What Art Is Online

Living in a House by Frank Lloyd Wright

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Conceptual clarity is necessary in order to fully understand and appreciate both art and architecture, and to establish rational standards by which each sphere of undertaking may be judged. . . . With the rare exception of memorial structures, the primary impetus for the creation of architecture (in contrast with a work of art) is, invariably, a physical need. . . . Whatever "expressive" purposes they may also serve, buildings are created, first and foremost, to provide a sheltered space and facilities for domestic activites, or for such pursuits as industry, business, recreation and religion. A building that does not suit its practical function is unsuccessful, even if it delights the eye or inspires the mind. [What Art Is, 194-95]

Relevant to architecture's primarily utilitarian function, an article from the Wall Street Journal a few years ago reported on the structural problems associated with Frank Lloyd Wright's acclaimed Johnson Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin--a building which one architectural writer has preposterously characterized as not merely America's "greatest piece of twentieth-century architecture" but "possibly, the most profound work of art that America has ever produced." *

A recent letter to the New York Times, by the former resident-owner of a private home designed by Wright, further testifies to the essential difference between works of art and architecture. In response to the claim that Wright's houses "were brilliantly 'designed for living,'" the letter writer demurred:

A Wright house provides glorious aesthetic sustenance, but that's about 15 percent of the "living" experience. The rest includes trying to stop the constant leaks . . . and the resultant water damage . . .; dealing with clueless tradesmen; paying heating bills equal to our mortgage payments; and fending off preservationist types eager to tell us how to spend our money as they scurried off to their nice conventional ranchburgers. --Kristine Ottesen Garrigan, Evanston, Ill. [Letters, Travel Section, New York Times, 23 December 2001]

In contrast with architecture--which, as the writer suggests, is only partly concerned with "aesthetics" --the arts proper are exclusively devoted to the embodiment of human values and a view of life. Free of the practical, physical concerns that impinge on architecture, such as the need to keep out rain and cold, they serve only to focus our attention on those values and ideas.

This is not to depreciate the importance of architecture or to deny its power to affect human experience. It is merely to say that its function and means differ in so many significant respects from those of the arts of dance, music, literature, painting, and sculpture that it is best to maintain a sharp conceptual distinction between them.

January 2002


* Kenneth Frampton, Introduction to Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax Buildings, quoted by Timothy D. Schellhardt, "This Office Building Is a Work of Art, Unless It's Raining," Wall Street Journal, 18 February 1997; see What Art Is, p. 422, n. 30.

What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). The above remarks relate to Chapter 10: "Architecture: 'Art' or 'Design'?" Copyright is held by the authors.

|| What Art Is Online || What Art Is || Aristos ||