Is the architect an artist?

By Alyssa Campbell

San Francisco's city hall, built with more than function in mind

Is the architect an artist or is he simply the creator of functional buildings? John Ruskin, a famous architectural writer, once remarked, “No person who is not a great sculptor or painter can be an architect. If he is not a sculptor or painter, he can only be a builder.” (1) From great Gothic cathedrals to the architectural masterpieces of the Renaissance and the Art Deco restorations of the 20th century, the architect has long been inseparable with his role as an artist. (2) However, with industrialization at the turn of the 20th century, intense urbanization and increased demand for housing in a limited space architects began to place a higher value upon functionality over aesthetics.

The word “architect” is derived from the Ancient Greek word arkhitekton, meaning “chief craftsman.” (3) To the Greeks, the architect was seen as a master of his craft. Architecture appeared as a concept for the first time in the first century BCE in the works of Vitruvius where he writes that architecture is composed of three key elements: 1) firmitas – structural soundness, 2) utilitas – function, and 3) venustas – beauty. (4) Throughout the ages, the conception of the role of the architect has shifted back and forth between a concentration on the principle of utilitas and a focus on venustas.

Montreal's skyline built with modernist skyscrapers in and after the 1960s

Montreal’s skyline built with modernist skyscrapers in and after the 1960s

Le Corbusier, the founder of modernist architecture, emphasized simplicity and efficiency with the use of rectangular forms, stating: “A house is a machine for living in.” (5) American architect Louis Sullivan, credited with creating the skyscraper once famously remarked: “form ever follows function, ornament is a crime.” (6) Yet, art plays a tremendously important role even in the designs of Le Corbusier who completely denied aesthetic importance. His diverse artistic background in painting and sculpture served as a source of inspiration for his innovative ideas and work, remarking “I have never stopped drawing and painting, looking wherever I could for the secrets of form.” (7)

Frank Gehry’s deconstructivist designs and his negation of pure architectural forms epitomize the role of the architect as an artist, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Hall in Los Angeles being demonstrative of the domination of form over function. (8) Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright insisted that an architect should work in harmony with the natural setting, emphasizing the unity of a building and its environment. (9) Lloyd called architecture “the mother art,” arguing that “without architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization.” (10) Wright believed that the architect has a duty to be a “great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age.”(11)

Whether intentional or not, the architect will always have an artistic orientation. What renders the architect unique in his role from other professional occupations such as the engineer is the dual role he must serve in considering the functional aspect of a space alongside the human experience his work will ultimately produce. One could thus consider the architect a functional artist, designing within certain constraints in order for a building to serve its purpose while keeping an eye on the aesthetic to create a physical and emotional experience for the user.

1. John Ruskin as quoted by Peter Collins in Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture. pg. 271

2. Craven, Jackie. “Architecture Timeline.”

3. Random House Dictionary, Inc. 2013

4. Gatto, Jessica. “Architecture.” The University of Chicago. 2002.

5. Gallagher, Dominic. “Le Corbusier.” 26 November 2001.

6. Jirousek, Charlotte. Art, Design, and Visual Thinking. Cornell University. 1995.

7. “Le Corbusier: Art and Architecture – A Life of Creativity.” Mori Art Museum. 20 August 2007.

8. Willette, Dr. Jeanne S.M. “Postmodern Architects.” Art History Unstuffed. 21 September 2012.

9. Jirousek, Charlotte. “Art, Design, and Visual Thinking.” Cornell University. 1995.

10. “10 Great Architectural Lessons from Frank Lloyd Wright.” Freshome Design & Architecture.

11. Ibid.

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2 Comments on “Is the architect an artist?”

  1. Syed S. Ahmed February 10, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    A good post. syed



  1. George Mingo at Essie Green Galleries - March 29, 2014

    […] Is the architect an artist? […]


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