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New Worlds: The Art of Architecture

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“Architecture is just art we live in. Why doesn’t anybody get that?” — Jake Stone, The Librarians

We’ve talked about architecture a fair bit already, but largely from a pragmatic perspective: how the environment influences it, what materials are employed, the purpose of the space, and so forth. A single glance at a beautiful building, though — whether that’s a massive monument like the Taj Mahal or La Sagrada Familia, the unassuming humility of the Jo-an tea house or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, or the experimental shapes of Poland’s Crooked House or Belgium’s Atomium — makes it clear that architecture is also aesthetic in nature.

Functional art, also called utilitarian art, is anything which is made to serve a practical purpose as well as an artistic one. Depending on how broadly you want to define “art” (or “practical purpose”), this includes practically everything in our surroundings: even the most humble filing cabinet had somebody thinking about the aesthetics of what color to paint it and what shape to make the drawer handles. Of course, in many cases that thought was extremely minimal — I’m not trying to claim much artistic merit for the shelving in my kitchen or the bottle of shampoo in my shower. But “not much” isn’t the same as “absolutely none.” More expensive items tend to get more effort poured into this aspect, while cheaper ones go for whatever’s going to get the job done at the least cost.

That’s true of buildings, too, as countless low-rent apartment blocks illustrate. Rich people don’t always achieve actual beauty in their houses, but they have more money to blow on unnecessary ornaments like columns and corner quoins that do nothing to enhance the building’s function. And when fashions change — which they will — those decorative details will start looking stuffy and unattractive, the kind of thing nobody with taste (or pretensions to same) would want adorning their house.

Architectural fashions change more slowly than other kinds, though, because the money and labor that goes into a building is so high. Clothing can change much faster than interior decor (few people want to repaint their house every year, much less every season), and interior decor can change much faster than the substantive fabric of the building (you can get somebody to repaint from earth tones to grey fairly easily, but knocking out interior walls or slapping on a new style of roof is a serious undertaking). And that’s in modern times, when we have industrial manufacturing and countless home renovation shows trying to sell us on the idea that we absolutely must redo our kitchens with granite counters or distressed wood cabinets. For most of history, the pace of architectural fashion has been glacial.

Not always, though. Alterations in materials or technique can suddenly open up whole new vistas of design. One famous instance of this is Gothic architecture: the advent of features like pointed arches and flying buttresses made it possible to build soaring structures, far higher and lighter than the Romanesque style that preceded it. Halfway around the planet and a few centuries later, the tendency toward light, airy construction in Japan was driven by a different factor, the depletion of the old-growth forests that had supplied massive beams and pillars and the consequent necessity of conserving timber.

And because architecture is a functional art, the way we use our buildings also influences their aesthetics. The shift toward open floorplans in houses was meant not only to maximize light and an overall feeling of spaciousness, but to make it possible for people to socialize more easily — and by “people” I particularly mean housewives, for whom taking out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, the living room, or both meant being able to converse with family members and guests while also preparing the meal. (It can also be cheaper to build, since fewer interior walls are needed.)

But when lockdown began for covid, tons of people suddenly discovered the downside of the open format: no privacy. No separation of zones and lives. If the kitchen, living room, and dining room are all open to one another, then the noise of cooking might be competing with the TV, and everybody can hear what the parent or student is saying in their online meeting at the dining room table. I don’t know if the trend has continued, but I read an article a few years ago discussing a sudden upsurge in home renovation to put in walls, re-dividing the space so everybody isn’t living in everyone else’s pocket.

Of course, pure fashion can also play a role. Much as with clothing, ornamentation and the use of expensive materials is a way to show off your wealth; glance at any Baroque palace to see the gilt-cherub extremes that can reach. But when those excesses go too far, you’ll get a backlash that declares good taste is displayed via restraint, fine craftsmanship taking the place of ostentation as the chosen vehicle of display. Or name brands, e.g. having your house designed by a celebrity architect like Frank Lloyd Wright. (Not purely a modern phenomenon: the sixteenth-century Andrea Palladio was so famous, there’s an entire style of architecture named after him.)

As an art form, architecture poses some particularly brutal challenges when it comes to conservation. It can be hard enough to keep a painting in good repair; how about an entire building? As many an impecunious titled family can attest, maintaining an old mansion can drain away your savings in no time, especially if you’re trying to avoid substantially altering it. We need some buildings kept in their original form and materials, if we’re to be able to study and appreciate the architecture of the past . . . but which ones deserve that care? While I was at Indiana University in Bloomington, there was a campaign to “save Ballantine Hall” — from what, I don’t really know (it’s still standing twenty years later), and why, I couldn’t imagine. I don’t consider it a particularly attractive building, inside or out. But apparently it’s a good exemplar of a certain architectural style, and if we tear them all down because they’re unattractive, then we’ll have no examples left.

And my comment there, calling it unattractive? That’s an aesthetic judgment, based in the fashions I’m used to or which speak somehow to my taste. Twenty years from now, fifty, two hundred, people might have very different opinions. And they’ll be sad if an old beauty like Ballantine isn’t around anymore.

(It almost caused me physical pain to type “old beauty” just then.)

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds: The Art of Architecture”

  1. I 100% just googled Ballantine hall. It…looks…like you better hope you aren’t late for class if you have one in the upper floors because no way the elevators work regularly. It’s … like … early cgi envisionings of city buildings when cgi first started being used to generate scenery?

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