08 November 2019

On the relationship between architecture and art

by Marco Romanelli

Can you imagine the Parthenon with the “later addition” of the metopes? A gothic cathedral with the “later addition” of the stained glass windows? Palladio’s villas with the “later addition” of Veronese’s frescoes? Even more recently, say, what about some of Gio Ponti’s designs without Melotti’s ceramic interventions? Some of BBPR’s projects without Fontana’s riddled ceilings? The unforgettable Ardeatine Mausoleum without Mirko Basaldella’s thought-provoking massive gates?

If, as I believe, you find it impossible, you will have already understood what the ideal relationship between art and architecture should be. Synchronised conception and execution: the architect and the artist devising together an appropriate artistic contribution to the prospective building. This means that architect and artist must be travelling companions on this adventure, discussion and growing in unison. After all, what could possibly be a greater contrast to the contemporary vogue for ‘inserting art into architecture,’ which basically means hanging pictures in the sitting room of a finished apartment or placing a sculpture (subtracting the cost of the taxes) in an area in front of a skyscraper?

Painting, mosaics, sculpture, environmental ceramics, wall decoration and installation must all become part of the architect’s toolkit once more. Naturally he will not be responsible for them himself, but he will be concerned with integrating them into his project in real time. As I said, it has been thus for many years, and the proof of this can be found by examining any interior design scheme drawn up by Ponti, Scarpa, Cordero or Nanda Vigo where you will find, possibly alongside the general layout in a scale of 1:100, not just annotations and sketches that refer to a detail of the construction or finish (on a scale of 1:1 or 1:10), but also ideas for plinths for statues, placements for large pictures, precise references to the work of selected artists. Remember, though, that for architects at that time it wasn’t a matter of putting together up a composition in which all the elements were harmonious (that’s the decorators’ job), but to actually create striking perspectives, through art, what one might describe as “freeze-frames,” that then allowed one to proceed with renewed energy. The plan made up a sort of film sequence: creating the path the user could take in order to gradually acquaint themselves with the architecture. Therefore art, which by definition should have no function, took on a really specific one: measuring, controlling, signalling. Thus the premise of using art decoratively in architecture was completely by-passed, just as, by default, the childish notion of potentially moving the works around became outdated.

While, when we enter a house, we are used to gauging the chromatic and material intensity, the different roles attributed to natural and artificial light and the relationship between the most communal or most private spaces, the choice of artworks will feed us precise information about the character of the inhabitant (and/or the designer) and on the way they approach the world.

Of course, there is another difference that must be stressed: in the now-forgotten years of great designer-artist synergy, buildings were “simply” buildings and made no claim to being “works” in their own right. Nowadays, though, with the great egocentricity of contemporary projects, every building is simply a portrait (good or bad) of its designer (of Gehry, of Hadid and many other less brilliant ones) and, therefore is striving to be a “work of art.” At this point it obviously becomes harder to incorporate other works.

On the whole these days, contemporary architects have been relieved of the overall control of projects. In the mad rush for specialists, interiors or the areas around buildings may be seen as not being within their remit, still less the choice of works of art! And that’s not all, we need to bear in mind another problem that slows down, if not prevents any real synergy between architects and artists these days. This is the increasingly predominant role played by art galleries. Gallerists have turned themselves into controllers of the movements of the artists in their stable, and therefore don’t look kindly on private and robust relationships with architectural clients.

Lastly, we need to ask ourselves whether there is a remedy for all of this. I personally think so, and I believe it’s still the same one: prioritising not the object but the relationship between human beings (architect and artist), accepting, or rather inviting, discussion.

#art, #architecture