Cornice detail of the Wainwright Building (1890) by Adler & Sullivan
This is another in my series of posts inspired by 1000 Awesome Things, the Webby Award winning blog written by Neil Pasricha. The series is my meditation on the awesome reasons why I was and continue to be attracted to the art of architecture.
Many throughout history have regarded architecture to be the “mother of all arts” because master builders significantly employed the contributions of painters, sculptors, and decorative artists in their projects. These contributions enhanced architecture through the use of imagery, color, pattern, texture, and symbolism. Awesome examples abound, ranging from ancient Egyptian and Greek temples to towering Art Deco skyscrapers. The best of these integrated art so thoroughly that it would be inseparable from the overall architectural expression.
The use of art to enrich architecture followed a strange trajectory with the ascendancy of Modernism during the early decades of the 20th century. Modernist idealogues demonized ornamentation of any sort, branding it as superfluous and even immoral.(1) They effectively purged applied art and ornament as integral elements from their work. They would eventually be abetted in this cause by the full complicity of the fine art world’s avant garde, an elite caste who valued the autonomy of their work above all else and shared an indifference to site-specific installations. The not surprising outcome would be generations of visually impoverished buildings.
The canon of Modernism was so strong that this bias against the ornamentation of architecture still largely prevails today. Of course, there was artistry in the naked arrangement and rhythm of building components and the exactitude and precision of the machine-like detailing of much Modern architecture. Likewise, skilled Modernists often utilized the inherent character of the materials they used (such as wood, stone, and concrete) to decorative effect. The problem was many people simply failed to embrace the asceticism of Modern architecture. The buildings did not speak a language they understood.
Among other things prompted by the predictable backlash to the severity of Modernism was the inception of the GSA’s Art in Architecture Program in 1963, as well as numerous “percent for art” programs at the state and municipal levels (including here in Oregon and Eugene). The goals of these programs included funding the acquisition of works of art to enhance new or renovated buildings. Typically, the “percent for art” programs commissioned artist-designed elements intended to humanize and particularize Modern architecture (which by then had become the dominant idiom for this nation’s civic and institutional buildings).
Initially, the results of these programs would mostly fail to ameliorate the schism between art and architecture. Selection committees (sometimes dominated by art cognoscenti rather than laypersons) tended to favor proposals for stand-alone pieces by fine artists they knew and admired. Derisive critics would label many of these installations as “plop art” because they could have been located anywhere. These works were not specific to the architecture or the place of which they were a part.
Some noteworthy recent projects—including the Morphosis-designed Wayne L. Morse United States Courthouse here in Eugene—perpetuate the separation of commissioned art from architecture. In the case of our federal courthouse, the art pieces (which are excellent in their own right and feature regionally inspired motifs) are not incomplete without their setting, and vice-versa. I do not consider them to be integral to the design of the building.
Art glass by John Rose at the Eugene Public Library (2002)
Over the years, the tendency to distinguish art from the architecture it is meant to embellish has diminished somewhat. Even so, most projects fail to achieve a level of integration that was commonplace before the advent of Modern architecture. A case in point is my own experience with the choosing of artists during the design of the Eugene Public Library. Our team purposefully attempted to match opportunities for integrating art with the many candidates who submitted proposals for consideration by the art selection committee. We were only partially successful in this regard; overall though the combined result is an enrichment of the experience of being at the Library, and I’m happy for that.
Perhaps the best means of expressing what I believe defines integrated art is to invoke Richard Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (translated as total work of art, ideal work of art, universal artwork, synthesis of the arts, comprehensive artwork, or all-embracing art form). In architectural terms then, a building that embodies Gesamtkunstwerk may be one that makes use of many art forms to achieve its aesthetic effect.
I also would characterize integrated art as being site-specific, holistic, and serving in both spatial and symbolic roles. It is not extraneous. It is art conceived for, dependent upon, and inseparable from its context. It is not autonomous and is not meant to be understood without the architecture of which it is a part. It is most decidedly not “plop art.”
Integrated art serves as ornament as much as it does art in the strictest sense. Though art purists might disagree, I believe ornament that contributes meaning is art, especially if it humanizes and particularizes the architecture. It is art if it engages us and draws us into a building’s spatial narrative. Like art, ornament can represent things and actions that do not necessarily originate in utility. On the other hand, the ornament I appreciate most is intrinsic to the building’s function and materials. In my opinion, the most effective ornament serves as a force that unifies the many elements that we assemble to create architecture.
A useful function of ornament is to provide coherence to the forms of our buildings and the spaces they shape by employing an ordered hierarchy of scales. Additionally, ornament serves to unify disparate surfaces through the use of repeating patterns. Ornament performs this function whether it conveys meaning or otherwise fulfills a semantic function.
Today’s adherents of Modernism might still throw up in their mouths a little at the very concept of ornament or the co-opting of fine art for decorative effect. I thoroughly understand Modern architecture and its philosophical underpinnings, and I am a big fan when its practitioners execute their work in an especially sophisticated and well-considered fashion. I just don’t think the integration of art should have to be an “either/or” situation. We can stylishly (and we are talking about a matter of “style” here) meld art and Modern architecture.
In the spirit of Gesamtkunstwerk, architects should welcome genuine collaborations with artists in the creation of total works of art. I for one would enthusiastically accept every opportunity to integrate their work and input. One day perhaps, we’ll ask why it was even necessary to mandate art-in-architecture programs to begin with, or why simply purchasing art without regard for the architecture it is intended to enrich was the default condition. The promise of truly integrating art in our buildings is simply too AWESOME to not embrace.
(1) In his famous 1910 essay Ornament and Crime, Austrian architect Adolf Loos proclaimed "The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects."
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