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Series Two

Art in Architecture – Chapter 4

Written by Jonathan Lees RIBA.

Is Architectural Style Important?

Art means different things to different people, and like art, architecture passes through trends and ‘styles’ on a cyclical basis. One moment being ostentatious, the next paired down. A 50-year period is but a blip in the age of architecture, which can trace its routes back to the origins of humankind.

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by Jonathan Lees | Chapter Four - beauty need not be sacrificed

Rustic contemporary garden design and pergola

A simply designed garden loggia – Jonathan Lees Architects

‘The public are alive to the influence of art…….

It is often common that an argument will be presented that art is for the elite and wealthy, and that classicism and traditionalism is also therefore a ‘style’ whose place is grounded only in lavish, ostentatious country homes or public buildings where there is a desire to prove wealth and power. It has become about trend, rather than the celebration of building and sculpture. The public are alive to the influence of art, and most will be able to tell the difference between honest workmanship and beauty rather than ostentation. But the industry has tried to blinker the public with poor quality building construction and design, as the only cost-effective option, which is subsequently attempted to be beautified with ornament. The Victorian period, and the onset of the industrial revolution perhaps brought this about, with ornate, expensive decoration becoming available to the mass builder, causing a dilution of the impact that good design would bring. Kit of parts became available, pattern books of architectural motifs and features were common so that all could build a ‘beautiful’ building. It goes without saying that this led to some wonderful buildings and streetscapes in the Victorian era when such pattern books were applied tastefully by their users, but it also evolved and influenced our current stock of lack lustre, ugly, poorly built homes that now dominate the views from the motorway and main routes into our towns and cities with repetitive detailing and a general lack of any character whatsoever.

‘…but I simply do not agree that buildings have to be expensive to be beautiful…..’

Classic contemporary house Architecture

Contemporary Country House – J Lees Architects

The dilution of the role of the Architect in town planning and housing development is perhaps a debate for another time, but my point in relation to art and architecture is that you wouldn’t give a set of oil paints or watercolours to a builder and ask them to paint a masterpiece. You might get the odd one who is a talented painter and gives it a jolly good go, creating something of value, but generally, I think most builders that I know would say that it would be a bit of a mess.

‘…the only excuse for it not being beautiful is laziness, tardiness and the mad rush to get things done.

So why take the same approach with our buildings, the most visual art of them all? Yes, I know there are other factors at work, cost, a demand for housing etc. but I simply do not agree that buildings have to be expensive to be beautiful. When thrift is introduced, the Architect really gets creative. That’s when they have to work hard, and some of the finest housing of the last hundred years has been developed by the ‘Modernists’ and their influence on our built environment is equal to that of the Neo-Classical masterpieces. Once again, my argument is not about style, it is about art. All buildings could be beautiful, we could enrich our lives and improve our wellbeing by improving our built environment; I am not saying the entire built landscape should be classically inspired, that would soon become boring, a uniformly uniform environment is uniformly dull. But the only excuse for it not being beautiful is laziness, tardiness, and the mad rush to get things done when sometimes, less haste means more speed.

Classic contemporary built in wardrobes in loft room

A light and uplifting bedroom – Jonathan Lees Architects

‘…how light enters a space can influence your state of mind and appreciation of the everyday……

Housebuilding has now become a multi-billion-pound industry that is dominated by a select few Jerry-builders that suggest that they have to build the houses in this way to meet demand. The materials are rubbish, the design often thoughtless (with the exception of a handful) and the quality of the construction appalling. We are giving our future generations a serious problem to deal with. Yes, we need to build to meet demand, yes, we need to provide low-cost housing, but do we really have to treat architecture and art as bye-words that means a project will automatically be more expensive and therefore irradicate its requirements on financial grounds? Beauty in a building enhances the viewers whole state of mind and need not be sacrificed by the disillusion that this only comes with considerable cost and frippery of decoration. It does not. It comes with considered design that we learn from the experience of historic buildings and environments that lift our spirits and appreciation of the space. We are a culture that covet beautiful objects and materials, landscapes, clothes, etc all to enhance our experience of the everyday, so we should not be conned into thinking our houses could not add to this. Even the smallest matter in designing how light enters a space can influence your state of mind and appreciation of the everyday and is just one design factor in many that can totally alter a person’s state of mind from the moment that they walk into a space, or from the moment that they wake. 

T.G. Jackson states in his short essays; ‘Architecture a profession or an Art’, that ‘if people will have better building, they must either pay more for it, or be content with humbler homes’. I do not agree with Jackson that you have to pay more for it, you just need to be clever and employ the right people in the right places and understand that small things, such as the quality of materials, make a huge difference to a project. Building in the current way will only cease when a demand for it changes and more examples of the contrary are built. The recent Covid crisis has made us all rethink the way in which we lead our lives and perhaps this will be the catalyst for an improvement to public spaces and the quality of homes that we live in.

Formal courtyard garden with brick paths

A courtyard rich in texture and atmosphere – Jonathan Lees Architects

Arts and Crafts Architect designed outbuildings

The same courtyard, as considered and beautiful at night – Jonathan Lees Architects 

‘…construction is an art, and when conjoined with design a fine art – in fact, Architecture.

The task of making a building beautiful should be left to the Architect, much the same as you would leave an artist to paint a painting and not employ a decorator just because they can wield a brush. The profession is protected for a reason, there is also a reason why Architects train for several years to learn their trade before they go into the workplace. Debates over their training and its purpose aside, they are the tip of the design spear, and you would not go into battle with a blunt spear, would you?

As Jackson puts it; ‘Art, we hold, is not an ornamental something – a gilding or a varnish – which may be laid upon bare construction and so transform it into architecture. It is an influence, a motive, that must reign supreme from the very first moment, and guide and inform the construction equally with considerations of strength and security. In the course of a true Architect’s design there is no moment at which you can say ‘here architecture comes in’; it has been there from the very first, inseparable from plan and construction, affecting and modifying them in ways innumerable and yielding in its turn to modifications suggested by them. Construction is not a science; statics and dynamics are sciences; but construction is an art, and when conjoined with design a fine art – in fact, architecture.

Introduction, page xxi. ‘Architecture a profession or an Art; thirteen short essays on the qualifications and training of architects’ published in 1892. T.G Jackson A.R.A

Perhaps I am veering off here into what I expect or want an Architect to be, rather than the importance of art in architecture, but I feel the two are conjoined issues. The argument of the role of the Architect and the nature of the profession has been hotly debated since the 19th Century. Perhaps this will form the thoughts for a future writing where it can be explored further, but for the moment it rests with my consideration that the Architect is an artist whose media for painting is vast and ever growing. Norman Shaw makes an interesting point in this regard, suggesting that the argument for the practical nature of the Architect has taken over from artistic ability, in terms of design ability rather than ability to actually draw, and that a ‘true Architect is far more likely to be a practical man, than a practical man is to be an Architect’.

Outdoor patio fireplace in English garden

Outdoor fireplace and dining area – J Lees Architects

‘…a beautiful building that is impractical is not worth anything to anyone.’

Art is driven by passion, a thirst for knowledge, a desire to improve one’s learning of a subject, to become the best at what they can achieve, to strive for a perfection that may never be able to be met, to develop a uniqueness and inventiveness that pushes boundaries, to be innovative, to aspire to create a functional, beautiful building. For a beautiful building that is impractical is not worth anything to anyone. Art is about developing raw talent, an embryonic spark inside a young child’s creative mind. The knowledge of history, practical things and business are all an aside to the creative soul that resides inside the true Architect, for whilst you can teach anyone to build properly, you cannot teach someone to become creative. That is often a hidden instinct that needs to be drawn out and nurtured, encouraged and enriched with support until it reaches a point where the creative ability of the individual surpasses his or her custodian and becomes something of skill, originality and a force in itself.

‘Does the profession or our society allow for their equals again?

Whilst I am not diminishing the skill of the crafts and construction trades, the very best buildings are a result of the genius of the individual. Brunelleschi’s Dome at Florence Cathedral, Wren’s St Pauls, Adam’s Kedleston Hall, Lutyens and Voysey’s many houses were the results of a creative genius that cannot be replaced or carried out by others. They are works of individual art much in same way as we see the difference between a Caravaggio or Van Gogh, a Michelangelo or a Raphael. Does the profession or our society allow for their equals again?

We are at a time when art and architecture has never before been so accessible. Rather than spending 5 years on a grand tour of the antiquities, an enthusiastic student of architecture can travel the sights of the world in weeks or months and often on a shoestring. Rather than having to own a library, a student can find reference to a building and inspiration at the touch of a button. Never before has so much past knowledge been so accessible to all of us, irradicating any form of archaic class or financial barrier of exposure to the arts. The technology and tools available to architects is constantly advancing, as is the profession.

But do the brakes need to be tapped, does momentum need to be guarded just a little to ensure that not everyone passes along the same path like lemmings? Does everyone have to conform to the norm? I will wrap up this writing with a poignant extract from Jackson on the role of the Architect;

‘Our proper field is not confined to the office; we are, or should be, still more at home in the workshop or the building sheds; our brethren are not the lawyer and the doctor, but the craftsmen and the artisan; and if the Architect should choose to be his own builder or craftsman, and carry out personally the works he designed, he would but be doing what was done by his predecessors, whose handiwork we now take for our model’.

(Introduction, page xxviii. ‘Architecture a profession or an Art; thirteen short essays on the qualifications and training of architects’ published in 1892. T.G Jackson A.R.A)

‘We must all, who practice architecture, not lose sight of the importance of art in architecture, for it is at the heart of all our work.

Jonathan Lees  RIBA

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