Architecture Is Not Art

Quite a claim to make, I know, but not an unfounded one.

There’s an interesting article (whose whereabouts currently escape me), that laments the state of structure and construction subjects at schools of architecture. Visual design is the primary focus. This article does not declare that both need equal course hours, but that structural aspects of building design play as important a role in the education of future architects.

This holds true in our architectural department at Benghazi University. Spectacular shapes often garner more focus than the buildings structural integrity. The unfortunate truth is that it’s easier to get an ‘A’ with twisting, convoluted shapes than with a rational functionality.

Architects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid claim that they see themselves as sculptors rather than engineers, and this is evident in the buildings they produce. But does this qualify as architecture?

First off, what qualifies as art? I realize that this is a wide, complex spectrum not easily definable. But for the sake of context, let’s refer to art in the form of visual works, such as paintings, statues, murals, etc.

Architecture is not something to be looked at and nothing more, the way art is. It’s something to be used, and thus must hold some degree of rationality and order. Gehry designed the Disney Opera House as an art piece, and the flaws of his design are still being felt to this day.

But, then, is architecture a science? Of course not. Science explains the unknown, it answers questions. It is also cold and unfeeling. It takes a joke and analyzes it’s workings, explaining why it’s funny. But architecture is full of life, it breathes easy, it laughs at the joke.

So, then, if architecture is neither art nor science, what is it?

Science answers humanity’s questions and makes life easier to live. Art is an expression of human thought and emotion. Architecture is humanity itself. As long as there are people, there is architecture. It moves with the shift of time, reflecting the zeitgeist of the day, though often doing so unnoticed in the background.

Ancient man did not begin building shelters to impress their neighbours, they made homes so that they may live protected. They filled and decorated these houses with their belongings and imprinted their life on to it. As man changed and developed, so did his buildings.

But architecture today is just a replica of this practice. Architects use Corinthian columns and pediments, not to celebrate the god Athena, but to design in the ‘Greek style’, to make something that can be ogled at, much like art does.

Of course there is the side that believes, to not consider architecture an art is the defense of the unimaginative. But the first evidences of architecture was a result of fulfilling a need, not a competition to produce the coolest building. Architecture needs people, but people do not need architects. If a disease that infected only architects wiped us out, architecture will still thrive.

The stereotype of a latte-sipping, Gucci-wearing architect that scribbles a design on a napkin and gets paid a king’s ransom for it, is not far off the mark. I think Vitruvius would roll in his grave if he knew what we had become. We must accept that we are not humanity’s saviours, and design for people, not art critics.