Church on the Berlin Wall, Raimund Abraham, architect, model and early sketch:


An issue that continues to come up on this blog is whether only an actually constructed project is architecture, or whether drawings and models of unbuilt designs can be architecture, too. There are good arguments on both sides of the question, so, in a sense, we cannot expect a definitive answer. The debate, however, remains useful in establishing different philosophical and practical positions within the field, and so we carry it on.

 Not surprisingly, my own position is that drawings and models are architecture in their own right. If they are not, I ask, when does the architecture appear? Architects do not build buildings; rather, they design them. Others do the building, following the architect’s designs, realized in drawings and models. This position is based on the assumption that not all buildings are architecture, but only those that embody the knowledge and understanding that only architects can give them. I do not consider a simple utility shed built by even skilled craftspeople architecture, unless it embodies conscious ideas about human habitation and its meanings. For those who consider any constructed building architecture, then not only are drawings and models not architecture, but architects themselves are, at best, superfluous. Most buildings actually constructed in the world are not designed by architects. Yet if there is no architect, I believe, there cannot be architecture.

 Now, I want to define better what I mean by ‘architect.’ An architect is one who has an active knowledge of ethics and aesthetics, as well as technical matters, and is skilled in embodying these in precise forms and spaces. Further, an architect is able to make designs that integrate these into the fabric of a city or town or landscape, harmoniously or not, but in any event according to a critical position taken by the architect. To do this, an architect must have a developed understanding about the way a city or town or landscape works and also how it should work, given the right conditions. An architect works to maximize these conditions. Therefore, an architect must have a wide and comprehensive knowledge of the world he or she inhabits, however large or small its extent, in order to have a clear idea of the best conditions to enable and encourage.

 I should emphasize that an architect need not be licensed by the state, or even be a graduate of a school of architecture. Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright were basically self-taught architects, as were countless unknown architects throughout history, and in many parts of the world (see Bernard Rudofsky’s “Architecture Without Architects”—note that I dispute the book’s title). Whether self-taught or the inheritors of a coherent cultural tradition, the definition of architect given above applies. Architecture does not ‘just happen.’ It is designed by someone with comprehensive knowledge and skills, and that someone is an architect, by whatever name they, or we, choose to give.

 The question comes down to this: is architecture only an end-product that people can physically inhabit, or is it also the matrix of ideas, concepts, and designs that serve as inspirations for constructions that can be inhabited, but lack the financial support, or the technical capacity to be physically built? Or, perhaps, architecture can exist only as forms and spaces that can be inhabited mentally, until such time—if ever—when they can or need to be physically constructed. It seems to me that if we exclude these latter modes of architecture, we narrow the field to what is built at the moment, limiting as well its potential to fully engage the human condition in a time of tumultuous change.

This is an important issue. The views about it that prevail will greatly influence not only the direction of architectural education but also the priorities architects, clients, and public policy-makers set for the field in the future.

Let the debate continue.


Monastery Simon Petra, on Mount Athos, Greece:


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