“What is Architecture?”, answered with some help from bikes.

Ever asked yourself, what is art? Well I have as well, and because luck so often falls my way, this questioning led to a visiting position, in 2006, at the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University, to develop some publications and fanciful projects with Arthur C. Danto. Who is he? Only the greatest definer of art since Immanuel Kant.
  
I’ll spare you the thesis and tell you that Danto defines an art object as anything with embodied meaning, that can be recognised and marvelled upon by the artworld. My association with Danto led me to define a work of architecture, as any building with embodied meaning, that can be recognised and marvelled upon by the architectural fraternity. Time since spent looking at designer bicycles, has brought about a slight evolution.

One class of buildings and bikes are valued for being exceptionally functional: the 6 Green Star energy rated building, or the Specialised pro team edition, for instance. An antithetical group of buildings and bikes, are valued for being designerly. They will invariably compromise utility, to draw attention to something visually intriguing about them. “Wow,” we say of the Farnsworth house, “a building made from nothing but I-beams and glass.” The fact that it is unliveable, only adds to our delight. “Wow,” we say of the Ron Arad bike, “those wheels are made from steel petals.” Anyone hung up on matters of traction, or noise, we look upon as a dull engineer who doesn’t “get” anything.

This leads me to a definition of architecture, as opposed to mere building, not unlike Danto’s definition of art, but more applicable to an art form like architecture, that will always be discussed in terms of a use. To be architecture, and not merely a building, utility will often be compromised, no matter how slightly, with the aim of foregrounding meaning, to people au fait with architectural thinking.

15 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Dr B, In recent posts I have noted a distinct desire of yours to turn the old Pevsnerian motto about bike sheds and cathedrals on it’s head. Not that I disagree, but it’s one of the few things I remember from my History of Architecture course. Is nothing sacred, damn it?

  2. Steven says:

    Re: more definitions?

    Hi Tom, I would argue that utility is compromised in work done by Architecture for Humanity. If it were truly practical, it could be built without an army of creative, highly motivated, usually young, architects, with clever ideas, deeply involved in solving unique technical challenges of their own making. It could be knocked up by the very simple folk who will live in it, from simple kits. Its embedded meaning is a feelgood story, that architects could hardly reject publicly, without looking churlish, as I must look now 🙂

  3. Anonymous says:

    I am an erstwhile physicist/engineer, but I totally get the Farnsworth house and Arad bike as art. I also find myself explaining from time to time; “Why do you think they call them “models” instead of “people?” Of course you can’t look like that, you aren’t expected to. Of course the clothes are totally impractical for people. This isn’t about people or clothes. This is art.”

    If you wish to buy a bit of haute couture, the designer will measure you and produce a bit of real clothing that fits you and gives an impression of the art displayed on the catwalk.

    Which is, I’m afraid, why people “don’t get” your vision. You present them with Freetown Christiana, a form of citizen’s utopia, then wisk it away and replace it with your architecture.

    It’s not your cyclist enclave they “don’t get,” it’s your art they don’t like. Designed cities suck. You’re asking them to live in the unlivable. First put the bike paths where the grass is worn away, then we can start fighting over the architecture.

    KFG

    • Steven says:

      no, designed cities are cool. New buildings are cool. Gentrified old building stock is mouldy, and filled with self entitled yuppies, artfully slumming, usually at daddy’s expense. New apartments on brownfields attract educated retirees, tired of playing with power tools on the weekend. And they don’t play loud music. And you say: “Designed cities suck!” 🙂

    • Anonymous says:

      Q.E.D.

      KFG

    • Anonymous says:

      Q.E.D.

      KFG

    • Anonymous says:

      Q.E.D.

      KFG

    • Anonymous says:

      Q.E.D.

      KFG

    • Anonymous says:

      Q.E.D.

      KFG

    • Anonymous says:

      Q.E.D.

      KFG

    • Steven says:

      no, designed cities are cool. New buildings are cool. Gentrified old building stock is mouldy, and filled with self entitled yuppies, artfully slumming, usually at daddy’s expense. New apartments on brownfields attract educated retirees, tired of playing with power tools on the weekend. And they don’t play loud music. And you say: “Designed cities suck!” 🙂

    • Steven says:

      no, designed cities are cool. New buildings are cool. Gentrified old building stock is mouldy, and filled with self entitled yuppies, artfully slumming, usually at daddy’s expense. New apartments on brownfields attract educated retirees, tired of playing with power tools on the weekend. And they don’t play loud music. And you say: “Designed cities suck!” 🙂

    • Steven says:

      no, designed cities are cool. New buildings are cool. Gentrified old building stock is mouldy, and filled with self entitled yuppies, artfully slumming, usually at daddy’s expense. New apartments on brownfields attract educated retirees, tired of playing with power tools on the weekend. And they don’t play loud music. And you say: “Designed cities suck!” 🙂

  4. Anonymous says:

    Copenhagen is nice, but…

    Copenhagen deserves praise for its incredible bicycle build-out over the past forty years, but giving it the nod over Amsterdam doesn’t make sense. I’m hardly an expert, but I’ve cycled in both cities (and ridden the distance between them), and the Netherlands’ infrastructure is beyond compare. It’s not until you hit a Dutch bike path — those ten-foot wide, smooth-as-glass bits of pavement — that you realize what bike paths can (and should) be.

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