Skip to content

Houses as Art

Post date:

If houses are art then what is or should be the content of that art? We have many answers to a question nobody’s ever asked.

  • If houses by definition enable the act of habitation, then any meaning they have as Art ought to incorporate this somehow for, if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a house.
  • The problem is how to do it in a way that compromises neither the house as art nor the act of living in it, viz. are people going to be in control of how they live in their house or is the house going to control how they do?
  • It’s usually the case that the act of habitation gets reduced to a few activities stylized into some spaces and items required to perform those activities. It’s true that people can be very adaptable but this is neither good art nor good living.
  • Our conventional understanding of the meaning a house has as either art or architecture is based on how well such spaces and items are designed into a composition that displays a level of spatial and/or compositional skill that can perhaps be called one or the other.
  • The problem is that anything not designed as part of the original composition has extraodinary power to diminish or destroy any meaning it may have had as either architecture or art. It seems that Houses can be Art but only if they reject Living. This is a paradox.

In The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Patrik Schumacher claims Beauty vs. Utility is the core binary opposition of Architecture in the same way that True vs. False is that of Science, Legal vs. Illegal that of Law, etc. [If you want more, see Vol. I, pp217~223]. What’s functional therefore can’t be beautiful and vice-versa. Apart from stating more fervently that Architecture must reconcile the two, this represents no great advance on Louis Sullivan’s “Form and Function are one.” We’re still left with the belief Architecture has to be a pleasing synthesis of oppositions whether it’s Form vs. Function, Art vs. Function or Beauty vs. Function. Nobody speaks anymore of architecture as being a fusion of The Arts and The Sciences but the same false opposition can be restated afresh as BIM vs. Parametricism, the only difference being whether key variables are tangibles or intangibles.

We only assume such oppositions describe architecture because we’ve never thought it could be anything else. Why can’t a house be Art and at the same time capable of being lived in, as opposed to narrow definitions of “functional”? In principle, I’ve nothing against houses as Art because, if one of the primary functions of Art is to make us question our reality, then where we live seems like a reasonable place to start. However, I object to the act of living being represented by compartmentalised activities supposedly satisfied with a few designed and disposed objects. In this blog I’ve often championed something very much like that but it was in hope of arriving at a different kind of beauty. I never claimed it to be Art.

What Art is is vague enough but we can at least be clearer about what we mean by function in Architecture. I propose a two-part division, the first being primary architectural devices that enclose and create a comfortable and safe environment for people to use, and secondary architectural devices that enable people to use that environment. The primary architectural devices are formalist in that they’re unique to architecture and if there’s such a thing as architectural meaning as Art then these are what will carry it.

What this meaning as Art is, has to be an open question. It might have something to do with inside and outside (but we must be alert to the possibility of all these really being covert ways of articulating the possession of property as landscape).

Alternatively, architectural meaning as Art might arise from spatial experiences whether static or dynamic (but, even so, we must still be alert to the possibility of this being a covert way of articulating the possession of property as space, particularly if large spaces are involved). 

The envelope created by the primary architectural devices will contain secondary architectural devices that allow occupants to use the space created by the primary ones. Stairs and storage for example, don’t have to be provided as the primary architectural devices that carry meaning as Art, and they don’t even have to be provided by as architectural devices. We don’t think much about fireplaces these days, but a fireplace is an architectural device that has been a primary structural element and a symbolic heart of the home or neither or both.

On the other hand, reverse-cycle air conditioning or underfloor heating are probably never going to be architectural devices capable of carrying meaning as Art. It’s a moveable feast. This next diagram is the same diagram but showing the two types of function.

The problem with this is that not all of living can be satisfied by either primary or secondary architectural devices. A large part of living takes place outside the remits of function, architecture and art. This third diagram better describes the situation.

According to convention, architectural devices that don’t have meaning as Art are known as Building and some of these have to do with living and most of them don’t. There’s only a small overlap between architectural devices that have meaning as Art AND that can satisfy some aspect of living. Of those that can, some will be selected, stylized and placed and generally used to carry or reinforce architectural meaning as Art. This is nothing new. There are at least three main ways this happens.

Separate & Isolate

Primary architectural devices enclose a space that’s comfortable to use but it’s not possible for people to use that space if there’s nothing in it. Sure, some Japanese people may lie down on the floor and have a nap, or sit or kneel on the floor and have a conversation or use the floor as a table but this only happens on a certain type of flooring and where this is culturally established behaviour. It doesn’t make the room into an artwork but it does make the Japanese more inclined to not identify rooms by their contents or what they are used for. An empty room is just a space with the potential to be used. An empty or near empty room may make us more aware of the elements creating that space but this does not make it Art, or even beautiful. At the very least it means you can afford a lot of space for little purpose.

But all the stuff in traditional Japanese houses had to go somewhere and what the Japanese did and still do is store it in special rooms called nando [納戸] used like basements or attics for seasonal or intermittently used items.

The Japanese house thus consists of one part kept clear of stuff to enable flexible use, and another part with all the inflexible bits like bathrooms, kitchens and storage. This division of the house into the “stage” and “wings” is not uniquely Japanese.

It’s not even new. Georg Muche’s 1923 Haus am Horn had a multi-functional living room as a central architectural feature surrounded by ancillary rooms of which, apart from the kitchen by Benita Otte and Ernst Gebhardt, we know or care little. 

The isolation of the living room as the sole carrier of architectural meaning perpetrates the mindset of “higher” and “lesser” functions as well as the “Architecture” vs. “Building” divide. Many of the houses of Japanese architect Kazuo Shinohara feature a space that is as large as possible and that carries meaning as Art [or Architecture as Art, or Houses as Architecture as Art] while the remainder of the house consists of all the other spaces supporting the mechanics of living. I could choose from many examples but here’s one.

As an approach, it has its weaknesses.

  • Only one part of the act of living (and not an essential part at that) takes place with the zone designated as Art.
  • It assumes Art (or Architecture as Art) is fundamentally incompatible with living.
  • It means that houses can be art only if people don’t inhabit them. A common first impression of many of these houses is that they don’t look very liveable and even Japanese are quick to point out the absence of furniture. The often solitary items of furniture that appear in photographs are intended to provide a sense of scale rather than indicate potential for use.
  • The power of extraneous objects to destroy, diminish or compromise the Art (or Architecture as Art) is greatest when the elements creating the Art are those vertical flat surfaces called walls, for walls are easily hidden and their appearance dramatically altered by cupboards, bookshelves, televisions, pictures, fishtanks, cuckoo clocks …

Incorporate & Assimilate

With this method, all conceiveable paraphenalia of living is assimilated into the primary architectural devices either physically or as part of the same composition and what can’t be, is concealed in conceptually congruent storage. Oswald Unger’s 1995 House Without Qualities is an extreme example that in decades gone would have been called a Total Work Of Art. In passing, it’s remarkable how this rigid and ordered house functions just as well if not better than some ostentatiously bespoke houses.

Taking the relationship between the artwork and occupant to another level is House in Essex (2015) by artist Grayson Perry and FAT [1]. It is a house provided with a backstory and, guided by clues in and around the house, occupants are expected to wonder about the fictional person the house previously belonged to. The house being occupied is a ghost of the one the occupants are admiring as Art. The plans work as well as many other houses less pretentious and, once again, the living room – that most functionally indeterminate of spaces – has a concentration of Art.

We assume the fictional owner designed the house and chose the wall and floor finishes etc. but every item in this house can’t be significant in terms of meaning as art. Did the fictional occupant have bespoke faucets made or did they choose from a catalogue and why the ones they did? Why that make of dishwasher? Why a double butlers sink?

Despite the rigour shown in these examples, there’s a price to pay for the inhabitants and I don’t have to mention what it is. As Art, these houses require people to inhabit them but only to make their point. Living in them would always be like living in somebody else’s house. I don’t know if these houses are good art or even good architecture but they are valid artistic statements. The problem with Incorporate & Assimilate as an approach is the same: Meaning as Art is incompatible with lives freely lived.

Curate the Life Out of It!

A total work of art comprising nothing but bespoke objects is beyond the means of most. The far more popular choice is to have the primary architectural devices enclose only things that appear to share aesthetic principles.

Modernist houses tend to have modernist furniture, for example. It seems part of architectural culture for architects to want to design furniture for their buildings and the usual reason given is to have a unity of aesthetic even if it stops short of the elusive total work of art.

Again, the downside is the same as with the Ungers house: one has to make one’s choices and live with them but once again the question is what is the content of the meaning as Art other than that someone has contrived to make it so?

Philip Johnson’s Glass House is part of the architectural canon but much of life took place in the other buildings on his estate. [3]

Glass House was a detached salon for receiving visitors. Johnson’s study was a separate building, there was Brick House for guests, another building for TV watching, another house for dinner parties and at least three other buildings in which to sleep. Glass House is often compared with Farnsworth House but the glaring difference is that Edith Farnsworth never had Johnson’s wealth of alternative places to be.

Until the end, Johnson and Whitney maintained the fiction Glass House actually functioned as a house.

Far more common are curated environments such as this where building and furniture merge into a single composition that is not architecture and not exactly a representation of living either.

Variations of the main salon / living room as curated composition are our preferred method for creating a visual synthesis of architecture and lives led within. The curated interior doesn’t require the building and items contained to be unified by similarities of colour or pattern since opposites of colour or texture can still complement. It does not require the position of items to follow architectural cues as balance can be just as strong as symmetry. Once again, the problem is the same. The act of living in the space is split between time spent appreciating it and time spent making sure it stays that way. The occupant is observer, not participant.

• • •

The trouble with the standard representations of Architecture as Art is that they always involve the selection and stylization of the paraphenalia of living into elements compatible with the architectural message as Art. It’s a mutual compromise that produces bad art and bad living. Reducing the scope of architectural control just might lead to architectural devices making better houses, better architecture, and perhaps even better houses as art. The next post in this mini-series will ponder Living as Art.

• • •

  3. See Glass and Other Houses for more about this.



  • Graham, what do you think of Shinohara’s other maxim “make the house as big as possible” in relation to all this? Size seems to be key in his conceptual approach. For instance, the huge main halls in House in White & Tanikawa, or overscaled “art elements” like the super-tall corridor in Cubic Forest.

    • Hello Diego – you’re anticipating something I was saving the for last post but it won’t hurt to start thinking more about it now! Shinohara did say to make the main room of the house as large as possible and this is related to making it the one space in the house that carries the meaning as art. One thing about spaces that are very tall is that they’re impossible to fully occupy (and thus compromise) – the main room of House on a Curved Road, for example. It’s the same at Tanikawa although that’s harder to occupy in pretty much any sense. All the overscaled and tall spaces are difficult to compromise but tall and narrow corridors such as at Cubic Forest can’t be used for anything but passage. Stairs too. Most Shinohara staircases are straight flights sandwiched between two walls. Shino House has a tall corridor leading to the main “hall” that, when I saw it, had an upright piano a couple of sofas and a few things on the lower part of the walls and the rest was empty above. It all seemed to be there by chance. Similarly, the central spaces at Repeating Crevice and Uncompleted House don’t suggest any particular form of use, and I don’t think they would even if furniture was placed in them for some reason. I think this is a good thing. I’ve got a few weeks to think all this through some more, but that’s where it’s heading. Thanks for asking.

      • Interesting, thanks!
        And sorry for being the interviewer here in your own blog,
        but this thing with over-sized rooms could bridge a gap between two seemingly very different architects: Shinohara and LacatonVassal.
        What do you think about this?

      • hhh not at all Diego! As I remember, Lacaton & Vassal wanted to enclose as much space as possible for the available money (or at least they did at the beginning). Their large spaces therefore had a social purpose in line with the original tenets of Modernism and the assumption is that the extra and large space would be appreciated and used as space to be lived in. In their social housing the provision of a large quantity of space has priority over things such as kitchens and finishes so these large spaces still have a social or a moral purpose. This is lacking in Shinohara, and it’s something you can get away with if you say something is art. I’m sure his clients appreciated having a large space but on what level? Maybe some just enjoyed having some space to flaunt, rather than the utility value or the shape/art of that space? It’s impossible to know. And although it’s something an architect might be able to influence, I think architect intentions have less to do with it than we imagine. These two images of House at Hanayama No.3 are interesting. The occupants seem to be living in it quite happily despite how Shinohara envisaged the space (or at least how he set the parameters for us to appreciate it).

        Lacaton & Vassal have written that the plan of Lapatie House recalls Farnsworth House and I suppose it might, but why would they say that? Do they mean it to be art? Is it a coincidence? Or is it just something architects say? I doubt the Lapatie family cares. I did read somewhere that Lacaton & Vassal were surprised by the Lapaties actually moving into their large outdoor space and living in it whenever possible, rather than using it as an extension of the inside. L&V are indebted to them for showing them how people actually live. The answer seems to be more space and less architecture. Cheers. Graham.