Beyond Buildings


So What Is Architecture, Anyhow?

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Marfa weeHouse. By Geoff Warner.


My recent posts about what students are looking for, and how architecture can extend beyond a building have raised the question for some readers as to what continues to define architecture as a discipline.

That is no small question, though I believe there is a simple answer–or so it would seem. Architecture is, of course, in its essence about building. It is how we think about buildings, how we talk about buildings, how we design buildings, and how buildings appear. The core of architecture is thus building or, to extend that verb and noun, the human-made environment. All that shapes, forms, frames, and extends that artificial space is architecture.

How one should do that framing, forming, shaping and extending; with what means; and to what ends; make up the questions as to the nature and character of architecture. I have long argued that buildings of the traditional, standalone sort are more often than not the tombs of architecture, and that they are defined these days more and more not by design, but by code–life-safety codes, buildings codes, codes of behavior and appearance, computer codes and, above all else, financial codes. I also believe that we should think long and hard, given the scarcity of resources of all sorts, before we answer any question as to how to improve a place or serve an organization or client with the answer of a new building. I believe that architecture must work through, within, and around buildings and that often, existing buildings are enough, or new buildings are not enough.  

There is another way to define architecture, and that is through its place in society.  In those terms, it is what licensed architects produce for hire. Those architects, in turns, are the product of accredited schools of architecture and their competency is guaranteed (we hope) through state licensing boards.  They produce architecture when they create products that answer the codes mentioned above, under a contract aandfor an agreed up fee, and they are responsible and liable for their products under the terms of that agreement.

This means that a reductive definition of architecture, as opposed to the expansive one I laid out above, would be that it is produced neither by either engineers stamping drawings, nor by artists. It is not something that appears because an architect has a vision that she or he then just produces. It is a social activity that has a space within our economic and political system. It is one that, ideally, exists as an intersection when competing needs, desires, or fears come together. architecture can act as a mediator between those impulses.

By that same token, architecture in that definition often finds itself entombed within those same relations, which ultimately have a legal definition, thus becoming a suppression or burial of the life it is meant to frame, shelter, and regulate. “First do no harm” often means blandness, avoidance of form, and a lack of definition, as does the need to “fit in” and not offend.  Architecture in this definition also becomes the fixing in place of the social, political, and economic status quo, reflecting the values and needs of those who have the means to commission the architect.  

In those terms, the notion of architecture as a way of making space for social relations through the use of the visualization and organizational skills students learn in the better architecture schools is, I believe, un underutilized opportunity. During the 1960s and 1970s, many architects wandered into the field of organizational consulting, and I believe there are still opportunities there. Talking about network or organization architecture has become all the rage, and architects could capitalize on the realization that their spatial models might have broader relevance. At the same time, the notion that you can resist power through occupation or by creating slippery, self-organizing systems of connection could benefit from the skills and talents architects possess.

In either definition, as the ability to make us at home within a human-made space, or as the ability to make space for humans within systems that often seem beyond our control, there is a great deal of work to be done by architects beyond the production of buildings.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.