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Art As Houses

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Well before the middle of last century there was a tradition of photographing the interiors of houses as idealised worlds where everything was tidy and and befitting whatever architectural message the house was meant to convey. We haven’t really moved on. Then came the following photograph that upped the ante and made the very lives lived part of the message along with the furniture and plants. It was a marriage that never should have happened. 

I’ve only just noticed that power cord between the rubber plant and the hi-fi. It’s probably for an additional lamp as light seems to be coming from all directions except from the light fittings.

1. “Hey Swampy, play that one I like!” 

This post is last of four having a shared theme. The first three were ART IN SPACE!, Houses as Art and Living As Art. For a while I toyed with the calling this one Living In Art but it sounded as if Living was subservient to Art. From images such as the one above, we already know what this looks like, or at least what happens when occupants are guided to consciously or subconsciously curate their living-style to accommodate someone’s architectural vision. 

The trouble is, architectural visions that disintegrate at the slightest difference, dissent or disobedience aren’t strong ones. The most proven method of not reconciling Art and Living is to photograph the houses as Art before Living has a chance to occur. We take the captured vision to represent the fusion of Art and Living when what it is is Art as a representation of the potential for Living. 

The job of the architect is often presented as reconciling responsibilities towards the occupants and the tiresome requirements of inhabitation along with some higher duty towards the “difficult whole.” Art as Houses and Living in Art are the same thing. Living in Art implies an artwork that can be incidentally lived in but Art as Houses is living inside something that happens to be an artwork. The point of these posts is to find possible ways of directly reconciling all the unpredictable and uncontrollable messiness of life within a work of Art. If a house has no choice but to be a container for all the unpredictable and uncontrollable messiness of life, then the task of the architect as artist is to make Art out of a place where all that can take place. To ignore this by distorting it to one’s will or by solving only selected parts of it or for one point in time only is to shirk one’s responsibilities as an artist. 

To claim Houses are Art is to do Living a disservice as it implies houses (and, by association, Living) are inferior forms of expression that require “elevating” to Art. Art as Houses takes the other view. What does Art have to offer a house one might want to live in?

Just as a formalist architecture is only concerned with qualities unique to architecture, a formalist art of houses would be about formalist houses and not about houses making some  point about Art. Houses are not sculpture divorced from Living. Any that abstract the act of living into sublime objects and arrangements might well be Art but they are no longer houses. Art as houses has to pull off the difficult trick of physically accommodating the act of living in principle but being conceptually independent of it as far as the details go. In other words, the paraphernalia associated with living in a house remains conceptually distinct from the architectural devices that carry meaning as Art, and all those objects and furniture that enable us to use spaces are excluded from the remit of architecture.

The downside is that we’ll need to think more about what an architectural device actually is, and we’ll also have to think some more about how they can be used as (architectural) Art. This only matters if we want to continue to claim architecture as Art (and we seem to want to) but there’s no reason compositions of formalist architectural devices can’t be Art and, for that matter, any reason why they should be one-offs.

Doing away with the concept of the ‘interior’

If we are to conceptually separate the act of living in a house from its meaning as Art, then the concept of an interior is first to go. “Conceptually” is the key word here. Obviously both will occur within the same space. The question is on what terms?

What H Arquitectes did with their Casa Barcelona was provide a shell for living without making too many rules for how that living should take place. Regardless of whether it is Art or not, this approach is has the potential to liberate both building and inhabitants from the tyranny of the interior.


Leaving aside question of art as houses and houses as art for the moment, the following two houses use basically identical architectural devices to accommodate living in principle but the second one attempts to exert conceptual control over living. 

Casa Barcelona, H Arquitectes

Camping in the great indoors

The oft-mentioned example of someone wanting to live in a tent in Chartres Cathedral may indicate a heightened aesthetic sensibility and sounds like it would touch the floor lightly but it unfortunately doesn’t conform to what we think of as habitation. Moreover, despite Patrick Schumacher believing that Architecture only exists post-Alberti because Alberti was the one who supposedly invented it as we know it, Chartres Cathedral is still Architecture in the minds of many. So suppose we consolidate our belongings into something like a Joe Colombo total furniture object, 

and hook it up to some utilities inside an artwork such as Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 The Weather Project?  This would be a way of achieving Art as a House, and without the intervention of Architecture. As far as the artwork is concerned, the space is just a tall, dark and cavernous space and it’s former existence as a turbine hall or its HdM makeover as The Turbine Hall are irrelevant. This is one way living in an artwork can be achieved with clarity and without a concept either of the Interior or of Architecture.

If one believes the HdM renovations and refurbishments to the former industrial space created a work of architecture where none previously existed, then that work of architecture will remain conceptually separate from our new house. However its size doesn’t conform to our notions of what a house is. [We might as well pitch a tent in the greater outdoors.] A habitable footprint as small and consolidated as possible seems a more challenging and relevant place to start. 


Throughout history, cathedral-like spaces have made people feel insignificant parts of a greater picture but even minus the associations of heavens and soaring, there was at least a greater picture. It’s probably no accident that much of architecture happens above our heads. If Art and Living are in opposition, then thanks to gravity and the fact humans walk on floors and not ceilings, having the Art above our heads and the messy living on the ground seems a natural separation. At least the spaces are large in one fewer directions. 

Leaving aside the status value of having unuseable building volume such as double- and triple-height spaces (as well as any aesthetic value real or imagined deriving from that), and leaving aside any tangible benefits for daylighting or ventilation, tall spaces draw attention to themselves and are difficult to compromise. Someone clever once said “the ceiling is the architect’s playground”. Anything higher than a door is an architectural device with the potential to carry meaning as Art. The best one can hope for is that it will be good art and continue to reward. 

Architectural elements asserting themselves 

This is making strange applied to architecture. Even if all walls and ceilings are white, the power of furniture and personal objects to destroy, diminish or compromise is greatest when the elements from which architecture’s meaning as Art derives from those vertical flat surfaces called walls, for walls are easily hidden or their appearance dramatically altered by cupboards, bookshelves, televisions, pictures, fishtanks, cuckoo clocks …

This may be unavoidable in the large spaces in which much of the Living is conducted but, whether double-height or not, narrow corridors are resistant to clutter. Even wider ones can be interrupted by doors to prevent the placement of upright pianos and chaise longues. Internal windows [a.k.a. vision panels] may spread light but also discourage paintings, scrolls and wallhangings. There is little desire to fill such spaces or linger in them. Going from one space to another may be the purest form of architectural experience. 

Minimalism is a well known way of making architectural elements assert themselves, even if only by stifling all traces of living. This next image could just be a photo of the living room of some house for let, or it could be a highly-curated low-budget post-modern minimalist interior. As with any Minimalist space, it’s a matter of personal taste whether one sees timelessness or lifelessness.

That last thought follows recalls the The Edge of Space post. The seemingly eternal charm of Ando’s Sumiyoshi [Azuma] House may be that all its architectural invention resides in the necessary space separating the habitable ones. It’s a fairly pure statement of what I’m getting at.  

[For those new to this blog, this famous drawing does not show the house as it was actually built. c.f. Purity of Form]

Traversing the plan

Getting from A to B doesn’t always have to be through the shortest amount of necessary space. Here’s what I remember of some Japanese house from the 1970s. It may have been built  and it may have been by Takefumi Aida. Again there are the constricted spaces making one aware of the walls and their height but now they are contrived to be parts of a larger experience.

The same principles are evident in Shinohara’s 1967 Yamashiro House. Shinohara later wrote “I have found very important the opinions of visitors to this house who say that after crossing the court and entering the living room and then proceeding to the bedrooms in the front of the house, they lose a sense of the spatial nature of the layout.” If so, it means the spatial layout can then be discovered again. A house that retains the joy of discovery sounds like a good thing. 


This last one is a maybe. There is nothing inherently spatially symmetrical about living but the buildings in which it takes place have much that can be geometrically determined even if for no other reasons than construction expediency. From a formalist point of view, this seems like something that just might be unique to architecture. Without forgetting that human beings are very adaptable, there might be a useful distinction to make between accommodating geometries and tyrannical ones.

I think this is what I was trying to get at above when I compared these two plans.

Proponents of the more complex geometries will always claim them to have greater artistic value because they defy rational explanation even though not being able to come up with a rational explanation doesn’t mean there isn’t one to be found. This house [circa 1958] by Frederick Kiesler is definitely on the art-as-beyond-rational-explanation side of the fence. [c.f. Career Case Study #1: Frederick Kiesler] Despite that, it was one of my formative houses since I was about ten, but the spaces resulting from its lack of orthogonal geometry are no less prescriptive in practice than those determined by the geometries of the above plans.

Speaking of non-orthogonal geometries in conjunction with formative houses, I still find a lot to admire in Mary and Thomas McNulty’s Lincoln House of 1965. [c.f. The House That Came to NothingPerhaps I’m hardwired to like spaces that are non-prescriptive in principle and defined by assertive architectural elements and devices. Their Lincoln House consists of nothing but.  

With history as our guide, we know that pretensions to Art are often all it takes to make something into Art. Ambient architectural media churn suggests that pretensions to Architecture are sufficient to make something be thought of as Architecture, at least for a while. But are pretensions to Architecture as Art sufficient to make us regard Architecture as Art? The following images suggest maybe not but an architecture formalist can give you two reasons exactly why not.

The first is that architecture should be about architecture and not about a different art (such as sculpture or painting or music frozen or otherwise). The second is that as long as architecture is characterised by people occupying spaces then its focus as an art should be in enhancing that reality rather than merely depicting it or representing a potential for it.

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

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