Common Edge as "Enduring Principles of Art That Also Apply to Architecture."
It is safe to say that architects, academics, critics and even the public have been arguing about the merits of architectural style for centuries. Even during the course of my own career, the more general style categories of contemporary-vs-traditional have continued in an unabated battle. For better or worse, contemporary has generally won out as the default position for most schools and publications, probably because of the sheer visual entertainment value it offers, and the lucrative merits of its two stepchildren, branding and advertising.
I’d like to propose another position: that certain enduring principles of art, rather than any temporary style—and, remember, they are all temporary—should be our real architectural goal. This presumption means you must be agnostic when it comes to style and put aside any notion of an ideological stance regarding the right or wrong of your architectural preferences. There are those, of course, who say that to imagine that “my art” is better than yours, or even that I can define real art in the first place, is a fool’s errand.
I think otherwise.
Good art is, in fact, definable, and the best architecture is artful. This position means any style is possible and the best architecture can be defined by principles of good art rather than the correct style. Note that I’m not arguing for “beauty” here, a more ephemeral concept. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but I would argue artfulness is not.
Some background: I’m an architect with 40 years of experience and an author, but I’m also a landscape painter. So I know something about both architecture and the pure art of painting. Over the years, I’ve developed some concepts about the relation between the two. It’s important to say first that some fundamental rules apply in painting no matter what. Last time I looked, the complementary colors were still complementary, and if I mix yellow and blue on my palette, I get a green. Depending on the pureness and amount of those two primary colors, the green will change. That’s why I have no green in my paint box. There are just too many greens out there to rely on just one. And if I mix red, the compliment, with that green it will dull it, or more accurately, gray it. That principle is true now and always has been. (As a matter of interest, there is no such thing as an absolutely pure primary color. That fact makes the mixing of colors even more interesting.)
I also happen to think there are other principles that apply across both architecture and painting. Let’s start first with Composition and Value. In painting, composition refers to the configuration or framework of a piece, while value means the lightness or darkness as they relate within the composition. Any great or even good painting has both, and I think the same can be said for a piece of architecture. Unlike a static painting, you move through a work of architecture so good composition and value must be dynamic and there’s the added quest for good composition and value on the interior as well as exterior. Nonetheless, we can all recognize a piece of architecture that has both. Large cantilevered or multifaceted roofs may make for interesting photos but not necessarily good composition or value. Likewise, a static composition modeled after a Greek temple doesn’t necessarily ensure a good composition either, even though its value may be quite dramatic.
There are a number of other principles that I have discovered over the years as well. Edges is another one. In painting, it’s the thin edge between two larger areas of the painting that can have an immediate and magical impact on how those two areas relate—for instance, between the horizon and the sky. In architecture, the same principle applies. Who hasn’t seen an otherwise interesting building ruined by the clunky nature of a roof edge? The edges between roof and wall, or wall and ground have a large impact on the quality of the overall visual experience.
Perhaps the most obvious principle and—if there is any order, the highest one—is Space and Light. Without both—and the elegant interaction of the two—neither a painting nor a work of architecture can be truly meaningful. The masterful use of both by painters and architects as diverse in style and time as George Inness, Willem de Kooning, Edwin Lutyens, and Tadao Ando attests to its being perhaps one of the most important principles we can apply to merit a good work of architecture. Some painters and architects have even defined the very nature of painting and architecture using the words “space” and “light” or their interaction; I.M. Pei once said: “The essence of architecture is form and space, and light the essential element.”
Perhaps my favorite principle is All Great Paintings Have a Moment. What I mean is that all great paintings place us in a unique place or time, or perhaps help us reflect on some iconic or eternal truth that is within all of us. The same can be said of an artful piece of architecture. Great paintings and architecture go beyond any immediate time and place and have a kind of transcendent sense about them. They deify time as much as they define it. I’m reminded here of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute. Standing in that exterior courtyard transports us to another place that is not about style but about the art of the experience. It is a moment made even more magnificent because of its clearly manifested composition and value, its edges, and the use of space and light.
I’m certainly not the first to relate art to architecture or other art forms such as poetry or even to call architecture “frozen music” as Goethe did. But sometimes we need to step away from our intra-professional definitions and remind ourselves that simple enduring principles are often the best. Architecture is, after all, an exercise of the mind and requires some clear discipline. It may be that we’ll all be just a bit richer with a fresh look at how we define a good piece of architecture, if we also define it in terms of the enduring principles of art.
Jeremiah Eck is founding partner of the Boston-based Eck/MacNeely Architects, which specializes in houses and private schools. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, author, landscape painter, and a former lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he continues to offer seminars.