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How buildings convey meaning

Witold Rybczynski and I clearly do not have the same taste in architecture. But he raises an interesting point about the relationship between architecture and art in this recent post. Here’s an excerpt:

In the name of renouncing the past—and denouncing anything that smacks of decoration—modernism has largely done away with art, the lonely Henry Moore stranded on a plaza, notwithstanding. The problem is that when you strip away figural and allegorical ornament, what is left are mute building materials, mechanical-looking details, and abstract space.

There is a long-standing tradition of integrating art, and other ornament, into architecture. But modernism viewed this sort of decoration as being superfluous. It wasn’t functionally necessary and so why include it?

This has led us to today where there is a joke that investing in public art means investing in some sort of add-on that sits outside of your building and that can be classified as art. Perhaps something by Henry Moore.

The result, Witold argues, is that we have lost something critically important in our buildings: meaning.

But is allegorical ornament really all that different from a freestanding art piece? Don’t both tell a story? And don’t they both get applied, in a way, to a building that could surely continue on without it?

At the same time, what is meaningful art? Does it need to include bas-relief and/or figural representations? Or could it be a signed urinal on a pedestal in the lobby with an accompanying digital NFT?

There’s no question that buildings need meaning. We all crave stories. But sometimes they communicate in different ways.

Photo by David Vives on Unsplash

1 Comment so far

  1. Myron Nebozuk

    How about someone like Enric Miralles who effectively blurred the distinction between ornament and structure? Thinking of his astonishingly beautiful and poetic Igualada Cemetary (not too far from Barcelona), a repetitive precast concrete motif appears to be ornamental initially. Upon closer viewing, we realize that the motif organizes individual tombs and establishes what is public and private space. It is one of the most profoundly affecting places on earth.


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