Is Architecture Art?

by | Architecture

The first time I remember the “but is it art” conversation, was when a scandalised public were presented with Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII in 1974. A heated public debate ensued on why the Tate had used public funds to buy a useless ‘pile of old bricks’. The risky Tate experiment really paid off however. The bricks were inevitably attacked – on one occasion with paint – when put back on display, but to everyone’s surprise a bewildered and curious public came flocking in, “…these bricks have really brought the public in”, said Arthur Payne, Gallery Assistant in 1976. “They can’t make head or tail of them. Nothing has attracted as much attention as they have.” The Tate hasn’t looked back ever since. In 2015 Tate Modern received 4.7 million visitors and is now the most-visited gallery of modern and contemporary work in the world. Meanwhile old hierarchies and categories have collapsed – one after the other. We’re all now fairly at ease with art defined as photography, film, unmade beds, sharks in formaldehyde, Christ’s in urine and elephant dung liberally smeared on canvas.

But when the Turner Prize was awarded to an architecture collective in 2015, it wasn’t a now blasé public – but ironically artists themselves who were scandalised, and asking the old familiar question “but is it art?” Even some prominent architects whose work is as close to art as one can imagine, like Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects, are dubious on this question. The rest of us weren’t that surprised however, as the writing’s been on the wall at least since 2000, when Julia Peyton-Jones developed her hugely popular Serpentine Pavilion programme. The latter has inspired a global phenomenon in the commissioning of temporary, largely functionless pavilions or installations by art galleries. But this is part of a larger trend of interdisciplinary crossovers that we are all now so familiar with. The institutional recognition for this latest new and exciting direction in art is reinforced for example by the architecture room at the RA’s Summer Exhibition – often the best part if the entire show.

At its heart, the “Is Architecture Art?” debate isn’t just a dry exercise in academic taxonomy – it’s a spirited contest of terrain. An unequal contest that I suspect only architecture can ultimately win, as art becomes increasingly nebulous like sunshine or fog (depending on your point of view), that settles on everything like a blessing or a blight, but is itself invisible or difficult to pin down. Meanwhile architects, visual artists, curators and policymakers will ensure that this debate is destined rumble on and on…

Issey Scott of Anise Gallery is understandably surprised that people are still asking – ‘Is Architecture Art?’ So what’s going on?

Linking Art and Architecture

by Issey Scott

The result of the 2015 Turner Prize sparked a widespread debate about the limitations of contemporary art and its ability to merge into other fields. As an architecture collective, Assemble won the prize for multiple projects, including a collaborative effort with members of the community at the Granby Four Streets in Liverpool.

Immediately after their win, critics were howling and scowling about the legitimacy of Assemble’s work as a contribution to the field, and indeed the history, of contemporary art. To others, this reaction in itself was genuinely shocking, as art since the millennium prides itself on being experimental and reactionary; also, the question was posed: is architecture art?

Turner prize 2015 Assemble’s Granby Four Streets is architecture art

‘In an age when anything can be art, why not have a housing estate?’ says judge Alistair Hudson

Assemble’s Granby Four Streets Green House.
Turner prize 2015

Studying architecture is undoubtedly a combination of art (or design) and science, but the fact that its status as an object of visual culture was, and still is, being challenged, can feel quite perplexing, especially as it is often considered a sound subject matter and inspiration for artworks in all media. As a dynamic field, encompassing social, economic and geographic themes and issues, architecture is a visual stimulus which is entirely unavoidable in daily life. Whether this is through housing, contentious skyscrapers or ornate listed buildings, we are experiencing and talking about architecture on a regular basis, consciously or not.

Bringing architecture and art together is one way of ensuring that architecture is at the forefront of visual analysis and culture.

In being incorporated into what is potentially its sibling field of work, it allows a broader audience access to what is often considered a closed, elitist industry. Many artists are now citing urban infrastructure and architecture as influences to their oeuvres, and as a result the contemporary art world is now filled with intriguing, complex and often beautiful examples of how the two interact and work together.

Woodcuts by Scarlet Mueller is architecture art

‘I Saw it Whole: A Virtual Deconstruction’ for the first time, allows the viewer to enter the artwork and fully comprehend the process of this intriguing medium.

Woodcuts by Scarlet Mueller

Based in an area of London steeped in social and architectural history, Anise Gallery in London has this narrative at the heart of their work. Sharing our space with architectural illustrators AVR London, promoting art and architecture as joint disciplines drives our thematic ideas and curatorial projects. A recent show was ‘I Saw It Whole: A Virtual Deconstruction’, a collaborative exhibition where intricate woodcut prints by Zurich-based artist Scarlet Mueller are enhanced by a virtual reality feature developed by the artists at AVR London. Incorporating fine art and 3D digital art in this way is a highly contemporary example of how art and architecture are both obscured and moving forward by new challenges and technologies.

Artists using architectural forms as inspiration do so in many ways, and artists exhibiting at Anise Gallery are a fine example of how this is done. Many works are described as ‘architectural art’, which is not an established genre in itself, but certainly tells a story of how the two come together in a series of final outcomes. As part of ‘I Saw It Whole: A Virtual Deconstruction’, artist Scarlet Mueller expresses a fascination with internal spaces, and uses a kind of visual analogy to merge pictorial designs and a deeper message that resonates with both art and architecture, through geometric patterns and overlaying. The idea to convert these prints to the VR (virtualreality) sphere was surely prompted by these geometric aesthetics, where it is almost as if the layers are ready to be peeled back and fully explored, much like experiencing and entering a building for the first time.

‘I Saw It Whole : A Virtual Deconstruction’ Woodcuts by Scarlet Mueller \ VR by AVR London

Trailer for Anise Gallery’s exhibition

Curiously, art and architecture are not often written about and explored in a critical or academic way, at least not explicitly. The scope of the ‘urban landscape’ is addressed more commonly, which fortunately embraces various elements of visual culture simultaneously, including art galleries and the way they engage with their viewing public.

One artist who also interacts in a similar way is Alex Evans, whose intricate geometric drawings show clear influences from the urban environment and its dynamic nature. Removing the abstraction and often superfluous tendencies of contemporary art, Evans’ work is direct and reproduces imagery found in urban spaces, again utilising geometric shape and pattern.

Evans’ work is direct and reproduces imagery found in urban spaces, utilising geometric shape and pattern.

Regarding the ways in which art and architecture are viewed concurrently in the public and academic realms, while the two forms are not discussed in regards to their relationship, interestingly they are bundled together almost nonchalantly without explanation, with the focus being on a separate issue, such as the environment, gender dynamics, race relations or economic factors.

Architecture critic Edwin Heathcote’s Financial Times piece on ‘Why Art Galleries Are Moving Back into Domestic Settings’ from 2014 showcases how even in the viewing of art we cannot be removed from the architectural contribution of doing so. As more art exhibitions move to an entirely online presence, other than being unable to scrutinise works closely, we are starkly reminded of the importance of architecture in immersing ourselves in art, whether contemporary or otherwise.

This is also a point to which VR adds an exciting edge, as the viewer is truly offered an entirely new experience to merely viewing an artwork in a space, as is the ‘white-cube effect’. New technologies in the field are allowing growth in not only contemporary art but also in architecture, as speculative and prospective buildings, interiors and concepts are able to be shared and explored before anything concrete is in place. In the same way that analysis is conveyed through critical writing, VR gives 3D artists, who might have more interest in technology than fine art, the opportunity to respond to an artwork from a different technical perspective.

Alex Evans at work

Prior to this point of the process for art and architecture practice, the intricate planning and drawing is a shared rudiment of both. While this may not be explicitly the case for some artists, in that some media will not require drawing per sé, the blueprints and planning methods for artworks follow similar strategic patterns to their architectural counterparts.

Furthermore, with the emergence of digital-based art and references to popular culture being heavily focused on technology, we see emerging another way of art and architecture not necessarily being viewed as joint disciplines, but certainly, atomistically, being together under the umbrella of contemporary visual culture.​ ​It is not just academic and critical narratives making the links between the two more known;

high-profile institutions are now incorporating architecture and design into their exhibition and public programmes, most notably the Design Museum and the V&A

Although both museums’ remits include design as a focal point, honing in on themes and practitioners who the public generally do not have access to is an interesting addition to a more traditional take on design curation in museums. This includes the V&A exhibition ‘Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design’, a show celebrating Ove Arup, a twentieth-century pioneer in the relatively un-glamorous world of engineering. For us, gallery artist Ian Chamberlain’s bold depictions of infrastructure emphasise the diversity within contemporary art through figurative etchings.

parametricism Patrik Schumacher is architecture art

“A named style needs to be put forward in order to stake its claim to act in the name of architecture”

Patrik Schumacher

As a strong advocator of Parametricism, a genre in architecture which is believed to be the namesake of its current era of practice, Patrik Schumacher, the director of Zaha Hadid Architects, has argued that architecture is not art. This statement is a critical response to the way in which he believes that architects are addressing projects in terms of style over substance. Suggesting that architecture is not an art form is an important argument to make, as although naturally architecture possesses a much higher utilitarian value than art, this does not have to mean that its aesthetics have to be compromised.

Incorporating VR into art in the way that can be seen with Scarlet Mueller’s collaboration with AVR London highlights and confirms the role of both virtual reality and contemporary art in twenty-first century life. Of course, Schumacher is correct in that architecture has more practical purpose and criteria than the production of art, however as two elements of visual culture, it is not absurd to showcase and compare qualities of them both. Schumacher’s statement that “architects are in charge of the form of the built environment, not its content” is a puzzling concept given the debates and effects of new builds, especially in the metropolis setting. it is surely fairly naive to state architectural developments are self-sufficient entities, not affecting people and environments around them.

Exhibiting architecture in the institutional, or gallery, framework is consistently challenging for curators and architects alike, as opportunities to extensively experience and analyse a building are far fewer than those concerning artworks. From the perspective of the gallery, we are always looking to make architecture more accessible to a viewing and art-loving public; doing so through aesthetic expressions makes this more digestible for those with a wide range of interests weaving through art and architecture. Showcasing artists using different media is another way in which to engage architectural themes and aesthetics with the public: the inhabitants of these spaces.

Whether this is print, painting, video or drawing, we are constantly exploring new ways to showcase the relationship between art and architecture.

Anise Gallery is an exhibition and events space in a former spice warehouse in historic Shad Thames, south London, and have been promoting the intrinsic link between contemporary art and architecture since opening in 2012. During this time, the space has been host to various media including installation, photography and video work, conveying the ‘architectural’ in all its forms. The gallery space itself embodies this ethos in its physical appearance as directors Jacquelyn and Joseph have ensured that original features of the warehouse have been conserved and revealed. The gallery works closely with architectural illustrators AVR London, in the sense of their shared space and interests.


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