Architecture as Art Form (2 of 3)

Aesthetic and cultural practices are peculiarly susceptible to the changing experience of space and time precisely because they entail the construction of spatial representations and artefacts out of the flow of human experience.

-David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, pg 326

Architecture as an Art Form.

Having explained my boosterism for Functionalism and how it can be used to generally define art, I will shift attention to focus on the integration of architecture and introduce it properly within ‘art’. 

  1. Conscious Intention: for architecture, this is always fulfilled and is an ineradicable part of it. 

All structures have a ‘thesis’. That thesis is rooted in the Function of the building and is “dependent on the historical and cultural context, that influence both the designer’s and user’s perceptions.”§ The spatial thesis - spasis - through physical structural markers and their alterations allows us to reinforce linguistic sound images. Sound images are tied to physical structures and thus produce secondary forms of spasis. 

Conscious Intention is ineradicable because all architectural structures exist within a larger rhetoric related to the sociocultural and socio-epistemic attitudes. As extension, the perceptions of the physical or conceptual context that architecture resides within and simultaneously advances through variations and reinforcements of type and topological form.

Additionally, as the didactic, political and economic contexts subliminally shape spasis’ and space, they also shape architects who are part of society; they [architects] as addendum guide spatial participants (sparties) and work to influence them by making them believe in the contextually determined spasis.

  1. Engagement past interest, or spaesthetic experience (SX).§

It is clear that architecture engages in and crafts a persisting SX both as part of point 1 and as a separate consideration. SX can range from ‘good’ to ‘bad’, beautiful or ugly, and any other number of emotions.  

Architecture can be (and has been) used for spatial manipulation against people just as it has been used to manipulate space for people. Thus, as not all art will provide a ‘pleasant’ experience - neither will architecture. 

To return to Tolstoy, we can amend his quote on art and pleasure to read: “To see the aim and purpose of [architecture] in the pleasure we get from it is like assuming (...) that the purpose and aim of food is the pleasure derived when consuming it.” §

Architecture has never been intended to fully function as a space of pleasure, perhaps shelter taking the first priority with multiplicities that are simply bound to the usage of structure as shelter, though we can derive pleasure from architecture. Factors like noise-canceling materials, open space, lighting, air quality, plant life, seating arrangements, etc. are all manipulated to produce positive SX. The biophilia hypothesis, coined by Erich Fromm, for example, suggests that “humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.”§ Thus, designing biophilic spaces tends to lead towards a positive SX, citing that these spaces can decrease stress and enhance creativity.§  


We can also derive horror and disgust from architecture yet still evaluate structures as ‘good’. 

Violent and ‘bad’ architecture

A fascinating design problem that has been increasingly investigated is the storage of nuclear waste: How can we design a spatial landscape for the future  that says ‘stay away, there is dangerous material here?’ Given the incredible evolutionary shift of neanderthals even 100,000 years ago, and the emergence of technology, communications, and language, how can we plan for an unknown future where we don’t know who will populate the planet and the language(s) they will use to understand?§ Our current abilities to do this seem defunct. Symbols and language can rapidly flux, as is evidenced by the skull and crossbones which used to be a symbol of rebirth and was changed when “ship captains started to draw little skull and crossbones in their logs, next to the names of sailors who had died at sea. Sailors came to associate the symbol with death.”§ The modern symbol of radiation, the trefoil, 

was created in 1946 and is still poorly understood. In 2007, after a five-year study across 11 countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency found that the symbol “has no intuitive meaning and little recognition beyond those educated in its significance. §

One of the first places to address this question in the 1990’s at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico was to introduce structural markers that emulated ‘danger’ as symbols and language may possibly not be enough.§ The WIPP site fascinatingly epistles that the Design Guidelines for creating a marking system are “largely performance-based, that is, they describe how the design must perform, rather than what it must look like or be made of.”§ Engagement is a priority and the criteria is theoretically enrapturing:

The design of the whole site itself is to be a major source of meaning, acting as a framework for other levels of communication, reinforcing and being reinforced by those other levels in a system of communication. The message that we believe can be communicated non-linguistically (through the design of the whole site), using physical form as a "natural language," encompasses Level I and portions (faces showing horror and sickness) of Level II. Put into words, it would communicate something like the following: This place is a message...and part of a system of attention to it!

Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of highly esteemed deed is commemorated here...nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

The danger is in a particular increases toward a center...the center of danger is here...of a particular size and shape, and below us.

The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.

The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.

The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.§

This is what Mike Brill’s and Safdae Abidi’s Field of Thorns tried to capture danger through

Some designs use images of dangerous emanations and wounding of the body. Some are images of shunned that is poisoned, destroyed, parched, uninhabitable, unusable. Some combine these images. All designs entirely cover or define at least the interment area, called here the Keep (...)

"Rubble Landscape": (...) This all makes for an enormous landscape of large-stone rubble, one that is very inhospitable, being hard to walk on and difficult to bring machinery onto. It is a place that feels destroyed, rather than one that has been made.

[s]hapes that hurt the body and shapes that communicate danger: Danger seems to emanate from below, and out of the Keep in the form of stone spikes (in Spike Field, Spikes Bursting Through Grid, and Leaning Stone Spikes), concrete thorns (in Landscape of Thorns), and zig-zag earthworks emanating from the Keep (in Menacing Earthworks). The shapes suggest danger to the body...wounding forms, like thorns and spikes, even lightning. They seem active, in motion out and up, moving in various directions. They are irregular or non-repetitive in their shape, location and direction. They seem not controlled, somewhat chaotic. In the three designs that use "fields" of spikes or thorns, these spikes or thorns come out of, and define the Keep, so the whole area that is dangerous to drill down into is so marked.§


Bernard Tschumi also engages with the idea that architecture is a practice, an activity waiting to happen, not just an object. Could we call architecture by its name with an absence of people to engage with it? Can we do the same with art of which human engagement is a fundamental tenet? He writes in Space Violating Bodies on the mutual violence enacted between people and spaces.

There is no architecture without action, no architecture without events, no architecture without program.

By extension, there is no architecture without violence.

The first of these statements runs against the mainstream of architectural thought by refusing to favor space at the expense of action. The second statement argues that although the logic of objects and the logic of objects and the logic of man are independent in their relations to the world, they inevitably face one another in an intense confrontation. Any relationship between a building and its users is one of violence, for any use means the intrusion of a human body into a given space, the intrusion of one order into another (...)

Architecture’s violence is fundamental and unavoidable, for architecture is linked to events in the same way that the guard is linked to the prisoner, (...) This also suggests that actions qualify spaces as much as spaces qualify actions; that space and action are inseparable (...)

First, there is the violence that all individuals inflict on spaces by their very presence by their intrusion into the controlled order of architecture. Entering a building may be a delicate act, but it violates the balance of a precisely ordered geometry (do architectural photographs ever include runners, firefighters, lovers?) Bodies carve all sorts of new and unexpected spaces, through fluid or erratic motions. (...) violence is not always present. (...) Yet it is always implicit. (...) Each architectural space implies (and desires) the intruding presence that will inhabit it (...)

But if bodies violate the purity of architectural spaces, one might rightly wonder about the reverse: the violence inflicted by narrow corridors on large crowds, the symbolic or physical violence of buildings on users. (...) Such discomforting spatial devices can take any form: the white anechoic chambers of sensory deprivation, the formless spaces leading to psychological destructing. Steep and dangerous staircases, these corridors consciously made too narrow for crowds, introduce a radical shift from architecture as an object of contemplation to architecture as a perverse instrument of use. §

I provide all of this information to interpret the horror and disgust we can generate from SX, yet still evaluate a structure as ‘good’, as we can do with art.

Exceptions in architecture as an art form:

Just as art maintains exceptions of what does/doesn’t qualify as art, architecture does as well. Uniquely, we must work very hard to define what parts of architecture are not art. This difference primarily rests between civil engineering and architecture. Public infrastructure, which I think is useful to label as operative structure in its intersection with architecture, are structures that fulfill a barter Function: a Function that is mutually agreed upon by designers and space participants, does not necessarily provide a clear SX, is intended to serve as solely physical infrastructure - not social infrastructure. 

A highway is a great example. This is a public infrastructure which serves a barter Function: to get people from point A to point B faster, and whose main purpose is not to provide SX or social infrastructure.

Proxy structures are structures whose UI/UX Function is misaligned and work to fulfill a largely structural purpose though they can provide SX. Proxy structures do not contribute to social infrastructure and often aim to isolate people or groups. Most generally, McMansions and most public housing units are examples of this; mass-produced cookie-cutter spaces. McMansions, were “considered the ultimate sign of affluence in the late 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, before the crash of the housing market in 2008. (...) One feasible explanation for this decline in value is purely aesthetic: McMansions are just ugly.” §

To once more return to the previous essay on Function to show UI/UX misalignment, housing was a

(...) revolutionary expression for defining a place to “stash” the working class, had first and foremost a cultural function, it “informed” the occupants of their status as cogwheels in a more complex system, defining life as a series of separate functions of which the state or the technicians or the planners alone had the sense of the whole. Housing presupposes the end of the “house” as the unity of life and production, and as a symbolic horizon in which to interpose the real networks of primary relationships, family members, friendships, of solidarity and neighborhood. In housing, these networks are dissipated, mainly one sleeps there and one reproduces there like forced labor—the dormitory quarter has arrived—delegating the centrality of life, whether from a Taylorist or a laborist viewpoint, to the workplace, which assumes the prime position, being the hub of the working organization or simply another version of the assembly line.§


Determination of these cases is largely casuistry for both proxy and operative structures, but the above examples provide excellent guides. 


To conclude, given the definition and criteria of Functionalism, we see that architecture is most clearly a part of art. By clarifying this connection we are able to reject that in both art and architecture, pleasure should not always be treated as the metric for a ‘good’ work of art, as horror and disgust also can evaluate a work of art as ‘good’. 

Lastly, architecture, like art, is deeply rooted within a cultural context which influences its design and practice. Meaning, each buildings spasis is created as a result of the architect who is influenced by a societal context. Conscious intention is incited in the very practice of architecture as the architect works to create ambience through physical and atmospheric methods to fulfill/establish the spasis. So, both of criteria of Functionalism are nearly always fulfilled in architecture’s practice. 

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