Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Architecture Is Not Sculpture

Last week I was going to include this post somewhere which I ran across in The New York Times: Writers as Architects. As someone with a foot in both worlds, this article seemed especially relevant to me. But I came away with a different impression than I expected from the article.

This article perfectly illustrates a point I’ve tried to make for some time. Simply put, architecture is not sculputure! The pieces in the article are lovely pieces of sculpture, but they are not architecture! Indeed, the physical form of abstract concepts is not unheard of in the arts. But ask yourselves, could any of these “buildings” stand up for more than five minutes? Or keep the wind and the rain out? Could you find your way around in them? Could they meet their intended purpose (and if no intended purpose, why waste the resources)? Could they be constructed economically? Could they even stand up physically? What materials are they made from – I have no idea. 

I think the answer to all this is clearly no. So why do we call these things architecture? Because they are vaguely building-shaped? Why not be honest and say writers as sculptors? After all, I quite like these pieces as sculpture. I’d enjoy looking them in an art museum. Clearly these are not intended to be constructed. So why is this writers as architects? Have we become so confused that we don't know the difference between sculptors and architects anymore?

Architecture, unlike sculpture, is a practical art. And that’s the way it should be. That means that architecture operates under a different set of limitations than sculpture (or painting or poetry or dance). Buildings have to do a million things, from facilitate the activates taking place inside them (office work, medicine, education, government) to keeping people thermally comfortable, to resisting earthquakes. Rather than beginning with these limitations, architects resist them at every turn, instead trying to impose some overall “vision” that no one seems to understand (often just an attempt to stand out from the crowd). Then, massive amounts of engineering complexity and money are tossed at these buildings to make the design work and compensate for the fact that practical considerations were for all intents and purposes ignored at every turn. But that all too often fails. Here are a few differences between architecture and sculpture:

1. Sculpture stands alone as an objet d’art.
2. Sculpture is not inhabited by human beings. No activity is intended to take place inside sculpture.
3. There are no life safety or exiting requirements for sculpture. People will not lose their lives due to poorly designed sculpture.
4. The forces of gravity do not affect sculpture in the same way. The scale is totally different. Sculpture does not have to “stand up” or resist lateral forces like wind and earthquakes.
5. There is (typically) no direct context for sculpture. Sculpture does not create a built environment and is not placed side-by side with existing sculptures, often from different time periods.
6. The cost in money and resources of a building are orders of magnitude greater than for sculpture. Efficiency matters.
7. There are no systems for water, air, light, electricity, telecommunications, and the like inside sculpture.
8. Sculptures (typically) do not use energy. Resource efficiency of a sculpture is not determined by its form because it uses no resources.
9. Sculpture is (typically) not built to last for decades or centuries. It is less vulnerable to freeze/thaw, UV damage, wear-and-tear. Sculpture does not have to deal with the weather.

I'm sure there are more. Both are 3-dimensional. Both should be beautiful and inspiring. Those are the similarities. But they mostly end there.

Here’s the real reason: Note that this was done under the aegis of an architecture school. And now you have a good look inside how architecture students are taught nowadays, and why Johnny can’t design a decent building that can’t keep out the rain, doesn’t look like an amoeba, or costs less than 100 million dollars. Rather than “the timeless way of building,” students are all taught to be the next design “genius” in the mold of Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, or Zaha Hadid. The twenty-year old kids at Harvard or Columbia are taught design-speak and are set loose to individually give form to international art museums and Chinese skyscrapers and are told to let other people (engineers, contractors and consultants) figure out the messy details. A desperate rear guard action is later done by students to acquire all the information they never got in school. What is the point of architecture school again? It used to be that architects had to know how a building went together before they became “innovative” designers. Now it’s the reverse. Yet the profession digs in its heels in the face of the mass unemployment of its graduates and arrogantly proclaims that it teaches its students “how to think.” Apparently, it’s not well.

Now you know why architects have lost all relevance to the practical world of buildings. Architects are little more than corporate whores, because these are the only organizations capable of building such wasteful vanity projects on a massive scale.

Architects today are not architects, nor are they trained as such. Instead they are trained as sculptors working in an abstract world free from the wind, rain and snow, building codes, user needs, ductwork runs and chases, piping, fire rated enclosures, lateral bracing, etc. They come up with their “vision” and then rationalize their abstract concepts in some ridiculous way. And then their buildings fail, are perennially too hot or too cold or too loud, have too few bathrooms, or people trip and fall on the stairs, get lost, etc., or they get sued, are not compliant with codes, or are ridiculously  over budget.

Lest you think I exaggerate, please see this site. These are actual graduate thesis projects!This is what the profession celebrates, and it what students are taught. It’s also why architecture retreated to elite universities in the post-war period as the only valid form of training (enforced by licensing and accreditation), everything began to go downhill.  A lot of them are brilliant art, but are they architecture?

People are quicker to pull out a smartphone to check the time, then to look at their watch, and even quicker to go shopping on their phone then to go to a mall.  The shopping experience as we know today is rapidly disintegrating.  More people are making their purchases online and now they can do it from anywhere, no longer shopping from home.  The smartphone has allowed us to actually interact with our surrounding spaces.  Shang-Jen Victor Tung begins to look at changing the way in which we shape, organize and even stock for today’s modern shopper.  The architecture will no longer stand as a static strip mall, but will strive to connect with each customer thru digital means.
Tan Akinci project is located at the site of Vienna’s Westbahnhof train station at the end point of the commercial center of Mariaholferstreet.   Coming out of the same studio a project we showcased earlier Asemic Forest by Shahira Hammad.  However instead of contaminating the site, the project pushes to create a public space in which defines the boundaries and flow of the site.   However, as is the problem with many scripted projects, we tend to lose a level of spatial relationship and scale to its surrounds.  Diagrammatically as you read through the sections you can see the light pull of movement and flow through the project, which builds to dramatic and strong end to with its connection to the street.
Note how many of these projects are impractical and unbuildable. Often it’s beautiful art, but architects seem to have abandoned the three-dimensional world altogether in favor of really cool renderings. That’s fine if you’re making Avatar or the sequel to Blade Runner, but that’s not so good if you want buildings to work in the real world.

It’s simplistic but true: modernist architecture has evolved from modern art, particularly sculpture. It is obsessed with “meaning” and “message.” It is obsessed with novelty and symbolism. It does not look to the past, nor respect any traditions of building and construction. It does not see the beauty inherent in forms forged by practical concerns, and this is too bad. For in nature, every form follows function, every form is ultimately derived from the forces that surround us, from gravity to the surface tension of water. By constructing abstract sculptures on a massive scale, and treating public criticism as so much braying from ignorant philistines, architecture has abandoned the field to become an insular profession with less and less relevance to the built environment that people actually inhabit. 

Sadly, what the abandonment of practical building by architects and the retreat into insular abstract intellectualism has meant is that most buildings go the other direction – bargain-basement utilitarian crud sprawling across the landscape with no thought or aesthetics whatsoever. Architects have instead confined themselves to art museums in China and prestige products for universities, rather than any kind of relevance to the wider society. Architects even took on the air of modern artists, cladding themselves in black turtlenecks, scarves, horn-rimmed glass and becoming celebrities in the mode of Duchamp, Dali or Warhol. Owning a “Gehry” is just like owning a “Picasso,” except we all have to live with the mess.

It wouldn’t be so bad if this “freedom” made buildings substantially more beautiful. But I don’t think it has. In fact, if anything the public is more alienated from buildings than ever. Architecture has no relevance to their suburban world of world of particle-board shacks and cinderlock strip malls, and the public gazes from afar at the multi-million dollar steel and glass skyscrapers and boutiques of the the one percent in cities where “ordinary” people cannot afford to live. Older places of beauty are snatched up by the oligarchy and “ordinary” people are priced out. Asked to name their favorite buildings, most people chose ones at least sixty years old, while clamoring to tear down anything built after 1970 without shedding a tear (or in fact actually celebrating). So it doesn’t seem like the modern high-concept sculpture approach emanating from the university departments has really served us that well.

Let’s stop treating architecture as sculpture and rediscover how to actually build user-friendly, contextual buildings more concerned with place-making than novelty or showmanship. Let’s top training students to be design “stars” and more how to work with clients and how to put their concerns first. Let’s have students spend less time in rendering software, and more time on actual construction sites. Let’s stop pretending architecture students are the same as industrial designers, giving objects form, rather than practitioners of a set of principles that are unique to buildings. Let's not consider history as bunk, and limitations as something to be overcome. Let’s let architects think about how their buildings actually work and how they are actually used. Let’s teach students the rules of good design and structure before we allow them to break those rules. Otherwise, future architects will be little more than people teaching students how to put together a bunch of glue and cardboard to symbolize Gravity’s Rainbow.


  1. Admittedly, this is an outsider's perspective, but I've got to say, I think Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead have had some influence on this trend as well. I mean, the basic conclusion of that book is that it's better to dynamite a building than let people make changes to the architect's vision so that it's actually usable, and there's a truly ridiculous dose of the architect not just as genius artist, but as out and out hero.

    As I say, I'm not an architect myself, but I have heard more than a couple talk about Howard Rourke inspiring them to enter the profession.

  2. I am a regular reader of this blog. Your posts are usually insightful and thought-provoking. But you may have missed with this one.

    I thought your impression of today's architecture students might be a little off, but I wanted another opinion. So I sent a link to the post to my kids, asking for their opinions.

    Your post sure pushed a button with my son, an industrial designer engaged to an architect. His reply follows:


    I don't even know where to begin. I couldn't even finish reading the article, I was getting so pissed off by his statements.

    First off, he names three architects, Gehry, Mayne, and Hadid, and is generalizing that the other 99.999% of architects our there all want to build stuff just like them, and do?! Every industry has these characters. You know who they are in your respective fields. The "Artists." The "Free Thinkers." The "Crazies." There is a reason you can count on one hand the number of these type of buildings in any given city. And yes, those particular buildings are full of flaws. But to generalize that architecture students are taught to strive to be "geniuses" like these famous architects in their careers is ludicrous!

    Do you know what the schools teach?. That these Architects push the boundaries of building design and spend most of their time in court defending themselves agains lawsuits because their crazy designs are fraud. THAT'S WHAT THEY TEACH!

    Michelle and I both had professors in college tell us the same thing. Enjoy the freedom and creativity we give you in school. Because when you get in to the real world, you won't get it. The author here pulls a few pictures of some study models produced by some students and thinks this is what they students are being taught? FALSE! These are study models. Yes, Sculptures. Sometimes the end result of a given project but not always. Most of the time it's the first phase. An exploration in an abstract idea that you then break down to its fundamental elements and extract inspiration from, when designing something more practical.

    He also claims it's the architect's fault buildings and homes are flawed or not "practical." You need to thank the architect it's not a pile of rubble. It's the financiers, contractors, and clients that are continually asking things to be built cheaper! Again, you can take this to any industry. I deal with this in the bike industry. All anyone wants is to cut corners, spend less money, and make the biggest margin they can. It's the designers and architects that are putting the foot down, trying to save the integrity of any given project!

    Architects have it the toughest. They go through school. Then Grad School. They they have to complete 5,600 intern hours under a professional practicing architect, complete 7 exams covering building codes, structure, topography, materials, seismic, and only they are they give and certificate and a stamp allowing them to officially call themselves an architect.

    Let the students enjoy the creative freedom and playfulness of projects in school. You are helping foster creativity and design process, and hope that they hold on to some semblance of it when they get in to the real world and are restricted by the conformity and standard practices in their industry. Seriously, check your facts and learn a thing or two from people that work in the industry before you go ranting and making ridiculous generalizations about someones profession.


    As a retired engineer, I can well appreciate the constant pressure to cut corners, save money, and get it out the door whether it works or not.

  3. (continued from above)

    The response from my daughter, also an architect, echoed what my son said:


    I don't think the guy realizes the amount of other classes students in our fields need to take. Those images are concepts! And yes, we are told that you will never have the design freedom you do in school, so pay attention in codes classes, pay attention on how to calculate for lighting, pay attention to occupancy loads, pay attention to ADA guidelines... If this blogger actually looked at a full project, he would see the abstract sculpture, but then it is broken down, studied, formed together with the standards and limitations, and implemented into reality.

    Just looking back on my thesis, I made some beautiful sculptures; a woven ball made of twigs (which to this day is one of my favorite photographs), a large paper mobius strip. Does this mean my space was a form into a twisting turning sphere? No!

    And if it weren't for architects, buildings would fail constantly. When Ryan says that builders and clients want to cut corners and cost, YOU HAVE NO IDEA! Its crazy what they want to try get away with.

    We are artist and abstract thinkers. But what sets us apart is the ability to transform those concepts into something functional and real. He is way out of line.


    Looks like you touched a nerve!

    I've seen many of the residential and commercial projects that my daughter's group has done. All are low-key, practical, and fit well into their surrounding environment, while at the same time being beautiful and unique.

    Does it really look the way you said, from your point of view?

    BTW, are you an architect? I thought you were; just double-checking. You keep a low personal profile on the blog.

  4. I gotta join a line of nitpickers here and say that according to my recollection, Roark in the Fountainhead did not destroy his project because of ego, but because he had a contract that was broken; I may be wrong, it's been years, but my memory of the public project was to be something designed precisely for the clients' needs (meaning the eventual residents).

    It also reminds me of the struggle Christopher Alexander describes in the building of the Eishin Campus. The builders wanted to build it their way, and make a killing besides. And it almost did not get built. There is a lot that creates obstacles to good buildings, not only the schools.

  5. We have plenty of opportunities in architecture. You can become a architecture engineer and work in top companies in India and other developed countries. Learn architecture and become a professional in this field.
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