Is architecture an artistic pursuit, or are architects pursuing an artistic dream?
Is architecture an art form, and does anyone studying architecture become an artist?
Or is it that artistic people are drawn to architecture to create art on a giant scale?
Is architecture art?
What is Art?
The dictionary defines art as a human creation, such as a painting or sculpture that other people value because it is beautiful or emotional.
Art is not confined to painting pictures or producing sculpture but includes music, dance, literature, tattoos, textiles, and cars.
Something does not need an art label to be artistic.
The features of art are:
- Creation from human imagination.
- Provoking a human reaction – love, hate, and everything in between.
A flower is beautiful, but no one classes it as art.
Cut that flower and arrange it with twigs and fruit, and the resulting display may be an exquisite example of Ikebana (Japanese art of flower arranging) or the subject of a still life masterpiece in oils.
A photograph or drawing of the flower may class as high art, and the image may attract hundreds of dollars.
The human touch is essential in creating art.
The definition of beauty and ugliness is human thought, a way of defining everything into good and not good.
It probably starts before you are born with a preference for your mother’s voice from others.
Beauty and ugliness are not qualities of an object or a person. They are a combination of fashion and preference and a label applied by other people.
They change with the generations; otherwise, art would be a fixed, unchanging part of life, and it is not. It flows along with the changing tide of human likes, dislikes, and experiences.
Art is slippery and hard to grasp; it can be beautiful, ugly, awe-inspiring, or hated – like architecture.
What is Architecture?
Returning to the dictionary, the definition of architecture is about designing and constructing buildings.
But there is more – it is the “art and practice” or the “art and science” of designing structures.
Architecture is practical – people need shelter and protection, but there is also that human yearning for beauty and emotion.
Architecture is the mother of all arts; without a wall to hang it on, what is the point of painting a picture. Sculptures do not stand alone, but in a designed space and for a purpose – to enhance the owner’s surroundings and status.
People and artists work to create homes and public buildings that reflect what brings them joy and aspirations.
Art movements and architecture complement and reflect each other. Historic buildings are a message from past generations about their way of thinking.
Architecture promotes the pursuit of art in its use of materials, details, and decorations.
Architecture provides the canvas for art, but is architecture art?
When you think of “art,” what springs to mind?
A vast oil painting, a marble sculpture, a small bronze figurine, or an unmade bed?
All these win awards, and the world calls them art, but what purpose do they serve other than as art?
Society (and artists) encourages the thought of art as something separate, something that exists for no other purpose than to be art.
Architecture has a function and a purpose. It has a reason to be other than as art. You live in it, work in it, and move around in it.
Architecture was an installation long before the art world came up with the concept.
The meaning and importance of architecture do not depend on its artistic merit. There was a time, rebuilding after the last world war when budget and necessity stripped all the frills from architecture.
Concrete blocks that are quick and cheap to build replace elegant classical buildings.
There was a time when function was all that anyone wanted from architecture.
Architecture was not the only casualty – fashion, furniture, and everything else was “utilitarian” and minimized use of scarce resources. The role of architecture in society is primarily to fulfill a useful human purpose.
Architecture and humanity twist together.
People need architecture, and architecture is pointless without the human need to shape their world to accommodate their needs.
Is architecture an art form when it has a practical function?
Furniture is not an art, yet the art of making furniture is admirable, and some furniture is artistic.
Perhaps architecture is not so much art as an art of doing and making.
A bridge has a primary function – to span space and make your journey possible or more accessible. Engineers build bridges, and sometimes they get it wrong and learn from their tragic mistakes.
The Forth Railway Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland, is an example of an engineer’s bridge. It is a local feature and deeply loved, but no one considers this bridge to be art (source).
Contrast that bridge with the Python Bridge, Amsterdam, Netherlands, a similar bridge, but this one is architect-designed and beautiful, striking, and artistic (source).
Art vs. architecture is not a battleground; when it comes to architecture, you can have both – function and emotion-provoking art.
Sculpture, in artistic terms, is the creation of a 3D shape that is representative of a natural form or abstract.
You create a sculpture by carving or casting. That is the traditional artistic definition of what makes a sculpture an art form.
You can see examples of the sculpture’s art in almost every town and city across the world and smaller examples on shelves in homes and offices.
The Abraham Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC features a figurative sculpture in the classical style.
Architecture features sculptural elements and has done since the gargoyles of medieval days to the use of lion’s heads as stone details on public buildings.
But can architecture be a sculpture in its own right?
That is a trickier question.
Architects design and create sculptures. The sculptures architects create are undeniably sculptures, and the architect is, therefore, a sculptor.
But that sculpture is not by itself architecture. It is an architectural element – adding something to the architect’s design and vision.
In this case, architecture promotes sculpture as valuable visual art, but the art lies with the sculpture and not the architecture. You can remove the sculpture from the architecture and sell it in an auction house as art.
Throughout history, tourists and soldiers have looted sculptures from buildings and taken them back home.
Architecture uses sculpture, and the sculpture does not make architecture into art.
What about a functional structure as a sculpture?
Again, this is a puzzle, and the area feels somewhat grey – buildings are 3D shapes in the landscape, and some are sculptural in appearance like the Dancing House in Prague, the Taj Mahal in India, the Chrysler Building in New York, and the Shard in London.
All of these are awe-inspiring buildings, but can you describe them as a vast sculpture?
Instinctively we put great works of architecture into a different category to sculptures.
Installations put you in the artwork, either as an environment you walk through, around, or view from a distance.
Objects, sound, and light create an experience in the moment of interaction.
Creating art in this way began with artists like Kurt Schwitters in 1933 (source). Rooms in his house filled with materials and composed electronic sounds to give visitors an artistic experience – conceptual art is about ideas.
Although the idea of changing environments to create an artistic experience began in 1933, the real drive and push to create installations blossomed from 1977 onwards.
There are categories and types of installation art, alone and in combination:
- Immersive virtual reality
- Reproducible concepts
Most major contemporary art galleries feature a regular number of installations as part of their displays.
Is architecture installation art?
It certainly has many of the features of installation art, and many architects create installations – spaces that make an impact and provoke a response for visitors.
Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that installation art is often a form of architecture?
The difference between installation art and architecture is that installation art needs no other purpose than to exist as an artwork.
Plus, installations are a brief moment in time where architecture aims to live a lot longer, inspiring generations of people.
If architecture is an art form, then the category that fits it best is installation art.
One could say that most epic religious houses are installation art to create and promote a feeling of connection with the sacred.
The history of art reflects the zeitgeist (spirit of the age) of the times that create it – from cave art through the renaissance, baroque, gothic, art deco, and brutalist.
Does architecture create or reflect art movements?
It is hard to pinpoint when one art movement ends and another begins.
There is a rebellion against the accepted order – every teenager tries to differentiate themselves from what went before.
If one generation thinks classical buildings are art, the next prefers a jumble of composition, realism gives way to abstract shapes, and so it goes round and round.
But what about architecture?
Is baroque architecture (source) a result of architects seeing baroque art, or do they just “catch” the mood like musicians and other creative people?
Perhaps it is a bit of both, but when the painters and sculptures move on to new pastures, the buildings remain.
Architects write human history in the buildings they leave behind. When you can read a building, you have the keys to glimpsing past lives with all the rich details and emotions.
You can tell where you are in the world or country by the distinctive architecture of the region. Architecture tends to make use of either local materials or expensive imports.
Both approaches make an emotional statement about the people and the place.
Local materials and methods are practical and economical, and most people in an area build houses that withstand the local conditions and use local resources.
Then, the wealthy display their wealth and status by importing materials from far away and building in a radically different way to their neighbors – a stone house instead of a timber cabin.
Architecture reflects the culture of a place.
The affection migrants feel for their home and familiar buildings lead to the recreation of those building styles in new lands – Venice Beach in California and colonial American homes scattered across the states.
Cultures have art forms that reflect in their architecture, but cultural influences mean that architecture reflects cultural art when transplanting to a new site.
But it is also true that architectural considerations influence the birth of culture from the available construction materials and methods to the building’s purpose and function.
Architecture, art, and politics are not such strange bedfellows as you might think.
Politics derives from the Greek and means the ‘affairs of cities,’ and what is architecture about if it is not about cities?
Can you have a city without architecture?
It is not a coincidence that many public buildings in the States would not look out of place in Greece. Politics links the architecture of a newly emerging democracy in America with the ancient republic in Greece.
It is a political decision and an artistic one.
William Strickland (architect) won a competition to design a bank (the second bank in the US) in Philadelphia (source). His love of classical Greek buildings reflects in this harmonious and symmetrical building.
Greek Revival architecture defined and expressed the emerging American national identity. Across the US, you find classical architecture in public and private buildings.
Did architecture respond to or create the American approach?
Leaders worldwide – religious or secular – use and commission architecture to make a political statement either to their subjects today or seeking a place in history.
They use art for the same purpose.
Architecture and art both impact human emotion and experience.
Your environment influences how you grow up and your aspirations.
The Victorian era in England concentrates on architecture to inspire and improve the lot of the working poor.
By surrounding the poor with the best design and beautiful embellishment, the poor would lift themselves and turn towards heaven. That period was a time of strong upward mobility, and maybe the architecture played a role.
Beautiful architecture that gives space and freedom to people to grow and develop makes society a happier place to live.
On the other hand, tower blocks where people are crammed together with too little space and harsh grey concrete rapidly devolve into a place of unhappiness and violence.
The design of an urban area shapes how people behave and respond in that space.
Architecture can heal or harm, just like art. Architecture has the power to influence minds and actions.
Is Architecture Art?
So, what is the answer?
Is architecture art or science?
Like any artistic installation, it depends on the viewer. Architecture is necessary – like food and drink.
Architecture shelters us and shields us from the elements, like food architecture, can be:
- Functional – eating for nourishment or building for shelter.
- Sculptural – presented as an attractive wedding cake or a beautiful building.
- Cultural – reflecting the place and people.
- Fashionable – style is everything.
Food can be art you eat, and architecture can be art you walk through, sleep in, and enjoy for its beauty and form.
Architecture can be terrifying, awe-inspiring, and detested – just like art.
Is architecture art?
It depends on the architect and the opinion of the public.
Architecture doesn’t have to be art, but there is also nothing stopping architects from creating art on monumental and miniature scales.