Blog II: Control in Art and Architecture

Over the 34 years I’ve practiced architecture, some friends have commented enviously on the blending of the pragmatic and the artistic in designing buildings. It’s a fair question. gives several definitions for art. #2 in their list is, “the class of objects subject to aesthetic criteria; work of art collectively, as paints, sculptures or drawings.” But definition #4 says, “The fine arts collectively, often excluding architecture.”

On Eden Gallery’s website, they parse the question, “Is architecture art?”,what%20we%20know%20as%20architecture

The author notes that while architecture is one of the classical forms of fine art, because it meets both functional and artistic needs, it is not a pure, creative endeavor. The element of necessity in the practice of architecture causes it to straddle the world between art and craft.

I’ve used a different criterion, one that, for me, places architecture squarely outside the realm of art. That criterion is control. In my imagination an artist controls both idea and execution. Architecture is always the product of client, architect, and builder.

I’ve felt that the ability to have a singular idea and to skillfully execute it was at the core of being an artist. Any insightful, novel, or profound idea that the architect has must always be secondary to the client’s functional needs, financial means, and time constraints. Further, the builder, often chosen on price alone, may not have the skill to faithfully execute the design. In the modern, North American building industry, the builder’s knowledge and perspective often trumps recommendations of the architect when the owner must make choice. Often what the architect draws, and details falls victim to the builder’s assertion that it will cost too much or take too long. Any artistic content imbedded in the design is all too often ground out through the process of construction.

But my premise that a lack of control in the execution of an idea disqualified architecture as art was recently challenged in a conversation with a painter, leading me to as Google, “Is architecture art?” On the website, Catherine Bosley and Mark Soham assert, “‘Art’ is where we make meaning beyond language. Art consists in the making of meaning through intelligent agency, eliciting an aesthetic response. It’s a means of communication where language is not sufficient to explain or describe its content. Art can render visible and known what was previously unspoken.” A building can convey meaning. It may be more or less than what the architect intended, but as an object, owners, occupants, and those who pass by all read something into the building. Whether beautiful or vulgar, ostentatious or spartan, timeless or ‘of-the-moment,’ a building conveys values and engenders opinions.

Few artists, or architects, would believe that control means freedom to do whatever one wants. I’ve often asserted to colleagues and staff that constraints engender creativity. The participation of others in the process of creating a building is but a type of constraint. Whether it is the owner’s budget or a contractor’s preference for a particular method of construction, the seasoned architect accepts the constraints and will still generate, and communicate, meaning, order and, occasionally, beauty.

That a building project is usually undertaken to meet a need or solve a problem may disqualify architecture from any modern definition of fine art, but the ability of the architect to invest meaning in design beyond mere utility, gives architecture artistic significance.

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