Architecture and design fields, in general, have a functional purpose as an essential property, whereas aesthetics is concerned only with form. Thus, the utilitarian nature of architecture may be too far removed from the purely aesthetic to qualify as an art form. Although architecture must meet functional requirements, some architectural movements emphasise form, and others optimise for utility. Post-modernist architecture, for example, often incorporates historical references, eclectic styles, and playful aesthetics, sometimes at the expense of strict functional considerations. Modernism, in contrast, is a more strictly utilitarian expression of architecture. It holds functionality, efficiency, and the absence of unnecessary adornments as central tenets.
Some movements may be more art-like than others, emphasising form over function, but architecture as a project depends on its utilitarian roots. What would a building be if it did not serve a purpose? A large sculpture. So, it is the utility of architecture as an intrinsic property that causes tension in its claim to be a legitimate form of art.
This essay will advocate for architecture, that despite its intrinsically utilitarian nature, it, in its entirety, is just as credible to bear the title of ‘art’ as any other recognised art form.
To achieve this, the essay endorses an iteration of John Dewey’s pragmatic view of aesthetic value and develops art forms within that context. It continues by making an account of architecture and exploring the associated dichotomy of ‘form’ and ‘function’. Finally, it will attempt to find common ground between architecture and Dewey’s aesthetic pragmatism, concluding that the products of architecture have no less a stake than any other in the title that is art.
John Dewey’s aesthetic pragmatism reduces art to a unique aesthetic experience that can be encountered in any context. He forgoes transcendentally orientated views such as Clive Bell’s essentialism (Bell. C, 1982), which holds that all aesthetically moving artworks must share a common characteristic that gives them this power. ‘Significant form’, as Bell calls it, comprises, for instance, the correct balance of colour, contrast, geometry and the interrelatedness of those elements. The issue with this approach is that it might exclude other objects with the power to elicit aesthetic experiences. ‘Significant form’ fails to account for outliers, which contradict its principles of balance and interrelatedness yet can still elicit moving aesthetic experiences within an observer.
Dewey’s pragmatism addresses this, providing an alternate perspective that cares only for the observer’s experience of a form and not the modes by which it achieves that response. For simplicity’s sake, this essay will define the aforementioned aesthetic experiences as ‘awe-inspiring’.
Consider the following example: While one stirs from their slumber, they hear the chatter of birds. Depending on the observer’s mood and outlook, these sounds could be interpreted simply as background noise or irritation. In this instance, the chirping represents nothing artistic because it does not instil awe.
A different observer might delve into the congruence of the chirps with other background noises and be gripped by nostalgia for a similar moment in childhood. Their experience, in this case, is intense and awe-inspiring.
It matters not the objective structure of the sound waves or how they reverberate through the room to create a specific acoustic resonance. What matters is the subjective implication of the impacting sounds upon the observer. The aesthetic experience, which all art should be capable of engendering, should be observer-focused rather than object-focused. The reason for this, Dewey believes, is that the wonders of art should be something accessible to all and not just a privileged few like the artists themselves and the critics of galleries and museums.
William Fluck (1999) says: “…observers see the same object, but only by taking a certain attitude, is the Manhattan skyline turned into an aesthetic object which provides the basis for an aesthetic experience.” An observer’s attitude towards an object determines whether they have an aesthetic experience, solely determining whether an object counts as art.
Aesthetic experience, as the above quote shows, has something to say about art, but alone provides too broad a scope of categorisation. Suppose a leaf or filing cabinet could cause the observer to undergo an aesthetic experience. Under Fluck’s view, they, too, should be considered art. This intuition now falls down a slippery slope because anything can be considered art, which degrades the term.
Take ‘low art’ like comics and movies: even though they may engender a deeply touching aesthetic experience within their respective audiences, Dewey does not acknowledge such works as art because he believes them to be insincere.
This essay understands sincere intent as that which deems to improve and enhance the lives of its onlookers through attempting to educate, provoke, relieve or move. Sincere art, therefore, serves an enriching purpose. Insincere art, in contrast, is populist and panders to the immediate desires of its target audience and seldomly endures beyond a fleeting snapshot of cultural relevance.
Comics and movies are more prone to this insincerity because they are more accessible to the masses. Insincerity in low art is not ubiquitous, however. ‘The Lord of The Rings’ is a highly acclaimed novel sporting a richly imagined world, a complex cast of characters and a profound narrative. Most certainly, the author, J. R. R. Tolkien, constructed his magnum opus with all the care and intent required for sincere art. Even though Lord of the Rings came after Dewey finished his thesis ‘Art as Experience’, there are many examples of sincere low art before and after his paper was published.
The added concept of sincerity clarifies our understanding of art so that arbitrary objects like leaves and filing cabinets do not feature in the broader family of art. Art, then, can be defined as any sincere fabrication that evokes an aesthetic experience within the observer. According to Dewey, then, Art is a function of the observer and the artist in combination rather than of the former or the latter alone.
The capriciousness of art further justifies this definition. The notion of art that is accepted evolves from epoch to epoch such that “Every work of art is the child of its time …” (Kladisnky, 1947, p. 55).
Consider Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1600’s) and Marcel Duchamp’s The Fountain (2000’s). These are two very different works of art from two very distinct periods. Although the Mona Lisa has stood the test of time and is even to this day considered one of the greatest works of all time, the Fountain would have been poorly received if it were created in the Renaissance period because even though it would have been borne of sincerity, it would not have evoked awe in the same way it did in a modern context.
Herein lies the beauty of Dewey’s pragmatism: it acts as a wholly encompassing account of what it takes for an object -visual, acoustic or sensory in any other relevant sense- to qualify as a work of art. In doing so, it marries differing accounts of art from all epochs under a single framework.
By attaching prime importance to the subject and not objects, whose capacity to inspire aesthetic experiences depends on the fleeting context of a particular epoch, Dewey arrives at a consistent theory.
Various critiques have arisen to confront this view of aesthetic value, one from Vivas (1937). Vivas argues that Dewey needs to be clearer about how objects may express emotions within the observer, which could create inconsistencies within his theory.
Of course, this and other criticisms are relevant in certain respects but do not significantly impact the nature of Dewey’s pragmatism.
Dewey’s argument, as already outlined, provides a compelling foundation to assess the nature of architecture.
THE NATURE OF ARCHITECTURE
As discussed in the introduction, Architecture is unique as an artistic venture because, unlike other art forms, its products must serve a practical purpose.
Acknowledging this is important lest the lines of architecture become blurred with other art forms: Imagine a building designed with the sole intention of inspiring awe among its admirers but one that lacks the spatial qualities necessary to foster any practical activity. Instead of a building, the Architect has envisioned a sculpture. A structure that serves no practical purpose is an architectural failure (Sauchelli, 2012). So, the function of an architectural work must determine the ultimate shape that it adopts. It cannot be the other way around.
Any architectural project has an exhaustive list of constraints that shape the functions of the built space. These limits include budget, buildability, structural stability, materiality, safety, energy efficiency and cost efficiency, environmental regulations, local zoning laws, and amenity, to name a few.
Functional constraints such as these limit the Architect’s freedom of expression. The opponent of architecture as art might implore that purely artistic pursuits are free from such boundaries, preventing any design field from being considered capable of producing art. Well, are not the canvas, brushes and coloured paints the same for an artist to create a world of limitless wonder? Suppose the opponent argues against design fields as being capable of producing art. In that case, they must distinguish between the functional constraints encountered in design fields and the creative constraints encountered in pure art.
The functional constraints faced by the Architect are merely a consequence of the discipline within which he works. In the same way, the canvas, clay, instrument and stage limit the expression of their respective art forms.
Form refers to the final appearance of an architectural work: e.g. how lines connect, the choreography of lighting and ornamentation and the correspondence of the external environment with the built space. One can consider functional constraints as the tools that shape the structure, transforming potential into reality. Bruno Zevi, a renowned architecture critic, believes this approach to be the crux of his practice (Sauchelli, 2012). Form, then, even though shaped by constraints, is the prime motive of the architectural masterpiece.
By understanding case-specific functional constraints and moulding the corresponding space with sincere intent and attention to detail, the Architect produces true art.
To best understand the dichotomy of form and function, one must consider it within the modernist context. A popular misconception about Modernism is that it is intended to eschew style and beauty in service of functionality. Perhaps the best description of the Modernist intent is captured by the great modernist Architect, Le Corbusier, in his seminal treatise “Towards a New Architecture” (first published in English by W&J Mackay 1926)
In the preface, “Argument”, Corbusier says outright:
“The Engineers’ aesthetic (defined by functional constraints) and Architecture (the assignment of form to such constraints) are two things that march together and follow one from the other: the one being now at its full height, the other in an unhappy state of retrogression.
The Engineer, inspired by the law of economy and governed by mathematical calculation, puts us in accord with universal law. He achieves harmony.
The Architect, by his arrangement of forms, realises an order which is a pure creation of his spirit; by forms and shapes, he affects our senses to an acute degree and provokes plastic emotions; by the relationships which he creates, he wakes profound echoes in us, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty.”
The critical point in “Towards a New Architecture” (in the context of a critique of the mannered styles of pre-modern architects) is that inherent functionality leads to beauty and harmony, which, in the hands of the Architect, can be fully realised as art. The upshot of this theory is the creation of a new movement, the “International Style”, which, as its name suggests, is intended to transcend local boundaries in search of a connection to a universal human spirit.
ARCHITECTURE AS ART
In this section, this paper will compare two examples of architecture to showcase the importance of intent in design and the difference between architecture as obligation and architecture as volition, the latter of which closely resembles art while the former is its antithesis.
Enter the Retail Outlet and the Cathedral:
Architect A is contracted to design a new building, a simple one whose sole function is to efficiently showcase a variety of retail items in such a way as to maximise sales. With this goal in mind, along with the predetermined constraints discussed by the contractor, the Architect A designs the building that fits the specification. The project bestowed upon Architect A is highly related to the growth of corporate sectors and profit, which is assured by the building’s overriding motive to pander to populist tastes. The desire to bring the Retail Outlet to life is borne out of obligation. It is hard to imagine that one could truly appreciate a retail store’s dull external and internal features. However, in assuming the principle of charity, one should concede that it is possible to receive a genuine aesthetic experience from the retail outlet. One might be enraptured by the structure’s functional prowess. It may serve its purpose so well that one cannot help but be in awe of how it achieves this. There are many forms of ‘retail outlets’, including art galleries. A gallery’s design is not only for displaying paintings and sculptures in a user-friendly manner but also to celebrate heritage culture and to make aesthetic experiences accessible to the public. In this way, the art gallery serves a noble purpose, one far more aligned with architecture as a volition than architecture as obligation.
As discussed, however, even though an observer might be in awe of the retail outlet’s functional prowess to the extent that they undergo an aesthetic experience, that in itself is not enough to elevate the retail outlet into an art form; the product must also be of sincere origin, which is to say that Architect A must intend for the structure to serve something greater than its corporate function and do all in their power to execute such a vision. Architect A, in this instance, has no such intentions and so his Outlet does not qualify as art, according to Dewey.
Architect B is contracted to create a Cathedral to facilitate a connection between supplicants and their deity. Being religious herself, Architect B understands the importance of proper prayer, and she respects the correct idolisation of her deity. She desires to create a structure that allows others to glorify their god in the highest manner. With sincere intent, Architect B sets out to transform the space, guided by the constraints stipulated in the contract. Not only does the final design serve its function admirably, but it is also beautiful beyond compare, capable of providing a powerful aesthetic experience to any observer.
Architect B’s cathedral is borne of sincerity and capable of inspiring awe in all who look upon it. Her product meets Dewey’s criteria and can thus be considered a genuine art form. A further distinction between the outlet and the cathedral is, of course, that of permanence. The outlet will be demolished or re-furbished continuously as the public’s tastes evolve. The cathedral’s tenure, though, will endure as a timeless testament to the human narrative, as its creation was not defined to capitalise on fleeting trends.
By meeting Dewey’s fundamental qualities of aesthetic power and sincerity, the retail outlet, at the hands of its creator, fails to become art while the cathedral succeeds.
The following excerpt is adapted from Suachelli (2012):
Something is an architectural work of art if, and only if, it has been brought to life by sincere hands. The content of such an experience -specifically an aesthetic experience- includes an experience of internal and external space and that space’s accompanying elements (ornamentation, lighting, materiality, and so on) and promotes the spatial effect via a process of constraint management.
This paper concludes that architecture, like any other design field, can produce true art.
One might rebut that there is a redundancy in subsuming architecture under the overly lenient framework of Dewey’s pragmatism. After all, it is evident that if architecture is sincere and can elicit an aesthetic experience, it can be interpreted as art.
The right question to ask is, “Why should it be understood in such a manner?” one which remains unanswered.
In response, it would be unjust to praise the work of another type, whether it be sculpture, dance, painting, poetry or any other such recognised form, as art when the Architect treads along the same path as the artist: in the quest of honing their craft and moving humanity ever closer to the divine.
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