Thursday, March 13, 2008

Art, Craft, Who Cares???

So let’s return to my claim that architects are not artists, which is already a point of serious contention here. In order to help everybody feel a little better, let me make it clear that I am not using the word “art” in its vernacular sense. Here are some of the things I don’t mean:
  • That art is something done with heightened awareness and intention.
  • That art reflects its maker and its larger culture.
  • That art is work born from inspiration.
  • That art is something engaging to our senses.
  • That art is any work done well.
These are common but imprecise meanings of the term art, because they can apply to any endeavor, surely to architecture but also to furniture making, cooking, massage therapy, and hockey. If all activities and all objects can be art, then the idea of art loses its meaning and becomes nothing.

So let me be clear about my (provisional) definition here. Art is a practice of imagination and creation that is undertaken for its own sake. Its overt benefits, to its creator and to its observers, are intellectual and/or contemplative in nature; art exists, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s term, to be “regarded,” to be held at distance for observation. (Art may, of course, accrue all sorts of incidental benefits, such as status, economic worth, and even identity with time and repetition. None of these can be planned for or determined in advance, and they are not the point.) Non-art objects can become art, but only by losing their original function. The bowl no longer is a bowl, the soup can is no longer a soup can.

So why is architecture not art? For several interrelated reasons.
  • Architecture is a necessity for life. As individuals, shelter is one of our most fundamental human needs. As families and tribes, places hold us together and reflect our relationships. For organizations, places act as machines that facilitate specific work processes. Without our buildings, we would die.
  • Architecture is a commodity of consumption. It is commissioned or bought as a means to some other end, and has a predictable economic value or exchange rate.
  • Architecture is planned (and known) in advance. Our clients come to us with needs and functions; we respond to those functions in predictable ways.
  • Architecture is an enveloping rather than an externalized phenomenon. The buildings that matter most to us can never be dispassionately regarded; we inhabit them, we move through them, we encounter them over and over and over and build habitual relationships with them.
  • Architecture strongly frames behavior (individual and communal). Architecture can make certain acts more likely and other acts less so. Places can bring us together in comfortable social encounters, or keep us anonymous; they can make us feel fluid or clumsy.
  • Architecture endures beyond its era. The most basic structure and shell of a building has the capacity of at least decades, and possibly centuries, of useful life. It will be inhabited through the daily use of generations beyond those who commissioned or designed it.
  • Architecture is constantly modified by non-professionals, and is not subject to carefully controlled aging. Buildings begin to change the day they’re constructed. Left out in the elements, maintained diligently or haphazardly, and constantly patched and rearranged and re-surfaced and expanded by both their owners and a variety of workers, the maintenance of architecture is entirely different than the professional conservation of art that’s intended to fix a piece at its condition of origin or discovery.
  • Architecture does not have a self-selecting audience. We do not (most often) seek out buildings. We seek out functions and people, and encounter them within whatever buildings they happen to occupy.
  • Architecture does not begin with a blank canvas. It begins with a set of stated needs, with budgetary constraints and goals, with a site that provides its context. It is not a gessoed white field waiting for the first spark.
  • Architectural collections are not curated for intellectual or aesthetic intent. Rather, they’re what we call “neighborhoods” or “districts,” which are ever-fluid collections of places created (and modified) at different times by different people with different intentions.
So I’m not implying that you all aren’t good at, and don’t care about, your work. My notion that architecture isn’t art is really a reflection of a more precise set of meanings and conditions. Art is not a value statement meaning “really good;” it’s a category statement.

(In a related idea that I won’t follow up, I also think that the word “design” gets misused badly, usually when it means to gussy up something that already exists without making any fundamental change. Nike has a huge staff of shoe and clothing designers, a few of whom are involved in understanding biomechanics and materials engineering, and a vast number who are making predictions about next year’s colors and whether rounded or flattened shoelaces will sell better. In the 70’s, everybody wanted to be an “engineer;” in the 80’s, everybody’s job title had “analyst” in it; for the past ten years, everybody’s been a “designer.” This, too, will pass.)

Now, there’s a postmodern argument to be taken up, which is that art is not a fixed characteristic of an object, and has only peripherally to do with the designer’s intentions. In postmodern literary criticism, the meaning of a text is determined by the reader rather than the writer. The reader has every bit as much right to be thought of as an author, since it is the reader who makes meaning. By this view, art is a (probably temporary, certainly unpredictable) status conveyed on any object toward which a viewer has “art intentions;” that is, any object that an observer regards with the intention of appreciative distance. This is a reasonable position, and one that we have to contend seriously with; we have no assurance of who will see our work, nor how they will see it, nor what they will think of it when they do see it. But the fully postmodern view here would leave us to complete indeterminism or whimsy — if art is wholly in the viewer rather than the maker, then we have no bearing at all on the perceived quality of our work, and can do as we please. I can have an art experience right now, as I sit looking at the airport settee across from me while I’m typing. The centers of the leather seats are mildly wrinkled, but the leather itself is polished smooth by the scouring from tens of thousands of pants and skirts of tens of thousands of interchangeable travelers — working, reading gossip magazines, wrangling children, worrying about weather. That experience, that inarticulate little airport poem, was not provided by Herman Miller nor by the Philadelphia International Airport. It was made by me, because I wanted to do it, because I took an attitude of regard toward that bench.

In this world (and it’s true in writing every bit as much as it has been in high-style architecture), there’s a cheap and reliable way to invoke the “art intention:” you make something unusual or out of place but clearly intentional, and everybody stands back and says “WTF?!?” That notion, that a building should be an intellectual challenge, is an art notion. The idea of “place,” which I’ll address soon, refers to a much more complex set of relationships between person and setting.

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