Monday, January 19, 2009

Not Just Art

Another reading response for the class I'm taking. This one concerns a statement by Herman Muthesius in which he suggests that painters, or other practitioners of fine arts, are the driving force behind architectural innovation.

Not just Art

While it is likely true that Peter Behrens’ training as a painter enabled him to envision an innovative architecture for AEG, and that IBM’s Rochester, Minnesota plant by Eero Saarinen had a new, lightweight presence manifested in its thin aluminum and glass walls, Muthesius should take care not to reduce the new aesthetics of these buildings to mere artistic expression. Each of these companies was a leader in the high technology of the day, and wished to convey that image in the everyday use of their products and workplaces. Moreover, technical expertise and understanding of construction processes made the realization of these buildings possible. Taking these three dimensions into consideration leads to a more well-rounded analytical framework with which to examine these historic examples, contemporary architecture and, by extension, urban planning, urban design and landscape architecture.

In the case of the AEG turbine hall, Behrens was seeking to “translate the complexity of…[the] building into an aesthetic analogy” (Buddensieg, 63). The ability to successfully complete this task seems to be as rooted in Behrens’ personality (a social consideration) as in his past in the fine arts: his willingness to utilize his artistic training for commercial ends and to collaborate with the civil engineer Karl Bernhard ultimately led to a building that was both functional and expressive. Buddensieg concludes that Behrens thus demonstrated the artistic virtues of the industrial materials that formed the building, but stops short of connecting this success to his past in the fine arts. In fact, Buddensieg goes as far as to cite technical developments as the seed of Behrens’ “inclination toward special clarity in the interior and simplicity on the exterior” (66) of his buildings. While it is plausible that a painter’s eye for detail led to Behrens’ success in transforming architecture, Muthesius seems to overemphasize the contribution of a background in arts and crafts, and discount the role of social relations, business concerns, and technology.

Fast forward to the present and turn to the relatively new WAMU Center in downtown Seattle. The concept for the almost entirely glass fa├žade can be attributed to the architects but the realization is largely due to technical innovation. By utilizing performance-based design – that is, designing the building to meet performance objectives in a seismic event rather than designing for stresses limited by building codes – the structural designers laid out a bracing scheme that eliminated the need for a perimeter moment frame, which is typically required in steel construction in high seismic zones. The bands of opaque cladding that are seen on many Seattle skyscrapers are thus absent, creating a “lightness” owed to both the architects and engineers. Furthermore, there was an innovative financial interplay between the bank and the Seattle Art Museum – which inhabits the lower portion of the building – that made the entire project possible. In this example, the interplay of architects, engineers and focused business concerns again unites art and commerce via a progressive social relationship.

It naturally follows that ponderous architecture can lead to clumsily designed cities, but I find it hard to look solely to artists for salvation; considering the fields of urban planning and design, a quote from Jane Jacobs comes to mind: “A city cannot be a work of art” (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 372). This assertion suggests that while nimble artistic disciplines such as painting may inform contemporary city design, proponents are ill-equipped to consider the diverse elements that constitute the real life functioning of the city. It follows that seeking to create an aesthetic analogy for a complex process, as Behrens does with the AEG turbine hall, is not a sufficient approach to solving problems at a scale much beyond that of the individual building. Jacobs continues to say that such an attempt leads to a place between life and art – taxidermy – and suggests that the real role of urban design is “helping to illuminate, clarify and explain the order of cities” (375). Artists, such as painters, photographers, filmmakers and writers are better equipped to play this role than to arrive at innovative solutions that are as based in technical and social sciences as they are in art.

Another important element of urban planning and design that defines cities is infrastructure. Classically understood as the water and sewage systems, electrical grid and network of roads and bridges, these systems are inherently ponderous, given their utilitarian function and physicality. However, future infrastructure (read: communication and mass transit networks), which largely consists of wireless connections and light rail – the latter of which is even semantically distinguished from its heavier industrial predecessor – is much more graceful and functional. These developments seem to be spurred by technical and business innovation, not to mention social pressures, rather than by fine arts. Completing the loop, Kieran and Timberlake see this shift to technology as the next innovation in architecture and even cite the computer company Dell’s business plan as a model to be followed.

Landscape architecture finds itself in a similar position, straddling the line between an artistic and a scientific discipline, and seeking to integrate both human and nonhuman life. Business concerns are involved to the point that they often employ landscape architects to create an environment that will lead to greater productivity or circulation, ultimately bringing increased profits. In this field, the aesthetic sensibility of a painter would once again be a desirable attribute of the designer, but it is still only one piece of the whole.

In the end, contemporary designers would likely be best served by recognizing the interdependence of disciplines beyond their own specialty. While one’s concentration may be in the aesthetic, technical, or social realm, an educated awareness of the validity of the other disciplines seems essential to further innovation. Gropius’s call for the architect as facilitator of various aspects of design applies here and can be seen as a basis for interdisciplinary studies.

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