Architects and Creative Work

“You could not help getting [from Louis Kahn] this sense of hope that architecture was ultimately poetry and art, transcending accommodation, shelter, and program.” This statement has the generality of a cliché. Yet Charles Gwathmey pronounced it with absolute conviction, and one can see it emanating from a man’s serious involvement in his work. Less celebrated architects than Gwathmey also take it for granted that art and meaning make architecture more than mere building. Here is, for instance, the principal of a commercial firm with a three- generation history and a more recent one of making production drawings for many famous designers: “I think art has a lot to do with architecture. . . . What you want is a businessman who is willing to spend a little bit of money so the buildings you are designing have an ability to say something. We have a number of jobs that we think have a lot of art in them.” The creation of meaning”saying something”still appears to be the distinctive quality of architecture, but it is implicitly quantified and made into a commodity. If “a lot of art” can go into a building, it is also possible to put in “a little” or none. One can only tell when it is “enough” by the money it costs.

The skeptic might see these two preceding statements as candor on the one hand and pretension on the other. Yet architects are wont to repeat (with variations) Gwathmey’s notion that architecture must transcend the requirements of practice and therefore go beyond its conditions of existence. Joan Goody, for instance, treats architecture as the architect’s secret intention in a constrained process. She does not try to say what it is, except the undefined beauty that could not be quantified and is not paid for: “Architecture is the most valuable, the hardest to make of the things that we do. . . . They pay us to be sure they make it through the building inspectors and the zoning, that the clients will be happy, that they are rented . . . but the extra layer of beauty we have to sneak in.” Because of general properties inherent in building, it is difficult to articulate what architecture is. Architects’ occupational ideology forms around this difficulty.

As physical artifacts, buildings do more than articulate spaces within their shells: They also make the space around and between them perceptible and organized. As significant artifacts, buildings give spatial expression to the social relations and basic social hierarchies that inform a culture, nourishing its language and cosmology with spatial metaphors. In this sense building is like music or poetry: It is impossible to fully describe in words what has been created, for our ability to describe depends on experiencing with our senses an artifact that has “feeling and form.”

Each culture has its specific building arts, and in ours architecture is that which our architects do. In Western culture, architects profess to be specialists in transforming the complexity of buildings into beauty. Art critics and architectural historians specialize in telling us what that beauty consists of, but architects lay claim to its creation. Their claim implicitly rests on a syllogism characteristic of this profession: Architecture is an art. Only architects produce architecture. Architects are necessary to produce art.

The profession of architecture depends on clients, on executants, and on rival professions to whom it is often subordinate in the field of construction. This means that the profession of architecture is not autonomous but rather is fundamentally heteronomous. Yet architects “own” both the name and the discourse of architecture; the basic syllogism affirms and preserves the profession’s identification with beautiful buildings. When noted designers grant interviews, the syllogism is tacitly taken for granted: The lay interviewer must identify architecture with what respondents do; otherwise no interviewer would be asking them about their work and their views.

While the syllogism of architecture establishes the profession’s collective authorship of buildings, authorship for elite architects (the “gurus,” as the press says) merges with charisma derived from the ideology of art. The syllogism and the authorship it claims are basic prerequisites of architectural ideology.

This ideology assumes that the art of architecture transcends the utilitarian and technical tasks of building. Beauty is permanence in time and its significance in history. Architects with an exalted conception of their work aspire to do something beyond the practical services that clients require. Directly, in their work, and indirectly, in what they say about it, they make rhetorical choices intended to prove architectural quality to their peers, their clients, themselves, and something undefined they call “the public”in this order.

In this chapter I consider, first, how architects articulate the object of architecture (the thing to which they are committed) and the subject of architecture (their role as author). We should not expect them to penetrate what the critic Reyner Banham, borrowing an image from science, calls architecture’s “classic ‘black box,’ recognised by its output though unknown in its contents.” Rather than the specific substance of architecture, their rhetorical constructions reveal different parameters and expressions of the occupational ideology.

The contours of this ideology become clearer in the second section, where I examine the orientations that architects have toward three ways of seeking transcendence in their work: by creating meaning for their buildings, by emphasizing the craft of architecture, and by highlighting the enhancement of life that architecture provides. Each represents for elite designers an attempt to transcend the narrow mandate of their work.

Architecture’s Subject and Object

Architects talk about the art of architecture in four main ways: in general terms that do not tell us how it is different from other forms of building; in personal terms that focus on the frustrations of a misunderstood and threatened enterprise; in very specific terms that explain what they want to achieve in particular projects and how they go about it; and in prescriptive terms that offer specific critiques or variations on the theme “this is not architecture.”

There is no theory of architecture or, as one historian writes, “none that has not been used to justify totally different styles of architecture over the past two centuries.” Peter Eisenman, the architect and cultural entrepreneur, thinks that architecture lacks “cultural power” because it lacks theoretical foundations. This implicitly explains why architects have difficulty imposing their syllogism, or, which is the same, their own distinction between architecture and building, on the public and potential clients. Comparing architecture to law and economics, Eisenman argues that architecture has always vacillated between extracting theory after the fact from realized projects and engaging in “ideological practice,” which proceeds from developed theory. The opposite of theory is, for him, the business of architecture; only theory can provide autonomous criteria for judging the results of practice: “In architecture, the theory is under-valued because it does not matter. . . . Everything is concerned with selling, with the media. We seem to have no corrective, no notion of what the discipline is against which to measure results.”

Eisenman’s argument implies that “the capacity to shape society as law and economics do” depends on the recognition of professional criteria by the state and by relevant others: “When the government wants a legal opinion it goes to the Harvard Law School or the Stanford Law School for advice. When there is a question of development or environmental concern, nobody goes to the architecture schools for advice.” Now, in the United States as in Europe, practicing architects (rather than academics) invariably sit on fine arts commissions, design review boards, and city planning committees, even if their advice is often ignored. Eisenman’s point is that they are not taken seriously because their expertise does not rest on autonomous theory. Eisenman’s argument was part of an exchange with Henry Cobb, whose reply (as the senior partner in I. M. Pei’s firm rather than the chair of the Department of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, which he was at the time) is significant. Architecture, Cobb implies, must choose between doing anything and advancing as a purely theoretical form of knowledge. But the choice is already made: In order to exist, architecture needs realizations. Invoking the theoretical authority of an outsider, Cobb cites Michel Foucault: Architecture belongs among the composite practices (like the practice of government) that the Greeks called techne; it is “a practical rationality governed by a conscious goal.” Cobb then implicitly returns to the basic syllogism of architecture, suggesting that it is bound to fail: “Architecture by definition gives three-dimensional form to the society from which it springs, portraying it in a form so vivid and influential that it has the status of a cultural artifact; on the other hand, this cultural power does not invest architects or architecture with the kind of direct manipulative power that . . . lawyers and the law or economics and economists have in the shaping of society.”

The culturally significant, socially valued, and long-lasting products of architecture are both the insignia of clients’ power and the expression of architects’ autonomous artistic aspirations. Historically, the problem of authorship was that the architect had to distinguish his contribution from the power of the patron. In addition to this, modern architects must also fight for place in ever-more-complex rosters of building specialists. As a form of cultural production, modern architecture must simultaneously convince and deceive the client. For Vittorio Gregotti, this cunning is the architect’s critical duty:

Modern culture involves a radical discontinuity: it is a critical culture, it cannot be organic vis-à-vis the society that exists. Because [Albert] Speer and [Marcello] Piacentini wanted to be organic, they interpreted our relation with nazism and with fascism. The typical duplicity of the architect is precisely that of having in mind two different goals simultaneouslyarchitecture as autonomous culture and the client.

Yet, because the autonomous culture of architecture matters only to other architects, they must resolve ideologically the problems of authorship and of “double coding” the objectfor the client and for the cognoscenti.

In the public, nonspecialist discourse of architects, the ideological construction of architecture moves on a continuum between two poles: On the one hand, discourse must establish the architect as the creative subject of architecture, proclaiming the superiority of the idea over its realization. On the other hand, it must construct the significance of the created object in a mostly “nonarchitected” environment, emancipating the building from either utilitarian or hedonistic vocations. The rhetorical strategies by which practitioners sustain the collective claims of their profession move imperceptibly from one focus to the other. My argument is that both remain central, even though contemporary professional ideology has abandoned the “strong programs” with which they were once associated.

Let us begin with the architect as subject in Le Corbusier’s manifesto of 1923:

The Architect, by his arrangement of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of his spirit; by forms and shapes he affects our senses to an acute degree and provokes plastic emotions; by the relationships which he creates . . . he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and our understanding; it is then that we experience the sense of beauty.

While few architects would dare to talk in these terms today, the glorified role that architects seek among other design professionals silently evokes them. Architects’ willingness to assume practical and legal responsibility for all aspects of good construction (functional and environmental performance, beauty of form and adeptness of space, respect for materials and structural economy) implicitly asserts authorship.

Similarly, the fact that architects’ discourse almost inevitably veers toward description or graphic exhibition of their intentions, moves, and procedures in specific designs indicates another way in which architects claim creative responsibility. Indeed, it is not only the case that architects feel more comfortable with specifics than with generalities but also that the active “I” of their descriptions assigns them a protagonist’s role, rivaled only by the buildings they claim as their creations.

The fusion of creation and creator comes through in the prose of Louis Kahn, the great American architect, who reinvigorated the principles of Beaux-Arts planning learned from his teachers in Philadelphia:

Architecture is a thoughtful making of spaces . . . spaces which form themselves into a harmony good for the use to which the building is to be put.

I believe the architect’s first act is to take the program that comes to him and change it. Not to satisfy it, but to put it into the realm of architecture, which is to put it into the realm of spaces. An architectural space must reveal the evidence of its making by the space itself.

Architects often say that architecture animates inert matter. This ability of architecture is captured in common language that employs anthropomorphic terms (walls rise and turn corners, roofs drop, windows look down, moldings run, buildings have character) and in more vivid metaphors in architects’ discourse (spaces form themselves and slide into one another, fifty-story buildings cannot stop rotating, and an urban square leaks space). Beaux-Arts teaching was centered on the generative properties of the plana principle as important for Le Corbusier (“the plan is the generator” that “holds in itself the essence of sensation,” he wrote) as it was later for Kahn. The phrase “the powers of the plan” is a specialist’s way of metaphorically attributing powers of agency to built space. This metaphor links the architectural principles of modernism to the social-engineering orientation of its professionals.

Incorporating, among other things, the idea of the generative plan, the Modern Movement developed a more absolute principle: The exterior of a building must be an expression of its structure and its interior. But the principle could be knowingly contradicted (as it often was by modernist masters), and the facade could be built up as the boundary between the inside and the outside. Yet the principle that form must follow plan and structure (a more exact phrasing than “form follows function”) rephrases the general conception that architecture is the active organizer of space. This is the architectural counterpart of the “strong program” of architectural determinism, which extends (on an ideological level) the agent powers of architecture from space to its occupants.

For an architectural determinist, “architectural design has a direct and determinate effect on the way people behave.” Writing in the 1960s, the sociologist Alan Lipman observed: “In this psychologically and sociologically conscious period, the profession’s traditional belief that it satisfies aesthetic ‘needs’ can be extended to psychic and social ‘needs.’ It is difficult to imagine a more gratifying belief, one which could better recompense the architect for the vicissitudes of his professional activities.” No contemporary architect would credit architecture with reordering social powers; yet traces of the basic metaphor of architectural agency survive. Paradoxically, they inform the formalist emphasis on architecture’s aesthetic meaning.

Obviously, architecture must have some purpose and meaning for people who devote their lives to it. The point is that even Richard Meier, an architect known for his uncompromising aestheticism, attributes to architecture the power to create and convey meaning for society in general: “I am not sure [that architecture] shapes or reorders society, but I think it gives some focus, some sense of purpose or meaning that otherwise might not be there in the chaos of our time.”

“Meaning” has become an essential ideological justification of postmodern revisionism. Having retreated by will or by force from exalting architecture as an agent of social reform to exalting its single products as works of art, their authors must still insist on making them “speak.” Signification, as Meier suggests, extends beyond the signifier.

The idea of communicating through architecture is old. One historian sees in the eighteenth century the emergence of “a tradition in architectural writing . . . of ignoring the origins and importance of ‘style’ and of explaining architecture away as a consequence or a manifestation of something else.” In the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo noted that Notre Dame, “the gospel of stone,” had lost its powers of denotation to the printed word; connotation, however, is never lost. It was therefore logical that a profession rendered doubly insecure, by the disintegration of its neoclassicist language and by the revolutionary change in the relations of patronage, would look for justification outside its own canon.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the advance of academicization has changed the substance of architectural criticism and extended its public. Criticism uncovers methods of composition and spatial results that are not only difficult to interpret but even to see by untrained eyes. Yet academicization also promotes the continuing search for external theoretical legitimacy: It goes on, looking to science and technology or, on the aesthetic side, to philosophy and literary theory.

Despite all the talk, architecture cannot be read like a written language: The basic vocabulary of doors, windows, walls, ceilings, floors, and columns does not compose a text to be read but a building to be lived in. Functional elements and ornamental figures are more readily accessible than “spatial grammars,” yet they are inseparable from practical and historical connotations. Therefore, the conventions of building type, the multiple practical functions, and the social origins of buildings always persist as “impure” associations in the viewer’s memory.

In sum, theory or, more simply, the esoteric analysis of architectural objects cannot displace whatever it is that the large numbers of viewers or users “read” in them. An obvious contention is that people mainly see size, place, and use in a context that is always already sociala meaning as far from the “purely architectural” as its users’ behavior is from being caused by the built environment.