What Art Is Online

"Mere" Architecture?

by Louis Torres

Those who regard architecture as art often compare it to sculpture--by which they necessarily mean abstract sculpture (a view mistakenly assuming that abstract sculpture itself qualifies as art). As we noted in What Art Is, Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, is a prime example. Further instances of this practice occur in a review of the catalog for the recent Gehry retrospective at New York's Guggenheim Museum ("Putting a Shine on Things," review of Frank Gehry, Architect, edited by J. Fiona Ragheb, Times Literary Supplement, 2 November 2001). The reviewer, Anthony Alofsin, repeatedly characterizes Gehry as an "artist" and his buildings in terms of "sculpture," referring to Gehry's immense model for a proposed new branch of the Guggenheim in New York City, for example, as "a fluid sculpture, a stunning and huge inflation of the Bilbao Museum."

Echoing the common postmodernist claim that something that was not art to begin with can somehow become art, Alofsin further claims that "during forty years of continuous work, [Gehry] has turned architecture into sculpture, yet produced sculpture that is habitable and beautiful to its beholders." The notion of "habitable" sculpture--of living in a work of art, rather than just contemplating it--is absurd, however (and the concept of habitation is, in any case, applicable only to domestic architecture). Moreover, even Alofsin does not seem wholly convinced of the value of Gehry's brand of "blob architecture" (ironically, an apt term)--the "cutting edge" in the field today--for he observes:

Blobs and swerving buildings . . . tend to emphasize exterior packaging rather than interior innovation. The creative breakthroughs that came from rethinking and challenging the human conditions of habitation and work (so important for modernist architects) rarely occur among the skin practitioners or blob architects, to whom sculptural void is an entity in itself and, like art, unconcerned with the pragmatics of daily life. Gehry's interiors are often an attempt to respond to human scale, but his sculptural masses dominate, and the presence of the artworks in the Bilbao museum are seldom mentioned.

In that last sentence Alofsin seems to recognize that (as we suggested in What Art Is) Gehry's museum "subverts its primary function by detracting attention from the works exhibited."

His seeming ambivalence notwithstanding, Alofsin cites the claim of New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp that (in Alofsin's words) "Gehry has transcended the role of mere architect to become an artist, a feat accomplished by replacing 'design with art,'" and then declares that "the highest goal for a city is the provision of art for its citizens, and the greatest goal of an architect is to become an artist." In asserting that Gehry is no longer a "mere architect," he diminishes the profession of architecture, pitting those who purport to be "artists" against those who properly regard themselves as designers of buildings. After pointing out that, unlike Frank Lloyd Wright, Gehry has produced no books or articles, Alofsin suggests that "once the architect becomes an artist, he needs no literary [theoretical] justification for his creations." "If art has no responsibility but to be art," he continues, "then architecture too is free of obligations." Contrary to Alofsin's confused claims, however, architecture does have obligations. Foremost among them is to be architecture, with all that entails.

November-December 2001

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 article relates to Chapter 10: "Architecture: 'Art' or 'Design'?" Copyright is held by the authors.

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