Tag Archives: what is the relationship between art and architecture?

Art Vacuum

In the 1980s when video was beginning to become popular, there was a Korean American video artist called Nam June Paik. He was one of the first to see artistic potential in this new medium that wasn’t film. Once, when asked about the difference between film and video, he was quoted as saying “Film is like the moon. It only reflects light. Video is like The Sun. It gives light.” I remember thinking this made sense but, on reflection, it’s a load of crap. It’s true a film screen uses reflected light to show images and it’s true a video monitor emits light to show them but equating those two characteristics of The Sun and The Moon to make inferences about size, centrality and importance is what’s known as Inductive Fallacy. There’s also the niggle of implying this alleged difference is more significant than any content. The new art genre of video art required video artists to make video art and accordingly, they spent much time expressing things film could not express and that video as a medium could. In reality, this often meant multiple monitors strewn around galleries, emitting nothing but audio and visual static.

Tangential I know, but there’s also the cultural niggle of implying Sun worshippers are superior to Moon worshippers. Cultures with Sun-derived religions may be more likely to have been settled farmers sensitive to the cycles of the Sun while cultures with Moon worshipping religions may be more likely to have been nomadic herders sensitive to the cycles of the Moon because they needed to keep track of their animals at all hours. This observation makes a certain kind of sense too and is probably as true as anything else but it doesn’t say rice is better than goat or wheat superior to camel.

In fairness, it was the 1980s and Paik’s response was typical for a world where the medium was being said to be the message. This championing of the medium was of course the death of content, instantly negating everything Truffaut, Antonioni, Kuraowawa, etc. had done for film since the invention of projection. It also heralded the death of narrative in the sense of telling stories. Having said that, there’s a kind of sweetness to these early examples of video art and I was surprised to find myself pleased to see them again. This is Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, from 1995,

Mostly, television sets were used in unconventional ways to show some kind of videotaped or perhaps live content as part of a sculptural installation or performance. It’s just how I see it, but the real things we see are juxtaposed with video (i.e. onscreen) content and some sort of new meaning is meant to come from that.

It’s easy to see why Paik’s best known work is his series of Buddhas contemplating themselves onscreen. The Buddha doesn’t move and neither does the image onscreen but it’s still a live video feed of (reflected light) being converted into electrical impulses and emitted onscreen to enter the eye of the virtual contemplator, whose image is being videod, etc. Film never had this recursiveness. The point of the Buddha’s is for our relationship to video being questioned, subverted, and so on as is the way of art and artists. It didn’t change how we think about our relationship to screens and live video feed. And nor does it matter because the world and technology have moved on since. In a Skype video call, the screen was only refreshed for those parts of the screen for which movement is detected. Paik’s Buddhas would make not make the same sense on Skype video feed that has only the potential for refreshing. I was curious to see what Paik did after. These are from circa 1993.

If Skype is now beginning to seem a little old fashioned, then these video monitors are quaint relics of a distant age. The idea of watching any kind of image on a cathode-ray tube powered by transistors simply never developed a cult following like listening to music on vinyl did. Is anybody still making video art? Or is it now in some late-Mannerist stage where all it can do is parody itself in the name of art?

In the 1980s video art may have been shocking because, until then, our relationship with screens was a passive one, consuming news and entertainment. We looked at printed things called television programs to find out what each channel would broadcast the following week. Until the advent of cable networks we weren’t even aware we were watching “terrestrial” television. Cable networks offered old movie channels, DIY channels, shopping channels and specialist channels such as Discovery and MTV. Most of this content could still be consumed in the same way as terrestrial content had been, but shopping channels brought a new level of interactivity and compulsiveness to the act of shopping. Shopping was presented and consumed as entertainment long before Rem Koolhaas tried to persuade us it needed buildings to be so.

Some of us would program mostly VHS but occasionally Betamax video recorders to record programs or movies we were now able to not be home to watch. This was the birth of on-demand entertainment. We could fast-forward through advertisements. Rental video stores meant we could binge watch movies all weekend. Our screen content was much the same, but there was suddenly more of it, and we would watch it at any time.

Computing changed our relationship to screens once again when office and all manner of work-related tasks began to be conducted on screens. Spreadsheets replaced ledgers and, at first, dedicated word processors replaced typewriters and, as soon as anything could be done on a personal computer with the appropriate software package, Internet access meant we could watch the news, write a few personal emails, book holidays and generally goof off anytime. Social media was to take the science of distraction to a whole new level.

Cellphones are now indisputably the screen we look at the most. My daily and weekly averages are down from last week, but then I do spend a lot of time on my laptop.

Since the mid-1970s we’ve had all these screens enter our lives but I’ve yet to see any cellphone art beyond a wallpaper or decorated protective cover. We use our cellphones to draw things, and people like David Hockney can produce wonderful iPad “paintings” but the cellphone has no identity as a new medium as video once did. It might just be that we’re so busy using our phones to purchase things and keep ourselves amused or informed of whatever we think we need to know, that we’ve simply no time for art that isn’t an image, video or music – the only three formats that, other than text, a cellphone screen can reproduce with any degree of fidelity. In other words, our preferences are being shaped by the limitations of technology. And we are being led by those limitations.

The only time art gets a mention of late is with respect to NFTs. This type of art is generally some kind of digital content that can be viewed onscreen. Anyone can visually consume it but the satisfaction that comes from being identified as the owner of it belongs to (and, in a sense, consumed by) the person who paid to have that satisfaction. This has always been the essence of the artistic economy. The aesthetics of the product matter little. The only downside is that the products to which this value is attached and traded tend to be resolutely two-dimensional.

You may have seen this in Architectural Digest in March last year. It’s a virtual house for Mars – of course it is. Video artist Krista Kim declares “Everyone should install an LED wall in their house for NFT art,” says the artist. “This is the future, and Mars House demonstrates the beauty of that possibility.” 

It’s a future. Questions of ownership aside, these digital representations of alternate pseudo-architectural realities do, on some level, allow us to project ourselves into that space and imagine ourselves in it, but no more than we’d do by looking at a photograph or fly-through or some interactive click-through on some estate agents’ website.

The single room in Black Mirror S01E02 “15 Million Credits” at least exists in three dimensions even if the space it implies is a virtual one. A room like this could have its uses in the same way a sauna is a specialized room with only one main function. Also, and again much like a sauna, it’s possible for two people to be in this space and have a conversation, for example. The implied spatial experience isn’t the sole reason for human existence.

This of course, brings us to the Zuckerverse. If we’re all going to be wearing VR headsets then it’s not going to be necessary to have a real space in order to magic up a pseudo-reality like in the image above. With headsets, any opportunity for social interaction not via VR headset is eliminated. Preventing people from getting together and talking amongst themselves is an idea loved by oppressors throughout history. Who stands to gain what from an environment where all human interaction is monitored? What do we get in return and will it ever be worth it?

The idea of virtual architectural spaces isn’t new but the idea of a virtual representation of an architectural space being an end in itself is. They already exist in computer games so it’s not such a big leap. It will all develop in its own way and in line with what can be monetized. This won’t necessarily be in line with what we want or might like. I don’t see this ending well for architecture. An increased online presence might reduce our spatial footprint in the here and now and this might have know-on benefits for resource allocation. It hasn’t happened yet. After all, it never took that much space to read a book and be transported to a different time and place but, as anyone who reads books knows, they do take up a lot of space.

• • • 

Today, I was saddened to learn of Ricardo Bofill’s death. When I remember how Bofill was never included in the past 40 or 50 years of architectural chatter, it’s infuriating to read some of the things that have been written about him so far, and to imagine those that will be. For now though, this post from July 2019 still stands as a tribute to a wonderful life in architecture, and to some wonderfully humane architecture.

ZHA@MAM, Shanghai

MAM is an acronym of Modern Art Museum Shanghai where there’s currently an exhibition called CLOSE-UP of the built and unbuilt output of British architecture firm Zaha Hadid Architects. Four questions.

  1. Why in an art museum?
  2. Why China?
  3. Why now?
  4. Why?

Starting from the top, Marcel Duchamp said all you need do is put something in an art gallery for it to become art, or at least Dada art. By the same token, if you put a collection of architectural models, visualizations and images in a trade centre with only cursory descriptions and no plans sections, analysis or comment, then what you get is a trade show. I think I’ve just answered the other three questions.

Shanghai has many art museums and art galleries along that famous bend in the Huangpu River known as The Bund. The Museum of Art, Pudong was never going to be a suitable venue. It’s very central and highly visible but was designed by Jean Nouvel.

That’s it with the big window, just to the left of the red funnel.

The West Bund Museum opened in 2019 as centerpiece of a new art sector in Shanghai and is tops for art cred. It’s less central but has beautiful spaces and large galleries but was designed by David Chipperfield. It’s busy anyway May 1 to September 5 with a major Kandinsky exhibition.

Nearby PowerStationOfArt wouldn’t have been suitable were its exhibits not diverse, inclusive and educational.

Lastly, there’s China Art Museum which is China’s 2010 Shanghai Expo pavilion repurposed by a team led by He Jingtang. Its collections and exhibitions are mainly of modern Chinese art but, even if they weren’t, I can’t imagine a ZHA exhibition here.

All in all, ZHA were lucky to be in MAM Shanghai. Designed by Atelier Deshaus. Opened 2016.

Atelier Deshaus is little known outside China but they’re a Shanghai practice with a growing reputation for arts buildings, notably their 2017 Taizhou Contemporary Art Museum. They’re one of a number of Chinese practices reclaiming territory formerly occupied by foreign architects.

Over 600 art galleries and museums were completed in China last year. If architects’ career paths follow the progression we’re led to believe they do, then that’s a lot of career-starters.

MAM Shanghai is conspicuously located on the east bank of The Bund, a pleasant walk down the embankment and a 2-yuan ferry ride across the river. It’s not huge but the airy ground level space leaves you unprepared for the two upper levels into which the CLOSE-UP exhibition has been shoehorned. One gets the feeling the exhibition had to be at MAM Shanghai no matter what.

Cross section courtesy of Atelier Deshaus via ArchDaily

MAM Shanghai is an amazing building. An umbrella structure is used to suspend floors from the original structure. Coal was once carried by conveyor and loaded into the hoppers (that now occupy the middle of the second and third floors) and emptied into trucks at ground level. This ground level is fully glazed and has the museum entrance, shop and cafe. The floor with the angled hopper sides is also fully glazed, while the floor above it has solid walls. Its exhibition area is extended by fitting the hoppers with floors and making openings in some of their upper walls. One has a glass floor at level 3 from which you can see the café two floors below and the level above. Fascinating.

The middle four hopper uppers have been combined into a single space..

Atelier Deshaus took a disused piece of infrastructure that would otherwise have been demolished and, with an economy of physical and technological resources, extracted maximum value from it. I thought this the real future of architecture. Someone somewhere has surely written that the building maintains a connection with Shanghai waterfront’s industrial past, or has layers of time etc. but this is just interpretation for Western architectural media. Adapting this building was simply the most economical thing to do, a cost-benefit calculation as ever it is with buildings no matter how large or small, grand or humble.

Between the ticket counter and the exhibition entrance proper are four shapes suspended in space. This is your first and last opportunity to walk around a model and view it at eye level and in natural light. Already we’re being encouraged to think of these shapes as sculptures and not the oversimplified representations of buildings that they are.

This is probably unfair to sculpture since sculpture isn’t obsessed with denying materials, tectonics and gravity. Me, I don’t understand why a building should aspire to be sculpture in the first place but, if I had to guess, I’d say it’s because Art is one of the most cost-effecient ways of adding value to materials and since buildings can’t be paintings then sculpture it has to be.

The fourth shape is Serpentine but it’s hidden by Aliyev.

We’re told this is the first major exhibition of the work of Zaha Hadid Architects in China.

The Shanghai exhibition begins with two panels, one describing Zaha Hadid’s first trip to China in 1981 and tells us how impressed she was by Chinese painting and Chinese gardens and how the very next year she won the competition for The Peak in Hong Kong which is in China. The other panel describes the achievements of the commercial behemoth that is Zaha Hadid Architects today.

The disused coal hoppers occupy the middle of the exhibition space on the second and third floors. However, all window area on this second floor has been blocked to create more hanging space and a dark and tight space [hence the exhibition title CLOSE-UP?] Illumination has been sacrificed for hanging space. Rather than have the content compete for attention with the city and river outside, the decision was made to limit the exhibition experience to factors that can be controlled. This could be just control freakery but it could also be that the fiction of the models is more difficult to maintain in a real city in the real light of day. A bit of both I’d say.

A wall of photographs along the second floor end corridor commemorates the career highlights of Zaha Hadid the person. Architects generally don’t like having their photo taken with other architects. I didn’t see Rem Koolhaas or Philip Johnson but I did see Patrik Schumacher in two, Margaret Thatcher in one and, in another, billionairess property developer client Zhang Xin (Galaxy Soho, Beijing, 2012; Wangjing SOHO, Beijing, 2014; Lingkong SOHO, Shanghai.2014; Leeza SOHO, in Beijing, 2019).

Leveraging the Zaha Hadid legacy while downplaying its role was never going to be easy and this exhibition is a first attempt to tread that path. I understand why talk of creative evolution is now taboo but, even so, ordering the projects by job number would still tell us something about sequence without implying an end. Perhaps some future scholar will assign ZHA-numbers to the office oeuvre? For now, what we get is an exhibition arranged according to building type, with additional categories for interiors, digital, research, etc. Building categories on display include HIGH-RISE, CULTURAL, MIXED-USE, SPORT, CAMPUS & HQ, TRANSPORT and so on. There’s no HOUSING category because housing only exists as a program item in MIXED-USE and HIGH-RISE developments. A people practice this is not.

The word housing does appear twice in the Graph & Function Representation corner even if the act of living is treated with disdain. Modular Unit Detail: Pocket Living Interior is a hotel room.

It’s bad enough having to peer into dimly lit perspex cases and stoop to read even the inadequate descriptions but I’ve only just noticed that someone thought it important we know what the models are made of, as if the models themselves were works of art.

I’d been tipped off about the other project for Data Drive[n!], Algorithmic Housing. With this project, the spurious text “Undisclosed” makes me think the descriptions were lifted from business development manager project sheets.

Much can be said about this project because there’s sufficient information to understand it. Fire escape distances are satisfied and maximum travel distances minimized but I can’t see what “data” and “algorithms” have brought to it. Solar exposure has been “verified” but nothing done to equalize it. Given that the units are Nakagin-sized with beds up against the window, is facing six apartments around a 6m x 6m lightwell really a good call? The problem I have with data and algorithms is that we’re never told who chose the data, what weightings they gave it, and how the algorithm was designed to link it. Once again, we’re not seeing an over-concern for people. A more immediate grievance is that someone thought this ugly and nasty project worthy of exhibiting. Sorry to be banging on about this but IT’S THE ONLY PLAN IN THE ENTIRE EXHIBITION. People deserve better than this. Even in an exhibition.

Moving on, I saw projects I’d never seen before and now can’t unsee. I wondered what they’d be like to experience as a pedestrian.

All in all, the exhibition seems lifeless and out of place in an art museum. Property trade fairs such as MIPIM or Cityscape at least have a purposeful buzz to them. Art galleries do too when the purpose of the exhibition is to instruct and inform and visitors are encouraged to think about the content.

I recommend the Kandinsky exhibition at West Bund. The exhibition begins with a section on early influences (such as the Oriental art Kandinsky collected) and early works such as this one I’d not known about.

Around the corner was a section on the development of abstraction and I was pleased to see this next one.

Further along was a section on The Bauhaus years and how Kandinsky’s work changed again, even though his abstractions were now beginning to look quite representational. That section culminated in works such as these exhibition design sketches reproduced at scale in a room just before the section devoted to his final Paris years. Wassily Kandinsky died in 1944 but I left feeling I knew a little bit more about the artist and a better understanding of what he did.

ZHA’s disinterest in what information gets fed to the general public is no surprise to anyone who’s read The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Vol. 1. The firm admits no conceptual space for self-reflection let alone analysis or criticism from outsiders.

I’d seen this next model at 2007 Cityscape Dubai when the project was going to be an office building. I imagine it’s here because it’s a living fossil from pre-crisis times. They just don’t design them like this anymore.

“Located on a prestigious waterfront plot within Dubai’s new masterplanned Business Bay district, this gem-like Opus Tower unites has a diverse program of serviced apartments, luxury hotel rooms, commercial accommodation and offices. The building is conceived as a functional podium and cube which hovers above the ground. Eroded in its centre is a freeform void which is clad in tinted double-glazing, allowing views inside and through the space. Forming a key icon in Dubai’s skyline, the cube accommodates has 110 serviced apartments across the upper floors and a 96-room hotel in the lower floors, with offices sit either side of the central void. The podium levels house a range of bars, restaurants, night clubs and retail spaces as well as a beach deck with pool and shaded terraces. During the day, the cube appears full and the void appears empty. At night, a spectacular lighting design display activates the void and brings the space to life as an iconic presence in Dubai’s skyline.”

The model for Beijing Daxing Airport impressed me more than anything else, even if only because airports are big and serious and have to work well. For decades they were shaped like birds with long wings getting the most gates into the shortest average distance from the passenger and baggage handling terminal. This one’s a starfish for much the same reasons but, unlike a starfish, has a void at its centre echoing, I learn, “principles within traditional Chinese architecture that organize interconnected spaces around a central courtyard”. (The modern traffic roundabout is British invention of the 1960s but Paris’ Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile has been directing traffic from many directions around a central void since 1806.) I don’t know why things like this happen. Is it lazy PR copy? An over-belief in one’s own inventiveness? Or an under-awareness of what others have done? A lack of desire to engage honestly with an intelligent public? Not providing visitors with sufficient and accurate information prevents them from forming their own opinions. It works. A child is more likely to ask why this building is red.

I’d had enough. I left with the impression Zaha Hadid Architects can do anything and everything except design an exhibition. As I was leaving, the first guests were arriving for the opening of the REVERSO watch exhibition on the fourth floor.


Art As Houses

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.

• • •

  1. https://www.living-architecture.co.uk/the-houses/a-house-for-essex/overview/
  2. http://socks-studio.com/2015/11/10/house-without-qualities-by-o-m-ungers-1995/
  3. See Glass and Other Houses for more about this.
  4. https://trendland.com/domestic-architectural-installation-by-jean-verville/

• • •


Living as Art

A couple of years back there was a spate of Waste As Art and since then it has spread across the architectural universe.

I fear something similar is now happening with Living and that any benefits individuals might gain from the act of inhabiting a space that is art will get sidelined in the scramble to use the act of inhabiting a space as raw material to create artworks that represent it. Richard Hamilton’s 1956 collage Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? now looks exotic and distant but it never pretended to be anything else but commentary.

This post is about Living as Art and not about Living In Art or Living With Art such as at the Lyon House-Museum [1] which is a private house with many artworks displayed both inside and outside yet open to the public for viewings on appointment. Domestic activities are clustered around a domestic staircase in the middle of the house and the gallery route passes around it.

Hometime and showtime don’t overlap so some parts of this house are a gallery during certain hours and an extension of the residence at others. Despite this, gallery visitors observe a non-blurry and self-policing boundary between art and living. They don’t look inside the refrigerator or have a lie-down on the sofa.

Another home that continues the tradition of a house as a private museum open to the public is Donald Judd’s Spring Street Studio [2]. The positioning of the mattress on a plinth in the centre of the room gives it the significance of an artwork but it doesn’t turn into a gallery or the act of sleeping on it into art. The mattress only confirms this space is a bedroom, albeit one heavy with art.

In 2015 because artists Rob Rhee and Dawn Cerny [1] got to thinking about the intersection of everyday domesticity and art and had the idea of filling an apartment with artworks and making it available on Airb’n’b so the art could be experienced for longer periods of time than conventional galleries permit. As an idea it’s okay. This type of living with art has the same relationship between the space and the objects as Lyon House-Museum or the Judd Gallery but with a different relationship of tenure between the occupants and the space. It’s pay per stay but the point is still the art.

Nevertheless, it’s difficult to imagine all items inside the space as significant artworks. What’s the bed like, for example? The hair dryer? The soap? The toilet paper holder? It’s quite easy to set up a living room as a gallery but a kitchen or bathroom less so. Another more fundamental objection is that staying in an Airb’n’b is no-one’s idea of everyday domesticity.

Using art to add value to hotel rooms isn’t new. The art hotel responds by having rooms one might find a break from the ordinary for a night or two. It matters little if the art is any good.

The not entirely dissimilar 2005 Hotel Puerta America Madrid [2] has hotel rooms by some mostly well-known architects.

In the ART IN SPACE! post, I mentioned how Tazro Niscino’s artworks are made available to stay in as hotel rooms.

Somewhere in the world, someone must be making a hotel with rooms that are genuine works of art by genuine artists because somewhere in the world are people who will pay to stay in it. Imagine.

Living In Art and Living With Art are marketable experiences but only if the “living” is not the everyday domestic stuff you do at home but what you do when you want a break from it. Both train us to expect less of our daily environments. Their appeal is proportional to our daily environments being shit and staying that way. The examples of Living With Art we’re being offered all involve total curation. Nothing’s changed. Living As Art adds another level of distance.

Living As Art

A few weeks back I saw Pipilotti Rist’s 1998 installation Himalaya Goldstein’s Living Room in which viewers are invited to wander around and observe the objects on display and form an image of the person Himalaya Goldstein. It’s a bit like checking out somebody’s bookshelves or music collection, only this time it’s art. There’s no danger Hamalaya Goldstein will walk in and catch us snooping as it’s only a representation of a life. Rather than imitating an actual living room, this artwork is very much an installation of objects we mentally organise to form an image of who a person is. I have no problem with this. Decoding objects and their arrangements is something we all do whenever we enter a room.

With her 1998 work My Bed, Tracy Emin found new found objects closer to home. It shocked people in 1999 when it was first exhibited at Tate Modern and it shocked people again in 2014 when it auctioned for UK£2.2 mil. The work invited us to imagine the life of the artist and we did. Putting a non-functioning supposed replica of a functioning bed inside a gallery made it into art. It made absolutely no difference to our lives. We went home and continued to make or not make our beds as usual, finding no more or less art in doing so than we ever did.

My Bed 1998 Tracey Emin born 1963 Lent by The Duerckheim Collection 2015 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/L03662

Callum Morton’s 2003 sculpture Habitat that appeared in a recent episode of the A(ustralian)BC television show Everyone’s a Critic. [3] Window lights turn on and off and a soundtrack highlights the diversity of life we imagine happening within the building this artwork is a scale representation of. Viewers were moved but, again, such experiences don’t transfer. People don’t line the banks of the St. Lawrence River looking afresh at Habitat ’67 as the hive of domestic stories it or any other massive multi-family dwelling almost certainly is.

The line between living as art and artwork as living is blurred a bit more with Jean Verville’s 2017 installation of a domestic interior designed, exhibited and photographed as Art. A hypothetical apartment space, it makes extensive use of those three techniques of Separate & Isolate, Assimilate & Incorporate, and Curate (the Life Out of It!) to create a work of art. The reach of Curate (the Life Out of It!) extends as far as the person in the images, their clothes, posture, haircut and assumed vocation. Clearly, this is not somebody’s home but the act of living, in an apartment in this case, again being used as subject matter for an artwork.

It’s been at least forty years since we all started painting our walls gallery white. The difference between the primary architectural elements forming the space and the items enabling that space to be partitioned and used as an interior remains as distinct as ever. This is one of the clues alerting us to Living as Art or at least the pretension to it. Domestic functions are indicated by a sofa, kitchen counter and table and chairs but we still understand this to be art. Regardless of whether it’s good art or bad art, we’re not going to be opening cupboard doors like we might in IKEA, trying out the chairs and imagining ourselves living there. This installation is supposedly about living but does nothing to alter our attitudes to art, architecture, kitchen cabinets, tables and chairs, light fittings, colour, or living. A life pared down to curated essentials is being exhibited as art and understood as art. We won’t be trying this at home.

The July 2017 issue of MARK magazine featured a house photographed with models performing tasks any future occupants may or may not perform. The staged photographs of Julius Schulman at least invited us to aspire to the lifestyle the house was advertising but these staged photographs exist only for us to appreciate as representations of living as art. They deny us even the aspiration to live in the spaces depicted.

The problem I have with House in Essex (2015) by artist Grayson Perry and FAT [1] is not that it is an artwork as a representation of a life lived in a house but that it reduces occupants to mere observers in someone else’s story. [This would be the same even if the house were permanently occupied.] The act of living is excluded and our expectations of architecture degraded. Architecture now exists somewhere else as entertaining diversion from our sad habitats untouched by either art or architecture. The wrong is compounded when such diversions are bankrolled by a non-profit calling itself Living Architecture.

The pay-per-stay experience is another step in the ethical hollowing out of architecture. It is very much an idea of our times for, once we accept architecture exists only outside of our daily experience, we will no longer expect it to benefit how we live.

It’s time we drew a distinction between living with art, living as art and living in art. The idea of living in a total work of art is not helping. We have, to name a few, Peter Behrens, Joseph Hoffmann, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Gerrit Rietveld, Henry van de Velde and Frank Lloyd Wright to blame for that. I have renewed admiration for Adolf Loos who, in 1900, wrote the parable The Poor Little Rich Man.

This rich man had everything in life except art. So he commissioned an architect who designed for him a house – a total work of art – and the envy of the world. At first the rich man was ecstatic to have the privilege of living in a showcase, a museum. But discontent quickly set in as he realized his environment was fixed, he could not change anything (even the picture frames were fixed on the walls), he could not even accept a gift from his grandchildren, for the architect who designed everything for him, including his slippers, was there to see everything was in its proper place!  [3]

To restate the problem then, misfits wants people to live inside art (that may or may not be architecture – it doesn’t matter) and in a way that the integrity of the artwork and the freedom of its inhabitants are not compromised.

• • • 

  1. http://lyonhousemuseum.com.au; for a description of it as a building, see here: http://lyonhousemuseum.com.au/architecture/the-housemuseum/
  2. https://juddfoundation.org/visit/
  3. http://lyonhousemuseum.com.au/artists/callum-morton/
  4. http://www.cityartsmagazine.com/airbnb-art-installation/
  5. https://www.e-architect.co.uk/madrid/hotel-puerta-america
  6. https://www.greekarchitects.gr/en/architectural-review/gesamtkunstwerk-id3185


Houses as Art

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.