Beyond Buildings


In Architecture We Trust, All Others Bring Data

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Michaelangelo's Laurentian Library in Florence. Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal.


Is architecture an art or a science? I have long maintained that it is the art of "building," something the Germans take for granted when they use that as their name for architecture (“baukunst”). Standard definitions have it both ways when they talk of the “art and science of building.” It has been a long-running debate, and I am glad to find out that this particular discipline is not the only one engaged in such a discussion. Last week, the American Anthropological Association dropped the word “science” from it long-range plan, substituting the word with “the public understanding of humankind.”

I don’t know any anthropologists, so I couldn’t verify that the uproar the media reported on the issue was real, but certainly there has been plenty of press on the matter. The issue appears to have some parallels with the situation in architecture, though it is not an exact mirror. In anthropology, the question is whether it is an evidence-based endeavor, or one that examines and interprets cultures. I always assumed the latter, which shows my biases, thinking that field work, data accumulation, and various forms of measurement were only part of a larger activity which would ultimately help us understand the nature of human society in all of its historical and geographic complexity. 

The problem seems to be that we as a society (and our institutions and funding agencies) do not really trust such interpretation. Apparently, the discipline of anthropology has to answer to some of the same pressures we all do: They have to provide what we today call metrics at every stage of their research and interpretation. I have run into the same issue in the art museum I direct: Funders want us to prove what impact the encounters with art we facilitate and promote might have. I do not know how many times in the last few years I have heard the mantra, attributed to Mayor Bloomberg, “In God we trust, all others bring data.” (Possibly taken from W. Edwards Deming, an American statistician.) Certainly a dependence on the sense that art—or architecture—makes you feel good and is beautiful is not enough. On the other hand, some things just can’t be proven or measured, though we know they are important. Richard Dawkins speaks of “memes,” or conflations of ideas and images that are so powerful they cross time and space to take a role in how we understand or find our way in the world. On a less grand level, the emotion and sense of satisfaction that art, architecture, love, or war provides is difficult to measure, though it is easy to observe.

In architecture, the movement for “evidence-based design” is still somewhat marginal. Where it seems to contribute or validate common-sense observations, such as that natural daylight or certain colors makes people in hospitals feel better, it certainly has value. Where it intersects with value engineering and other cost-benefit analyses to leech out any happenstance, surprise, or just surfeit space from buildings, I would question its efficacy.

Phillips Exeter Academy Library by Louis Kahn. Photo: Steve Rosenthal, Courtesy: Phillips Exeter Academy.


Ultimately, it seems evident to me that architecture, like anthropology, must use whatever tools it can to create those frameworks that establish a good and beautiful, or critical, or whatever term you want to develop, relationship between ourselves, our fellow human beings, and the world around us. The fact (yes, I would say fact) that the University of Virginia, the Laurentian Library, or most buildings by Louis Kahn, do that better than most should cause us to ask why and how they do it, but I doubt we can obtain an answer through measurement.

Ultimately, what makes us human is something more than the sum of the parts of our bodies, or the architecture of our brain. What makes a building into architecture, the physical mirror of that humanity, is also something more. That more, whose trace in architecture is space, or in the architect’s fees, is essential, and impossible to measure. We welcome anthropology to that nebulous territory, where funding is more difficult to find, explanations are more tortured, and knowledge is much deeper than statistical data.



Comments (4 Total)

  • Posted by: Chip Wachter | Time: 9:31 PM Tuesday, December 28, 2010

    As architects we do need to quantify the value of our services in order to make our fees comprehensible. The AIA should be consolidating this information for us as the CABE is for English architects. For example for residential design no architect would ever need to look for work if we could refer to a study that says that an architect designed home will be worth 10% more in ten years and built for 10% less than non-architect designed homes.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 3:19 PM Tuesday, December 28, 2010

    Art AND Science. Sorry there is no separating the two in the practice of Architecture. I have been doing this for 25 years mostly at firms without highly “artistic” portfolios and still I will maintain there is ART & SCIENCE required. It wouldn’t hurt if more Science were taught in Architecture Schools (Business as well). Just ‘cause I am an opinionated sort – Science is also required in Anthropology and I’ll wager they’ll change this back in 18 months without much media attention.

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  • Posted by: Michael Benedikt | Time: 1:18 PM Tuesday, December 28, 2010

    Aaron, great piece. Architects--or perhaps I should say architectural writers and critics--have yet someway to go to match anthropology's patience with detailed investigation and "thick" description. Reading Clifford Geertz is an education. Science or no, here's hoping for us.

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  • Posted by: henrybteague | Time: 1:01 PM Tuesday, December 28, 2010

    Not only thoughtful, Aaron, you are becoming wise.

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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.