Art and Architecture—a Link Destroyed

Q: Is there a link between art and architecture?

A: In the past, there was no separation between art and architecture. Michelangelo and Brunelleschi are the most famous examples, but many artists did both, and it was unthinkable, in former times, to construct a major building without including art as an integral component. This was true until fairly recently—I was struck, on a recent visit to New York, by the quantity and quality of the sculptural adornments which enrich the surfaces of major midtown buildings built as late as the 1940s.

Then, with the advent of the “international style” in architecture and the simultaneous adoption of avant garde styles of art which mystified (and repulsed) the majority of potential viewers, the link was broken. Architects were encouraged to exalt their efforts over those of other artists, stripping away everything that was not necessary for the building to function; a move that paralleled the earlier Protestant reformation of Church architecture in its fixation on plain-ness and simplicity. (The fact that it happened to be cheaper to build this way may have had something to do with its immediate and widespread acceptance by developers.)

Artists at this time did not seem to protest over this removal of so much of their raison d’etre, as the leading artistic spirits were refocussing their efforts; from the artist’s traditional role as communicators of ideals of beauty to the unsophisticated, and even illiterate; to a new role as avatars to a tiny group of art-world cognoscenti who prided themselves in understanding and valuing what the rest of the world could not.

Since that time, architects seem to have been schooled in a rigidly puritanical abhorrence of art, where it would interfere with the perception of their building’s form as function. “Less is more” is still their mantra, and so, predictably, they give us more and more of less and less. The sorry sterile state of the built environment in our newer urban centers is the result.

And now it is the turn of the architects to wither away. Instead of being able to make a creative statement with their works, they are reduced to the role of negotiators, trying to reconcile ever-more-restrictive building codes, the wistful historicism of design review boards, reams of legalistic minutia, and their client’s wish to maximize usable space. Of course the expression of creativity comes last of all in priority, and exciting esthetic innovation is hardly ever seen.

Soon computers will be able to accomplish the few architectural functions they have not already mastered, and architects will find themselves as marginalized as artists have now become; unless and until they rediscover the artistic roots of their profession, and bring the rest of the world along with them, and once more design buildings that dare to be ornamental as well as functional.

by Andrew Werby