Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the question, for a rabbit hole awaits
I was recently asked to write a piece discussing a similar topic to this one – are web designers also artists? On that occasion I chose to talk to a web designer about his experience of working in the industry. I asked if he considered himself to be an artist. Ultimately, I reached the conclusion that web designers are not artists, and that web design is not a form of art.
So how about architecture? Without question, the work an architect does is entirely different to that of a web designer. For a start, architects are responsible for the creation of tangible, physical objects, and enormous ones at that. When I first asked myself this question, the first thing that sprung to mind was the enormous skyscrapers that populate our cities.
The tallest building in the world is currently the Burj Khalifa, pictured on the right. Surely this is a piece of art? It certainly looks like its architect got inspired by an art gallery collection of futuristic, sci-fi buildings. Yes, it was created to serve a functional purpose, but it is also intended to look beautiful too. Without question, buildings such as these share much in common with artworks. But how about your average home, warehouse, or office building? When you imagine the building that you work in, does it strike you as a piece of art?
Perhaps we are getting a little ahead of ourselves…
The original question was “Is an architect also an artist?”, so perhaps my mind was a little too quick to conjure up a picture of the Burj Khalifa – after all, it wasn’t the architect who built this structure. The job of an architect is to design buildings, but what does that involve? And is this where their input ends, or do they have further responsibilities as well?
Designing a modern building, even just a regular home, is a complicated procedure that requires a multitude of skills and knowledge to perform safely and professionally. Whether the building to be constructed is for a private individual, a business, or the government of a nation state, every client will undoubtedly have a list of requirements that they wish to be incorporated into the building’s design.
So, when an architect is hired to design a new building, they will be given this list of requirements and asked to show how they intend to design the building such that all of these needs will be catered for.
To do this, a series of technical drawings or schematics will be created. This presents a convincing argument that indeed, architects are also artists. The image on the left is a drawing of a 2D floor plan – is this a piece of art?
Floorplans will usually be followed by three-dimensional blueprints of the entire building. Once the client has viewed and approved these early design documents, the next step will likely be drawings or computer-generated renderings of the building in its intended position, surrounded by existing neighboring structures.
What else does an architect do?
As impressive as these diagrams and schematics may be, they are only the first step in the creation of a building. Architects will later create more detailed plans that include finer details – the positions of essential utility equipment such as air conditioning systems, electrical wiring, plumbing and water distribution, all of these things must be carefully considered to ensure they can be incorporated into the architect’s vision of the final building.
Some of these complex tasks are often outsourced to other professionals such as structural engineers, however. Whilst these third parties are creating secondary overlays to accompany the architect’s blueprints, the architect may be spending their time working on the interior design of the building.
One word that has come up a lot so far is “design”. Designers usually have different goals to artists – they are subject to far more constraints and have less creative freedom than an artist. The diagrams, drawings, and models created by architects are all produced to meet a specified set of requirements. By contrast, an artist is usually free to express himself in any way he pleases.
Why artists are unique
When an artist is commissioned to produce a portrait, the client has likely chosen that specific artist based on their unique traits and style. Whilst the same can theoretically be said of clients choosing to hire a particular architect – perhaps they really loved the look of one of their previous buildings – there is no getting away from the fact that once the building has been constructed, it is the building and not the drawings which are of value to the client.
The scale models which were once created to represent the look of the finished structure are of little use to the client once the building itself has been completed. Therefore, much of the “artistic” work done by architects is essentially disposable – and even the building itself is likely to be torn down and replaced eventually. By contrast, no sane art collector would throw away their paintings just because they wish to hang a new one in its place.
An architect may well possess significant artistic skill, but the work they produce is almost always created as an interim step in their job – to design a functional, and possibly beautiful building. The blueprints of iconic buildings do sometimes go on to become treasured pieces of art, although this is an extremely rare occurrence that most often applies only to statement pieces such as the Burj Khalifa.
Architects are required to be great designers, above all – an eye for artistic beauty is a bonus, but not an absolute requirement of the job. Whilst many drawings and models created by architects display an impressive level of technical and artistic ability, their purpose is never intended to be used as a piece of artwork. It’s a tough call, but in the end, I believe the answer must be no – architecture is not art, and architects are not artists.