Home & Design October 21, 2010

Where is the Art in Architecture?

Architecture, like many professions, has its own vocabulary. But, more than other terminologies, the language of architecture exhibits a determined fascination with unlikely, even nonsensical, word combinations. It is not uncommon, for instance, to find on a single page of architectural text expressions such as:
• sculpted light
• living brick
• captured space
• abstract realism
• symbolic functionalism.
These kinds of incongruous juxtapositions are more than just catchy turns of phrase. In fact, they are earnest attempts to articulate creative, but elusive, ideas peculiar to this field–a field that otherwise is largely dependent on the strict definitions and rigid constructs of mathematics.

A typical consultation with an architect, however, tends to be fairly prosaic: this closet should be bigger, how tall can the building be, the bathroom needs to be here, there isn’t enough room for two refrigerators, how much is this going to cost. And while much consideration certainly is given to such soft aspects as siting, orientation, character, and environmental fit, the primary product of the architect, after all, is a set of plans–guidelines for the construction of whatever. These drawings at their best resonate with the client’s own imagination. Indeed, it is the architect’s job to express the client’s wish into a practical form. But it must be done in a way that is readily understandable, in a common language, and short on references to “breathing marble” or “pushing arches.”

When then does the architect get to express his or her artistic creativity? When does the architect get to wallow in the healing waters of higher ideals and, as American architect Louis I. Kahn put it, feel the spirit of architecture? According to architects here in the Wood River Valley, not often enough.

As a way of addressing this issue and the dichotomous state of architectural affairs in general, the Idaho chapter of the American Institute of Architects last fall, hosted a meeting of the Northwest and Pacific Region with the goal of exploring the non-technical aspects of architecture. The conference, officially titled Summit 2000, included AIA members from the Western Mountain Region and the California Council, as well as representatives from Western Canada and Mexico. Additional foreign perspective came with the inaugural visit from the newest permanent member of the Northwest and Pacific Region, Hong Kong.

Intended as a broad examination of the art in architecture, the meetings focused on the essential nature of architecture and how to infuse the daily, client-driven business of architecture with this essence. To promote the purpose of the gathering and lend imagery to the organizational prose of the event, students at the University of Idaho College of Art and Architecture were invited to enter a graphic design competition for the creation of a thought-provoking icon.

The winning entry was a da Vinci profile of the human head with a gaping mouth and an intently focused
eye that in turn was at the center of a monocle-like design suggestive of the pivot of an architect’s compass. The profile was cut off roughly along the line of the cranium where the space was taken up by the lettering “AIA SUMMIT” and the mathematical notation 44.721359552 (the result of which is the number 2000). Underscoring this image was the tag line “Exploring the Spirit in Architecture.”

Clearly satisfying the mandate for thought provocation, the conference icon appropriately invited the same sort of investigation that was intended for the conference itself. What, for example, was characteristically spiritual about the square root of 2000, or was this number exercise just an eye-catching gimmick like a gargoyle? And what did the gaping mouth signify? Pain? Anger? Joy? Or maybe a process, like birth, that contains all of these sensations?

In an effort to explain his creation, Edgar Hatcher, now a graduate student at UCLA, suggests the analogy of an architectural design problem. Given a set of variables, say a three-bedroom, two-bath residence (or the number 2000), one first deconstructs the whole into its constituent parts, and then, after examining the pieces on their own merits, looks to recombine the freshly appreciated parts into a newly conceived whole without losing the original purpose–in this case to function as a three-bedroom, two-bath residence (or the number 2000).
“This methodology of inquiry,” as Hatcher succinctly summarizes, in his version of archi-talk, “rigorously looks to redefine the variables in a way that pushes the discourse of what something is towards what it could be.” The screaming man, in complement, symbolizes a call to rally the architectural troops from the mundane campaign of architecture-as-business. It is a cry for a new focus and a new understanding of the “given” that will then emerge into what architecture can (or should) be–the ideals
at the core of Summit 2000.

But does the average architect care about all this? A periodic reexamination of one’s goals and aspirations is almost always a good idea, particularly if it enkindles one’s passion for something. However, when an architect’s primary concern is putting food on the table, will even the most spiritually evolved plans translate successfully to a truly novel end result? Or do the constraints of functionality and the personal desires of the client preclude the full realization of the ideals?

Kahn, for whom architecture was a spiritual path, speaks to this dilemma: “The architect’s job is to find ways that the availabilities that are not yet here can have spaces. . . . It is not an operational thing: you can leave that to the builders and the operators. Already they are building eighty-five percent of the architecture. . . . Take only ten or five percent and be really an architect, not a professional.”
This ten or five percent is probably an accurate reflection of the number of architects who, like Kahn, could advance a spiritual dialogue all the way through to a completed structure. And yet, despite its somewhat elitist tone, the statement does not imply that there are no professional architects who strive to incorporate spiritual aspects into their designs. What it does suggest, however, is that precious few succeed. This is not because all the rest are without talent and creativity; rather, for architects, as for most artists, professional success too often comes down to a choice between the practical and the poetic. As it happens, a good environment in which to explore this inherent bipolarity is the Sun Valley area.

The Wood River Valley, like many areas of rapid and well-heeled growth, abounds with examples of Kahn’s “operational things.” Here, architecture by the numbers, both metric and financial, seems to carry the day. In many cases, the finished product seems out of touch with its surroundings. This can be interesting when the existing surroundings leave something to be desired;
but, when the surroundings are so pleasingly proportioned as they are here, by nature’s own architecture, the challenge for the architect is to avoid introducing the profane into the sacred. Moreover, because there is always a constant demand for proficient,
vernacular design, the architect-as-operator may not see the urgency etched on the face of Hatcher’s screaming icon, may not hear the exhortations for new direction. As Kahn again warns, “The professional will bury you. You become so comparable . . . and praised so equally to someone else that you will never recognize yourself.”

To its credit, Summit 2000 not only addressed this problem, but also examined possible solutions through a series of
presentations by a highly-accomplished, international group of speakers. The list of topics was notably devoid of any mention of bricks and mortar, and the three days of panel discussions concluded with an afternoon summary subtitled “Spiritual Essence, Art/Beauty, and Truth.”

Among the presenters was Tao Ho, a Shanghai-born, American-educated-and-trained Hong Kong architect. In addition to being a well-known, widely exhibited painter and sculptor, Mr. Ho is actively interested in music, poetry, cosmology, photography, psychology, philosophy, and Chinese culture. He has well-developed, multi-dimensional views on the future of both architecture and society. Five years ago, he offered this opinion: “The task for the next century will be to reassemble all the isolated parts of our world, dissected into their smallest possible components . . . and finally to form a holistic picture of the world . . . By then, new forms of sustainable architecture and cities will hopefully evolve.”

If the spirit of Summit 2000 is to proceed and help refocus the goals of architecture, it will fall on the professional operators to make this happen–to heed the call of the screaming icon and to start celebrating the poetry in architecture or, as Mr. Ho in his presentation implored, pay attention to Internal Force, the Numinous, and the Wow. H

Brought up and educated in New England, and professionalized in New York City, Bill Lowe came here in 1982 to raise a family and spend more time with his sense of humor. Currently, he’s promoting a new circuitry technology based on vector logic.




This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.