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What Is Architecture?
(Originally published in slightly different form in The Free Radical)
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is allIn their book What Art Is, Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi suggest that architecture is not art. Now, this long-awaited book from the editors of Aristos is certainly an important one - though nowhere near as important as they think it is, and nowhere near as important as Rand's own Romantic Manifesto on which their book is based - but unfortunately it is seriously flawed.
Both Rand's Romantic Manifesto and this recent book are important because art itself is so crucially important to human life, and because the field has been overrun by quacks and charlatans. Rand's artistic theory was ground-breakingly important in pointing out precisely why art is so enormously crucial in man's life, and in demonstrating how to identify and disembowel the art-fakers; The Romantic Manifesto was a clarion call against the charlatans - it said that art can be judged objectively, and it demonstrated how. This recent book is the first since to seriously wrestle with Rand's theory and to explicate it, and for that we must be grateful.
Third: What Art Is contains far more theorists speaking about art than it does examples of actual art - it has far more 'office work' than 'fieldwork' - and for a book explicating and concretising art that is a major flaw.
In my view these flaws undercut what might otherwise be a valuable update of Rand's aesthetic theory, and in my view their childish suggestion that "architecture is not art" is such a major blunder that it seriously undermines their veracity as aestheticians. On this issue, Torres and Kamhi are simply wrong and their arguments mistaken. They are wrong in large part because, like many other theorists, they avoid the 'fieldwork' of dealing with the works themselves and consequently misunderstand the essential nature of architecture. What they end up criticising is not architecture as she is in essentials, but instead a straw man of their own making - they are criticising what architecture isn't.
Let me explain briefly why Torres and Kamhi are so wrong on architecture, and in doing so I think I can throw important light on what architecture actually is.
What Architecture Isn't
Architecture is not theoryAs Tom Wolfe points out so hilariously in The Painted Word, in much modern 'art' the theory itself is the art - the so-called artworks themselves are distinctly secondary. Torres and Kamhi fall into this trap by discussing at length assorted theories about architecture, while forgetting that arguments about art and architecture actually require 'fieldwork' - experience and understanding of the artworks themselves and discussion about particular concrete examples. Metaphorically speaking, these theorists are like Goethe studying optics - they never leave their own armchair. Their fieldwork is undone, and their conclusions as a consequence are mistaken.
Instead of a wealth of examples of architecture, theorists such as Batteau, D'Alembert, Alberti, the Kantian Roger Scruton and others are wheeled on and their weak architectural theories summarily dismissed; buildings themselves appear only as an uncomfortable and awkward intrusion and are mentioned only clumsily and in passing. The failing is not in this chapter alone, but is a common fault throughout their book. One senses that, unlike Alexandra York who seems to revel in experiencing fresh new artworks, they instead prefer to talk about art than to experience it. This fault, I submit, leads them directly to their mistaken ideas about architecture.
Architecture is not a decorated boxContrary to widespread belief, architecture is not simply the result of decorating a box inside and out. To be sure, we see decorated boxes all around us and have done so throughout recorded history, but that does not mean that architecture itself is about decorating boxes - it merely means there are a lot of decorated boxes around us.
To put this view succinctly, as has a recent participant on SOLO's forum:
The role of architecture is ... to make utilitarian structures. Beauty can be added to it, but at this point it becomes similar to other visual arts - you may see a building as beautiful as a painting, but that doesn't make the building in itself a piece of art! It is not the building as such which is artistic, but some aspects of its form.
This is certainly a common view of architecture, and architectural theorists from Vitruvius on have commonly advanced this view. Some two thousand years ago Vitruvius declared that architecture is a package-deal combining "commodity, firmness, and delight" - an arrangement which sees architecture today commonly divided into three categories: structure, function, and aesthetics. This trichotomy unfortunately separates the utilitarian (structure and function) from the aesthetic - buildings on this view can sometimes be practical, or sometimes beautiful (and sometimes both if you're particularly lucky in your choice of architect) but the beautiful and the utilitarian are separate factors altogether. Architecture, in this view, is just a box with beautiful and "expressive" features grafted on. Most Objectivists should side-step this false dichotomy with ease, but Torres and Kamhi step manfully into the abyss without even a safety-line to extricate themselves.2
They are not the only ones lost in this abyss. While some of the better architectural theorists like Alberti did go as far as suggesting the three architectural categories be 'well-integrated,' the worst - like Charles Jencks, and philosopher Roger Scruton who Torres and Kamhi take as their guide - consider integration unimportant, and in the case of Jencks et al they crusade militantly against it. Beauty, they maintain, is never in and of a building, it is literally only skin deep. Torres and Kamhi give houseroom to this view quite uncritically, and simply throw architecture out of their gallery as a result.
Now, it is true that many architects often treat their work as just applying candyfloss to a box, but while this may occasionally produce what might be called 'good craft,' it is more usually just bad architecture, and certainly not good art.3 And, like all crafts, while decorated boxes and handicrafts may well be very attractive, their visual purpose as Rand said is primarily sensory and perceptual; good architecture is neither. Like all art, its purpose is primarily conceptual, as I will show.
Architecture is not sculptureSince the nature of architecture is unclear to so many it has often been wrongly equated with non-objective or non-representational sculpture: the all too predictable effect has been to raise the stature of non-objective sculpture - which can never be low enough - while simultaneously lowering the standing of architecture.
Architecture is not sculpture. To be sure, Ayn Rand was herself confused on this point; in a passage I've long had difficulty with she describes "architecture, qua art, [as] close to sculpture: its field is three-dimensional ... but transposed to a grand spatial scale." Now I hasten to say that good architecture is often sculpturally exciting, but the excitement comes from a clear and vigorous expression of the building's purpose, and a clear and vigorous purpose to express.
Torres and Kamhi display their own misunderstanding of this point when they rightfully criticise Frank Gehry's egregiously incoherent Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao - universally praised by posturing morons as a work of "architectural sculpture" - before concluding that "treating buildings as abstract sculpture" is "a lamentable consequence of the claim that architecture is a fine art." It is not that at all, it is in fact a lamentable consequence of misunderstanding the nature of architecture.
Good architecture reveals the nature of a building. As Louis Sullivan correctly noted nearly a century ago: "Speaking generally, outward appearances [in nature] resemble inner purposes ... so why all this lying architecture? Are we a nation of liars?" Are we? We often seem happy when architectural exteriors are simply grafted onto interiors in total ignorance of function - a practice all too common - but as Gehry has demonstrated so eloquently in Bilbao this practice simply creates incoherent, and 'deconstructed' architecture.
Frank Lloyd Wright resisted all such affectation; he used to say that the proper exterior is what happens as a natural, organic result of what happens inside - the building's form, to the extent it is successful, expresses its function; they are an integrated whole and should be judged as such.4
Architecture is not 'representation'The book has as its main thesis that art is representation - or mimesis - but is shockingly equivocal on what this actually means, sliding between Aristotle's notion that "art in a sense completes what nature is unable to finish," and an overly literal meaning paraphrased from a Canadian neuropsychologist. It is this latter very literal interpretation that allows them to airily dismiss architecture as "non-mimetic" and thus non-art. Once again they display their lack of understanding of architecture, a misunderstanding related to their dismissal of architecture as non-representational sculpture.
For Aristotle, all art forms use mimesis, each using different means of representation, different manners of communicating that representation to an audience, and different levels of ethical behaviour represented. The particular means used by architecture is the subject of my next, and main point.
Architecture is not bricks and mortarMy fifth and main point, if I may become momentarily Sciabarrian7, is that architecture is not primarily about the material stuff of a building, it is more accurately about its 'lack of stuff.'
It is this misapprehension more than any other that causes so much of the misunderstanding about architecture, for much of the criticism is about the 'stuff' of building rather than the 'lack of stuff' of architecture. Architecture is often thought of as just so many elevations and so many 'architectural features,' but to think in these terms is to miss the essence of architecture. It is a difficult point to grasp, but I think once grasped the error of Torres and Kamhi becomes clear. What do I mean by 'lack of stuff'? Why does this misunderstanding lead to error? Let me explain. At length.
What Architecture Is
This is an important and overlooked point, and much criticism concluding that 'architecture is not art' arises when architecture is considered only in a two-dimensional fashion, as being only a simple skin deep armature made up of more or less elegant facades and gorgeous surfaces. It is not; it is a space for man to inhabit. Architecture is more than just the raw materials that make up a building - what is crucial is what those raw materials delineate.
Frank Lloyd Wright understood this idea utterly - he was the first to consciously and explicitly realise the full import of space as the reality of architecture and to begin to work with this sense: it heralded "the destruction of the box," he said. "I was the free son of a free people, and I wanted to be free. I had to find out the cause of the imprisonment. So I began to investigate." Describing this 'investigation' he later said:
I think I first consciously began to try to beat the box in the Larkin Building of 1903 ... You will see this feeling growing up, becoming more apparent a little later in Unity Temple: there perhaps is where you will find the first real expression of the idea that the space within the building is the reality of that building. ...So that sense of freedom began which has come into the architecture of today for you and which we call organic architecture.With this revelation he now felt his "hands were in the very stuff of architecture," and that the days of cardboard architecture would be over:
Not only had space come upon a new technique of its own but every material and every method might now speak for itself in objective terms of human life. Architects were no longer tied to Greek space but were free to enter into the space of Einstein.Wright averred that the idea itself was not new at all, suggesting it was first conceived by Lao Tzu who had said:
Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel. Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand and you will have the use of the room ... Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.8In other words the Nothing, i.e., the space contained by the building's armature - the Something - is shaped, and decorated, and related to the exterior, and interrelated to other spaces, and nested within other spaces, and lit and arranged and proportioned ... and all according to the purpose in hand. The result is a new thing - human space adapted to human purpose.
Specifically, the purpose is derived from the architect's selection of specific aspects of man's interaction with his surroundings and with other men, re-created in a particular, specific context.
Speaking somewhat poetically on this architectural space, Claude Megson suggested, "whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more. For space in the image of man is place, and time in the image of man is occasion. ... We are not building buildings, we are building ritual, building occasion, building life itself." We are building space for life, human life, and it is by that standard that a work of architecture should be judged good or bad - not by what its elevations look like, or from whence its ornamental features derive - but to the extent that it reflects and expresses this overriding purpose.
We can say therefore that architecture is a selective re-creation of reality according to particular value judgements made by the architect, and thus paraphrase Ayn Rand's definition of art. When making these spaces, the architect is necessarily making and expressing value judgements about existence and about man's place within existence. Specifically he is answering the question: "In this particular context, what spaces, and what about them, are important to this particular human life?" and he is answering the question by the manner of his chosen architectural expression.
As Sherri Tracinski has suggested, the basic question to be asked then when reviewing architecture is this: What kind of man could be and should be at home here? The question is a fundamental one and the answer will be a product of the architect himself; it will come from his own implicit view of the nature of existence and of man's place in it - as Ayn Rand said of the artist, from his "metaphysical value judgements."
What kind of man would be at home in each of these places, and how can we tell? What is it about each of these buildings that allows us to decide what kind of man could be and should be at home in them?
All these possible ways of forming space for man are open to the architect. Each choice is implicit in every decision of the architect's pen (whether he knows it or not); all these decisions in carving out this new reality embody his own deepest metaphysical value judgements (whether he chooses to recognise it or not). Each building made for man answers for itself the questions: is existence essentially benevolent or malevolent?; is it open to man's actions or closed?; is it knowable or not?; is man's proper estate flourishing or suffering? - fundamental judgements all, and all expressed in the way space is carved out of the material of existence.
Consider for example two values so overwhelmingly expressed in Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater: motion, and purpose. Man is here put, as Wright said "in possession of his earth," with his proper estate being to act purposefully, and to prosper from his actions. Readers wishing to understand architecture could do no worse than to thoroughly scrutinise plans and drawings of Fallingwater (or better still, scrutinise by paying Fallingwater a visit!) in order to ask and answer each of the above questions in turn, followed by an examination of how exactly Wright achieved the effect he sought. They will find no better example to teach them what is possible in architecture.
As Rand said in The Romantic Manifesto:
Man's profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires [and retains] knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of selective re-creation, it concretizes man's fundamental view of himself and of existence.
What Art Is"Art," as Alexandra York says in her book From the Fountainhead to the Future, "is a shortcut to philosophy." About architecture, I say it is the pre-eminent shortcut; architecture certainly is art, it is the master art. In offering us our philosophy as a part of daily life and on a scale encompassing all the arts it recreates the potential for human experience based on the architect's selective re-creation of what experiences are of value. I want to explore this more fully at the forthcoming SOLO conference, but I suggest what architecture does is literally re-create reality.
Despite the paucity of their 'fieldwork' and the massive error Torres and Kamhi make by dismissing architecture, their book does in many other respects provide an enormous and rare service. Although one might quibble with some of their choices of research and researcher, in seeking to update and defend Rand's aesthetic theory with recent research they do deserve commendation. It is not always successful in choosing its sources, but a beginning has been made. In defending art that is Objective this book offers a wonderful bullshit detector to beat back the pretentious quacks who defend the dribbles, the smears and the noise of the anti-art, and in this Age of Crap any allies in beating back the crap are valuable.
In that respect it is an essential book to have on your shelf - but not, I suggest before you buy and digest a few other things first. Rand's own book on art on which this one is based, The Romantic Manifesto, should be on the shelf and in the hands of anybody who has any interest in art; Alexandra York's From the Fountainhead to the Future is a wonderfully passionate book which oozes with the analytical fire this book hasn't. I also suggest you do some fieldwork yourself: listen to plenty of Rachmaninov and Ellington, Gershwin and Strauss to concretise your arguments on music; pore over plenty of books on Michelangelo, Rodin, Wright and Ingres and others; visit the galleries and museums and houses and experience them in the flesh as they were intended to be. Only then should you enter these pages, with your fieldwork as your experience, and your own field notes beside you as your guide. You will benefit from the experience, I assure you, but I do suggest you keep your bullshit detector about you at all times.
Notes1 The late Auckland architect Claude Megson used to frequently criticise the projects of young architecture students - myself included - as just so much meaningless posturing, dismissing students' pretensions by telling them: 'If it doesn't have meaning then you're just wanking."
2 Sherri Tracinscki neatly punctures this dichotomy in The Intellectual Activist of July 2000, suggesting that "the three primary elements of architecture are structure, function and ornament ... "beauty" or "esthetics" [by this standard] is not a separate category; it is not some extra quality tacked on to the utilitarian aspects of a building. Instead a building's esthetic message is conveyed by all three of its aspects - by its structure and function no less than its ornament."
3 It is certainly not art "'in the esthetic-philosophical meaning of the term because in contrast with painting and sculpture, it is not essentially conceptual in its focus but is primarily sensory and perceptual" as Torres and Kamhi correctly say of craft.
4 Wright, who hated dichotomies, in fact maintained that form both followed function and affected it; in his words, "form and function are one," a truth lost on both the Gehry school of post-modern masturbation and also on Torres and Kamhi. Winston Churchill would have agreed: writing on Churchill in 'Recombinant Architecture - Fašade/Interface' the authors commented: "There [is] a complementarity of life and bricks and mortar, like that of snail and shell. If there was a mismatch, then the building had to be modified or the institution was forced to adapt. ... remarking on the British Houses of Parliament, Winston Churchill cast this point into a much-quoted aphorism: we make our buildings and our buildings make us."
5 As Sherri Tracinski said in The Intellectual Activist of April 1998:
The reason architecture seems more difficult to evaluate is that it is non- representational. As Ayn Rand points out, it does not produce a recreation of reality. It does not show us; for example, a building in the shape of a human figure. Nor does it attempt to directly imitate man's natural environment. A column supporting the roof of a house, for example, is not a recreation of a tree. Instead, architecture creates an entirely new environment for man to live in.6 Leon Golden's analysis allows perceptive readers to once again see Rand standing on Aristotle's shoulders when she talks of art 'recreating reality'; one giant standing upon the shoulders of another. Golden has long been known for his advocacy of the view that Aristotle's tragic katharsis is neither medical purgation, nor intellectual purification, but "intellectual clarification" a view that should resonate with Objectivist aestheticians.
In fact, given that Golden is one of the leading contemporary authorities on Aristotle's aesthetics one wonders then why a Canadian neuropsychologist rather than Golden is used by Torres and Kamhi to explicate the Aristotelian theory of mimesis?
7 Sciabarrian, a. to talk in acadamese, or in what appears to be a foreign language.
6 A warning here: Strictly speaking, what Lao Tzu means by 'nothing' is non-existence in the full-blown metaphysical sense. His example of the cup is intended to give praise to the negation of being - non-existence as such - that oriental philosophy views as important. Wright's conception of space is in fact closer to that of Aristotle's notion of place, or topos. Aristotle spoke of space as a 'nest of places,' contextually related to one another; he distinguished between place and form, concluding that the latter contains the former; place being "the interval between the extremities." Lao Tzu's example is more poetically descriptive however.
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