Design as Art

In a recent Fast Company article, artist Olafur Eliasson proclaims that architects are not artists. “I think architects are much too sophisticated to be artists, and they are trained in the great art of making compromises to keep the client happy.”

The subtle dance of the designer/client relationship makes completing a great work of architecture an incredible challenge. Eliasson designed the exquisite glass facade of Reykjavic’s new concert hall with shimmering geometric glass “quasi-bricks”. He has 12-14 architects working for him at any time, so he does have deep understanding of the subtleties of the two fields, however I don’t think its quite as black and white.

Take a look at the work of Sottsass Associati, for example.

 Ettore Sottsass, Casa Olabuenaga in Maui, Hawaii   Image via Design Milk
Ettore Sottsass, Casa Olabuenaga in Maui, Hawaii  Image via Design Milk

When I see architecture such as this designed by Ettore Sottsass, the hard line between art and architecture fades. Starting in 1989 he worked closely with the owners of the property, Adrian Olabuenaga and Lesley Bailey of ACME Studio, to design the space according to their needs. The architectural colors were chosen by Sottsass and reminiscent of a work of abstract modern art. According to many including Eliasson, this is not art because the vision of the architect is compromised by the needs of the people who will be using the space. Working closely with clients to deliver a service is a characteristic of design professions and separates these fields from art, but there are many examples which blur the two.

Eliasson is an artist who finds it fulfililng to collaborate with architects. He describes the art world as self-obsessed, and it’s refreshing for him to work with people who “build real buildings for real people”. Art may not have the same aspect of co-creation as architecture that works within a community with its own social values and problems to solve. Designing architecture requires a sense of pragmatism that the creation of art is liberated from.

In 1970’s London, artist Stephen Willats was on a quest to redefine the role of the art gallery in society. He studied the neighborhoods surrounding Whitechapel Gallery and conducted interviews with local residents. He wanted to find out how they imagined that their world could be different in order to reflect this vision in his work. He maintained these relationships throughout the life cycle of the exhibition at the gallery and community feedback continued to inform the work.

It was quite unusual at the time for an artist to co-create a work with the community themselves, but the idea was to express another model of society, so who better to create that than the society itself?

Willat’s process is an example of what we now know as human-centered design – delving deep into a community to find out their pain points and real needs. The only difference is that the outcome of Willat’s work currently on display at the Whitechapel Gallery, seems inconclusive. Although the process set a precedent at the time, I didn’t get a coherent sense of what was gained from the vision of the community that he had painstakingly documented. Check it out for yourself – the exhibition is on until September 14th.

Published by Elizabeth Pizzuti

Design, art, and cats mostly

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