WHAT IS ARCHITECTURE?

I would argue that any architect worthy of the name addresses in one way or another the prospect of building. That is to say, the architect’s primary concern is the built environment, the physical domain of our experiences that is tangible, material, and constructed. However, I would also argue that this fact does not mean that an architect’s work will necessarily be realized in the built environment. The reason is obvious: the architect is not the one who decides to build or not to build. That decision is made by others who control the financial and material resources necessary to build, those who own the land, or represent the prevailing governmental and legal systems. Architects do not build–rather, they make designs that instruct others what and how to build, if those others should so decide.

If this the case, then the question is: wherein resides the architecture? Is it only in the realized, built design? Many would argue this is so, and that the unbuilt design of the architect has only the potential of becoming architecture, and is not such in itself. It is hard to quarrel with this outlook, in that we have not yet invented an objective measuring device for detecting the presence of architecture. In this domain, architecture is detected by the attuned sensibilities of individual observers, which can and will vary widely.

Rather than challenge this outlook, however, I will interrogate it a bit more. If architecture is only in the building, what, we might say, puts it there? The labor and skills of the contractors and mechanics who build the building? If that were true then every building would be architecture, and not even the most skeptical of observers would claim that to be the case. Architecture is something different from building. So what makes it different?

The usual answer is: a concept. Architecture is the built realization of a particular concept, or idea. This idea can be about construction, or the way people will use a building, or how the building fits into a physical, or a social, landscape. But wait. Every building has such concepts, even warehouses, convenience stores, garages–they are embedded in its typology, so much so that we don’t even need to discuss them. Everyone knows not only how to behave in such spaces, but also what they mean in simple, everyday terms. This is the basis of what we call vernacular architecture, which is a vital part of architectural history. But a vernacular cannot account for, or lead to, the creative architecture that responds to the changes dramatically affecting the contemporary world. That architecture is something else. So, then, what is it?

I would say that architecture, as we understand it today, differs from building in that the concept, or ideas, it embodies are formulated in a unique, and not merely generic, way. In order for this to be so, it must originate in a single mind–the mind of an architect. One consequence of this understanding is that the architecture is in the architect’s work–sketches, drawings, models–from the beginning. If this were not so, it would be impossible to somehow ‘inject’ it later. Given this, it is merely a semantic debate as to whether the instrumental products of an architect’s design process are architecture, or only have the potential for architecture. In either case they cannot be dispensed with, if architecture is to exist.

And there is something else. The more concepts and ideas formulated by the architect have an immediacy for contemporary conditions of living, thinking, working, the higher we will value it as architecture. We want architecture to participate in the crucial changes affecting our lives, and not simply form a backdrop to them.

Why is this issue important at all? Because the idea of such an architecture today is disappearing. Developers, corporations, and politicians understand the marketing value of architecture, as long as it’s attention getting. But that cannot be all there is. Architects themselves, some of whom devote their uniqueness of mind and their talents for embodying ideas to serving the interests of developers, corporations, and politicians, are ignoring more urgently critical conditions. Continuing the struggle to understand what architecture is helps keep everyone—especially the architects—more honest.

LW


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