Why do we spend so much time and effort creating what we call ‘art’? The behaviour is without obvious survival value – utterly dispensable – yet seems completely essential to human existence: the arts have been an inseparable part of the human journey for more than 70,000 years – evolving as we evolve, driven by and driving our cultures.
Is it art itself or the creation of art that fulfils a need in human beings? Or is it both? In any case, art seems to be woven into our DNA. Perhaps it is art that defines us as human: Homo Artifex – man, the artist, instead of Homo Faber – man the tool maker?
Art certainly belongs to the metaphysical side of human activities, so assigning a quantifiable task or value to the arts may not be the point. Nevertheless, an attempt to articulate a purpose for art in the 21st century might be worthwhile, if only so that arts funding and education may not automatically be among the first cut when a government needs to tighten its belt.
We live in a thin age, distracted and numbed by the rivers of information and persuasive visual images with hidden agendas vying for our attention. Some of us retreat into isolated intellectual silos and ever smaller filter bubbles created for us by algorithms which favour confirmation bias, with a polarising effect. Materialist systems have redefined citizens as consumers, blurring the distinction between value and worth so there is no longer anything so precious as to be beyond price. Humanity is bound, Laocoön-like, with ropes of commerce. The return to religion and militant nationalism everywhere is partly a protest against the heartlessness and degrading effect of such commodification. Instinctively we know, at a deep, unconscious level, that some things simply can’t be quantified.
Pertinently and unfortunately, as Aristotle recognised, a society of ideological extremes “lacks the spirit of friendship” required to function. “Community depends on friendship and when there is enmity instead of friendship, men will not even share the same path”.
Luckily, the human imagination and creativity have great difficulty in living strictly within the confines of a materialist philosophy – or within any confines, for that matter. The arts are intrinsically disobedient! They are the human spirit’s last refuge and represent perhaps the only place of real freedom.
The arts are Trojan horses: transformative and liberating. They break the grip of our obsessions, anxieties, fears and resentments and stir us to the effort of seeing anew, to imagine centres of reality which are remote from ourselves.
The arts can transcend cultural and temporal boundaries because art brings something new and tangible into existence which can be re-experienced. And by engaging with and experiencing the arts – any of the arts – people create a community by virtue of agreeing that it is worth engaging with, even if that community is sharing and experiencing the work online, and even if the individuals within it see the world very differently.
Every shared cultural experience is an opportunity to transcend polarisation. The sensuous nature of art has the power to evoke our human emotions and basic, shared language of visual and auditory and bodily sensations. Art reveals our humanity to each other, melding heart and mind. Art shows us the world through each other’s eyes, allows us to imagine ourselves in other skins, genders, countries, states of mind, helping us to identify with one another and expand our definition of who ‘we’ are. As the artist and philosopher John Berger said, “The strange power of art is sometimes it can show that what people have in common is more urgent than what differentiates them.”
And just as art can create spiritual and emotional space, so can architecture at its best. Architecture has been defined as the art and science of construction for human needs. But what is the ‘art’ bit?
I suggest the art bit is what makes a building become architecture. Given that we seek to create architecture and not just buildings, we must understand what man seeks from art in architecture. To put it another way, if the purpose of architecture is to provide something for humankind, then art within that discipline can also be functional:
If man seeks beauty, then beauty is a function.
Art can provide beauty and, accepting that notions of beauty are not consistent over time or cultures, and thus are impossible to prescribe over the life of a building, the idea of beauty does play a role in architectural design, which I think Vitruvius recognised in his three-part rubric “Firmitas, Utilitas et Venustas”
If beauty is a prerequisite of architecture, can art in architecture also raise a function to the level of beauty? I believe so. What sort of function, then, could be beautified to give us architecture from functional buildings?
Anyone can appreciate the beauty of a tree. If we choose it as a familiar model of support and shelter, our ability to extract its essential visual or technical elements will enable us to imagine/create a form from a scientific understanding, thus allowing it to function, say, as a support. We then search for a visual representation of the support, raising the support function to that of beauty. But this artistic expression is informed by our individual perception of the tree, as well as by the material we choose and the scientific understanding we have of that material.
Let’s assume we choose glass as the material. Why glass? For one thing, it’s unexpected. We know that glass is very strong in compression; it is also perceived as fragile, and in our current world the tree has become symbolic of our fragile co existence with the planet. We might believe in allowing the planet to have a voice and wish to show it through our architecture, so we would have a philosophical desire to express both the planet’s permanence and the ephemeral, fragile nature of our information age.
Thus we begin to extract an artistic essence from the contemporary view of the tree — in this case symbolic. But glass can also be very strong in tension, in the form of woven glass fibres. Here fragility is less apparent, and we would need to seek another essence of the tree to present in our glass support. We could look at bamboo, enormously flexible with its high tensile performance, and dynamically stable in strong winds. We have all seen bamboo scaffolding. Does this suggest that an assembly of bamboo supports makes an allusion to the tree? Or do we extract the essence of the fibrous arrangement in a bamboo stem? And what about the nodes, the regularly spaced fibrous discs that hold the longitudinal fibres of the stem together. How far do we go with glass (or carbon) fibre in replicating the visual appearance of bamboo? Such thinking and investigation take us to the essence of the art of architecture in our model. (note: from Ian Ritchie’s lecture ‘Authenticity in Architecture’ given at Lecture South Bank University 1990)
A more literal concept of the ‘art’ informing the design than the preceding investigation of a glass support is our work for the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, completed in 1990.
In 1989 we were commissioned to help transform and modernise a massive Napoleonic prison hospital building to create the new Reina Sofia Museum of Modern Art. Our response was in the form of three 35m high glass satellite towers to enable vertical circulation between floors.
I was given a private view of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ in the Prado annexe. It was hoped that this icon of 20th-century art would be transferred to the new museum, establishing 1937 as the starting point of its modern art collection. It is a paradox that, in addressing modernity and notions of progress and liberty, the terror and barbarism expressed in Picasso’s painting and the prison hospital of war should be the context we were about to transform.
The painting became the primary inspiration for the design of the towers. I saw ‘planes’ of black, white and greys and these, together with the hair/hand holding the lamp of hope and freedom, became guiding principles for the design.
All windows of the 18th C building had close-set vertical bars. The idea of metaphorically pulling them apart to suggest ‘freedom’ and let in light gave rise to the circular stainless steel rod suspension system, and the hand/lamp informed the design of the clamp supports holding the glass sheets.
The design was a hierarchical composition from large to small scale of vertical and horizontal ‘planes’ in steel, stainless steel and glass. The proportions of the glass panes reflected those of the existing windows but rotated through 90 degrees – and this horizontal proportion together with the absence of any structure in the corners of the glass enclosure gave the design an extraordinary lightness, transparency and a new perception of the building.
The design evolved further to express Minimalism – the reduction to basic essential elements in simple form, Modernity – the visible expression of current and forward-looking attitudes to design, and Performance – ensuring effective and theatrical movement for thousands of visitors a day.
Man seeks change thus change is a function.
Art can be subversive, and hence an instigator of change. Some architecture, like some art, is subversive. Subversion can take a purely political expression or can reflect society by providing a symbolic mirror image of itself; or, as in the case of the Centre Pompidou, it can transform our perception of architecture, in this case of art temples, by removing the steps to ‘high culture’ and embracing the concept of a society in perpetual change.
Returning to our glass support, both a tensile and compression version could demonstrate a scientific understanding of glass as a material and of the glass processing technology of our age. This raises the simple question ‘Why bother?’ Stone, concrete and bricks are good in compression; why go to the apparent extreme of using glass? It also raises the question of whether we should in fact search for a new architectural support.
I believe we should bother and we should search for change, to improve performance, and for the new though, paradoxically, this has not always made for an architecture which enhances the well-being of the human beings that inhabit it – architecture is often rightly described as being a reflection of the society we have.
As architects, we are creating the future, not the present. The information upon which we are helping to determine this future has until very recently come from the past. This is now changing due to the increasing speed with which new knowledge and information become available, and the fruitful, philosophically natural collaboration between scientists, architects and artists which has led to synchronous thinking and exchange of knowledge and ideas.
Architecture is, by its very nature, synthesis, not separation — the synthesis of ideas, intentions, people, materials into form and space in time and light, and the synthesis of the man-made with nature. As with any artist’s work, architecture will inevitably have the architect’s own personality embodied within and outside it. This is the unquestionable origin of the art in architecture and the characteristic that gives architecture its tangible humanity.
As an architect I search to express art in architecture through form and reflectance in space and light, through its conceptual essence, ethical intent and haptic qualities. It has nothing to do with fashion and consumerism. I believe art – including art in architecture – is a search for essence. It refers to a reality beyond itself, and such a reference raises questions about truth that come from within our beings. And this is where its real power to overcome cultural and ethnic differences lies, as does its task – if it has one; because we are all, in our own ways, engaged in that search.
I would like to end with a quote from one of my favourite authors – the writer and philosopher John Berger:
“Art makes sense of what life’s brutalities cannot; a sense that unites us, for it is inseparable from a justice at last. Art, when it functions like this, becomes a meeting-place of the invisible, the irreducible, the enduring, guts and honour.”
This article first appeared in IGS Magazine’s Winter 2018 Issue – Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Author: Ian Ritchie, Founder of Ian Ritchie Architects
In 1981 Ian Ritchie established his own architectural practice – Ian Ritchie Architects Ltd. (iRAL) and co-founded Rice Francis Ritchie (RFR) a design engineering practice in Paris – with Peter Rice and Martin Francis. RFR did seminal work on glass and fabric structures during the 80s on the Museum of Science, Technology and Industry at La Villette, and the Louvre – pyramids and sculpture courts.
By the 1990s iRAL had become world-renowned for their glass architecture, material-technical innovation and intelligent environmental and sustainable design – of which iRAL’s most recent major projects, the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour (2016), and Royal Academy of Music Theatre and Recital Hall in London, (2018) are an evolution. iRAL has won over 60 competitions in Europe and the UK and received over 100 national and international awards.