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When Architecture Welcomes Art

            "If we lived in a really civilized country, there would be no need for Art museums but, since we do not, it is good that such institutions exist. In what other public places can our artists’ works be seen?”  

            This was the substance of an address given by me in the Art Gallery of Hamilton over thirty years ago. It was the first public lecture given in the new building in Westdale. I strongly advocated at that time a much greater integration of the arts in architecture and the allocation of at least two per cent of the cost of large buildings for the use of sculpture, painting and works of craftsmanship in their enrichment.

The current retrospective exhibition of my works in another “New” Art Gallery of Hamilton testifies to my continuing concern with the public uses of art and the hope for a world in which art museums would be unnecessary.

            It has long been my belief that architecture has a greater need for the so-called lesser, ‘decorative’ arts than for those works we more readily define as sculpture or painting. This is not to denigrate the fine arts in favour of the applied arts. Of course we need those great monumental works by masters who are able to focus our attention upon works of excellence, but such works are capable of being separated from their architectural context and seen as things in themselves. The decorative works, on the other hand, become part of the whole enriching (or overdressing) the built environment. When used sensitively by architects as part of their architecture, the nuances of form, texture, light and shade made possible by these so-called lesser things greatly increase the expression of their buildings.

            Decoration is to architecture what development is to music. A great symphony cannot be merely the bald statement of a theme.

            Throughout the spiritual desert created by promoters of the “International Style”, architecture was reduced to a narrow specialty practiced by purists who measured the virtue of buildings more by what was left out than by what was included.

            During the fifties and sixties, we witnessed an unprecedented period of building. Massive shiny towers almost all starkly, even militantly unembellished, have completely transformed the skylines of cities in all parts of the industrialized world. The corporate decision makers accepted completely the aesthetic rules laid down by the ruling architectural clique.

Architecture and Art: Text

"When used sensitively by architects as part of their architecture, the nuances of form, texture, light and shade made possible by these so-called lesser things greatly increase the expression of their buildings."

Architecture and Art: Image

            With the advent of “Post Modernism” we can at last see some cracks appearing in the cold glass curtain of modernism. Now, instead of sterile rectitude, we see architectural jokes being built, a few of which are clever.
            Architects still think that no other artists exist, but some have come to the conclusion that ‘Less is a Bore’. They don’t go beyond the points of their pencils, but even that can be far enough to make Mies convulse in his grave.
            Architects, painters and sculptors mostly do not yet understand the subtle language of decoration, but at least an opening has been made towards the creation of a vocabulary of ornament for a post post modern, decorated architecture; an architecture which builds upon the positive ideas of modernism- a decorated modern architecture!

            Once a few good decorated modern buildings are built and found to be fair, they will be fair game. The driving force of cultural development- plagiarism- will do the rest. In architecture, good things are meant to be copied. We owe the Greek orders as much to those who copied the original ideas as to those who created them. Stealing ideas is one thing, sharing them another. Architecture is, or should be, all about sharing.

             We have been living through an era in which architecture and a series of art movements have been defined more by what they are not than by what they are. A list of succeeding puritanisms shows a kind of serial monogamy thrust upon the art world by its morality squad during the past four decades. Being true to oneself as an artist came to mean continuing to demonstrate a single idea which could be defined as separate from all other ideas. Often the ideas would be the creation of academics rather than artists themselves.

            With architecture reduced to a sterile specialty and the visual arts pushed towards equally sterile demonstrations of so-called scholarship, the practical business of making buildings which generations of people can love has been ignored. The rare architect who sees the need for a richer, more humanly expressive architecture is thwarted by artists who would rather crow over bits they manage to pick from the carcass of modernism than collaborate in the difficult business of enriching buildings.

            We cannot expect architects, who for generations have made scripture out of “Less is More”, suddenly to become conversant with those things their masters banished. Nor can we expect disciplined responsiveness and adaptability from artists who have been taught for years that being able to draw well betrays a lack of freedom.
            “What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder!”  The divorce of art from architecture has, like the marital variety, been good for the go betweens. Analyzing and pronouncing judgment upon what artists should or should not do has become more important than the doing. Creating a great city takes a lot of doing.

Architecture and Art: Text

"Architects still think that no other artists exist, but some have come to the conclusion that ‘Less is a Bore’."

Architecture and Art: Image

         How wonderful it would be to join in the creation of a great new post- industrial civilization! But the context in which we work, created largely by the principle of the division of labour so necessary in an industrial society, does not make collaboration easy. The expansion of art education makes it almost impossible.

             No one can create his or her own context, from the first juicy warmth of the womb that is done for us. Observe my failure. Single artists working alone, for their own ends, must ultimately fail in the larger purpose of human creativity. However, we do have some opportunities to collaborate from time to time, we do meet clients who become real patrons who see the creative possibilities of patronage. We even meet the odd architect who can see beyond his own plans and specifications. And when our concepts go beyond the readiness of others to implement them, we can draw them, make models of them, dream of them and share our dreams. What else can artists do?

             P.S. Some of my best friends are architects.

William McElecheran, 1987

Art Gallery of Hamilton

Architecture and Art: Text
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