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  • B. Harper Howard

Architecture As Inhabitable Sculpture: Keeping Architecture Non-Utilitarian

“Why should architecture be seen as art?” Art is defined as the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.[1] Art is most successful at conveying these ideas of emotional power because it is a composition of shapes, colors, figures, and depictions which are, visually, a universal and accessible language that is easily and quickly understood across different languages and cultures. Architecture should be seen as art to prevent it from becoming a utilitarian practice. If art is removed from the design process, the result is not architecture, the result is simply the act of building. Without art, our built environment would be a strict response to quantitative human needs and the notion of emotions and atmospheres would not be present in the spaces we envelope ourselves in today. It is not that architecture should or should not be seen as art, it simply is art, and this is a beautiful way of understanding architecture.

American painter Mark Rothko once stated that, “it is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing.”[2] Art has the ability to change the way people think, understand, and respond to the world around them by invoking emotional power. In 1937, the Spanish Republican Government commissioned a piece of work from Pablo Picasso. Disgusted by the Nazi bombings of Guernica, Spain, Picasso painted a scene of the tortured and contorted faces of some of Guernica’s village people and aptly titled Guernica. Men and women with terror on their faces, a lifeless baby in the arms of his mother, and cattle fleeing from the bombs are not typical depictions in artwork, but it was Picasso’s response to the context in which he painted for. The context in which he created art for.

After the war, Guernica was touring Europe which helped to raise funds for Spanish Republican refugees who had fled the country. The work became a symbol for the anti-war movements. When WWII broke out, Picasso was surveilled by Nazis because of the impact Guernica had on the world and the fuel its imagery gave to the anti-war movements. A Nazi once even visited Picasso in his studio, saw a reproduction of Guernica, and asked the artist, “Did you do that?” To which Picasso replied, “No, you did.”[3] Guernica’s success didn’t come about simply because it was painted by an already famous artist. Its success didn’t come about simply because it was aesthetically pleasing. Guernica’s success came about because the artist created a piece of work which responded directly to the place it was made for. The time it was made for. The turmoil it was made for. The emotional power of Guernica comes directly from its context and this elevates it to the level of art.

Architecture, as an art form, becomes successful under the same circumstances. When Mark Rothko said, “there is no good painting about nothing”, while he was talking about painting and art in the traditional sense, the same notion applies to architecture. When architecture is seen as art, as inhabitable sculpture, it becomes clear that like painting, there is no good building about nothing.

Peter Zumthor’s design for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is a prime example of architecture as a successful and inhabitable piece of sculpture, and thus art. Many buildings on the existing complex which make up LACMA are in various states of decay and the city has stated the cost it would require to renovate the buildings would be equal to the cost it would take to build a new building but that the former would exclude the possibility to exhibit their collection of work in the most appropriate way. Los Angeles, being as dense as it is, leaves Zumthor with size parameters as there is no room to grow outward beyond the existing lot’s borders. In addition to this parameter of the site’s context, the LACMA complex is seated next to the La Brea Tar Pits which are pits of naturally occurring tar that ooze up from the earth and settle on the surface. Zumthor responded to these parameters in a beautiful, conscientious, and meaningful way where he could have responded, rather, in a utilitarian way. The only problem with the existing buildings were that they were in a state of decay and, for public safety, needed to be demolished and a new structure built. Instead of responding utilitarianly and building new box like gallery structures, Zumthor took the context of the site and designed a beautiful and meaningful piece of inhabitable structure. The proposed design is, as the architect states, an organic shape of curving geometry made from black concrete which mimics the shape and look of the neighboring La Brea Tar pits. Because of the atypical shape, there is no definitive back, front, or side to the building, just a continuous geometry which oozes its way over Wilshire Boulevard and rests thirty feet above the ground in a way similar to a piece of sculpture curated onto a pristine pedestal and on display for all to see. The entire structure is bathed in floor to ceiling windows which wrap around the curving geometry and lend to an equity of experience among the different divisions of art housed at LAMCA. No culture, region, or belief’s artwork can thus be pushed toward the back of the museum. The cultural impact and the emotional power of Zumthor’s design lies in this equity of experience. The glass façade, and vertical placement of the structure itself, elevates not the museum above the city, but elevates the city to the museum. Where most museums of art treat their buildings as vaults which house precious pieces of art available to a select group of people, the transparency and visual availability of the new LAMCA pavilion allows the art to be seen from outside the museum and elevates the city to the same level as the museum and its typical demographic.

Many people can build in a utilitarian way which responds strictly to quantitative problems and there are almost as many who can build in an aesthetically striking way which responds to compositional problems, but the artists of architecture build in a way that is not only aesthetically striking and respond to quantitative problems but also takes into account and responds to qualitative problems. Zumthor’s design for the Los Angeles Museum of Art is the latter making his work an ideal example of inhabitable sculpture. Because of the social and cultural impacts architecture has on people, it is, arguably, irresponsible to take the art out of architecture or to see it as anything less than art. Art, because of its ability to convey ideas of emotional power through compositions of shapes, colors, figures, and depictions which are, visually, a universal and accessible language, it is imprudent for architecture to be seen as anything other than art and thus produced in a utilitarian way. Art is not meaningless, and architecture is not better than art because it has a tangible importance to society, it is simply a sculptural composition which invokes emotional power on an inhabitable human scale but like Rothko states about painting, there is no, and can be no, good building about nothing.

[1] “Art | Definition of Art in English by Oxford Dictionaries,” Oxford Dictionaries | English (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d.), https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/art.


[2] M.Rothko’s „Address to Pratt Institute”, November, 1958


[3] History |May 31st in Art, “The Gestapo Points to Guernica and Asks Picasso, ‘Did You Do This?;" Picasso Replies ‘No, You Did!",” Open Culture, n.d., http://www.openculture.com/2017/05/the-gestapo-points-to-guernica-and-asks-picasso-did-you-do-this.html.

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