Q: What is the fundamental purpose of architecture?
[Martha Thorne] That’s a very simple yet complicated question. Architecture exists to create the physical environment in which people live. Obviously that’s a very simple answer, but if we deep digger we see the complexities. What is the built environment? what constitutes quality of life? how do architects determine whether something is positive, helpful or relevant for individuals and collectives?
[Richard Rogers] It serves society and improves quality of life. It’s a physical manifestation of the society’s wishes to be civilised! …public domain being the obvious place which encapsulates this as buildings, alongside being art and science, are part of the public domain.
[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] Architecture should fulfil multiple criteria. One of its purposes is to itself. A lot of people believe to some degree, in the autonomy of architecture as a discipline which means that part of the purpose of architecture is to construct new forms of knowledge that relate to the enhancement and advancement of the discipline itself. In a way, this is inseparable from the performance or performativity of architecture in terms of its responsibilities to engage with the society at large. There is, in a sense, a purposive dimension to architecture which really provides the symbolic ideas of habitation and- broadly- serving the humankind.
It’s both this version of architecture that removes purpose, and one that really engages it fully in a purposive dimension. I think the simultaneity of these two conditions that’s key.
Q: To what extent is architecture art or science?
[Martha Thorne] Architecture is both an art and a science. I might even take it a step further and say that it’s a multifaceted gemstone as it is not just art, or just science… it is more than that. This is a discipline which draws on psychology, sociology, economics, politics and so many more areas.
I am reminded of my time working at the Art Institute of Chicago. Architecture in that sense was a curatorial department in a major art museum. Within the museum itself, there is a hierarchy and with my colleagues we sometimes joked that the more useful art is- the more you can walk on it or sit in it- the less it was considered an art and the lower down the totem pole it was!
Architecture on one hand is considered and art and is studied as such. It is strange in the sense that architecture is not truly the creation of an individual or collective for the purpose of research, contemplation or beauty but has the purpose of responding to functional needs. That takes it beyond the realms of art into other fields of human existence
[Richard Rogers] It has to be both! The architects nightmare is to have a blank piece of paper… we’re not writers or abstract artists… we’re a strange mixture of the two. It’s about using imagination in form, giving scale, giving order, giving rhythm… to space.
Q: How does architecture relate to wider culture?
[Martha Thorne] Without a doubt, architecture is a part of culture- it has been called the mother of all arts! It is certainly part of how we see ourselves, and part of how we see the world. The unique aspect of architecture is that in its physical incarnation of buildings, it may last for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Architecture is created by people! the most successful architecture goes beyond just being a shed or a box for living… the most important architecture as we look back over history are buildings or environments that have done so much more in a variety of ways- be that innovation in building and construction, or buildings that have pushed the discipline to get us to think about our environment in different ways, or just incredibly beautiful buildings that have lifted the human spirit in addition to housing our activities and our lives.
[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] Many of the practices of architecture are about the discipline’s entanglement in contemporary issues. The concept of contemporary is one that is fully implicated in contemporary tradition, practices and ideas. There is therefore a symbolic dimension to architecture which leads it to become a manifestation of those themes. Therefore, as a form of art practice… as a cultural production… it is obviously the manifestation of the spaces within which we see practices and lives taking place…. exemplars of contemporary life.
If architecture wasn’t implicated in that project, one would simply have to conclude that it was not keeping up with the times. Does every piece of architecture accept these responsibilities? well… that remains to be debated. For me however, that responsibility is not in question.
Whenever you collaborate on a project which involves multiple agencies and participants- like people playing jazz together- each player contributes to the tonality, sound and experience of the overall. In that sense, architecture as a cultural production has the responsibility to be of them time, but represent the time…. to be the vehicle through which transformations are made….
We have to be aware of the responsibilities we have for architecture as a framework for social action. In that way, there is a reciprocity… a connection.. between how you’re affected by a circumstance and how you affect the circumstance itself
Q: What do you feel makes great architecture?
[Martha Thorne] I’m immediately reminded of the words of Renzo Piano. It’s very interesting to debate and discuss architecture and buildings with him, he’s an extremely eloquent and thoughtful person. We’ve debated that buildings must be functional, manifestations of their time and not just seeking to replicate the past or manifest nostalgia… We’ve discussed the fact that buildings must be well constructed- one building must serve a multiplicity of functions and people in very defined ways. Renzo Piano always said, “…in addition to that, there’s a quality of magic….”
That’s what differentiates good architecture from just being any old building. Good architecture is intentioned. It somehow touches the people who use it and live in it… it somehow touches the human soul. I realise these phrases sound somewhat utopian, but truly good architecture has the ability to relate to individuals in a very profound way. That is a quality which cannot be deciphered into scientific terms or quantified- but is something we all know when we experience a quality building or a space that somehow goes beyond being functional and is- somehow- very special.
To give you an example… when I entered the Ningbo Museum by the recent Pritzker winner Wang Shu, it’s a building which is truly huge. It is- in some ways- monumental. When you enter that building however, you know that it was made for the people that visit it and work there. You never feel insignificant… you feel that you’re cared for as you go in the building. It’s a magical quality that’s hard to put into words, but undoubtedly is there within the building.
[Richard Rogers] This is a very difficult question and the answer would have to consider all the various aspects of architecture including rhythm, function, aesthetics and more. At one level, this could be something very simple… even a wooden hut in your garden.
[Prof. Mohsen Mostafavi] What’s important is that we acknowledge architecture as an artistic practice not as pure science. It is an artistic practice to the extent that it involves new forms of creativity and creative thinking. At the same time, we are deeply conditioned by our knowledge of science.
Science is not purely seen in a rationalistic sense, but also in the context of natural sciences. We cannot then see the worlds of art and science as so inseparable but rather as fields of available knowledge and practices that are open to us. I think the relationship of art to practice is very important.
If we look at the act of drawing as a way of imaging as opposed to assuming you have a scientific knowledge of a field that you are replicating. The artistic dimension of creativity is critical and it’s imperative that we do not separate the worlds of art and science in architecture.