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Art with Plumbing: A Comparison of the Conception of Art & Architecture //
Lauren Harness


A group of students from our studio recently participated in the Jump In! Architecture Workshop at the Nelson-Atkins Museum along with students from the Kansas City Art Institute. Our job was to describe selected design approaches for the interior spaces of the ReStart inc. housing complex in the Waldo neighborhood of Kansas City. The small apartment building will serve young people with a mental health diagnosis who have aged out of the foster care system. Building upon our explanations the art students were challenged to form their own ideas on how to integrate art proposals into the space. Being at the start of an art project really highlighted how artist and architects are trained to think differently. Some things that stood out about the process included: the drive for artist to have personal reflection and identity in their work, architects need to clearly describe and represent a project before it can be completed, and our contrasting perceptions of space.

The objective of the design intervention as I saw it for both the art and architecture students was to enhance the living space for this underserved group and ease neighborhood angst. From here is where I think our approaches began to differ. I would argue that most artists are creating pieces that they believe will enhance any space and experience. Including their art in the apartment building was less about context and more about drawing on unique inspiration. While the artists were aware and generally understood the building, the proposals were typically more self-expression than a reaction to place and user. This approach had the benefits of bringing a human element with personality to the design and creating dignity for the user. As architecture students we felt more constrained to the background and understanding portion of the design process. Each design intervention we attempted to back up with extensive reasoning and propositions on potential benefits for users.


This brings me to the role of architects as a salesperson. The artists challenged us to abandon logic and gain new perspective on spatial pragmatics. As architecture students we often try to rationalize our claims as being more logical than they actually are. I think we all understand the value of emotional design, but we also realize that this approach can sometimes be more problematic to sell to the general public and potentially the individual client. We are challenged to describe the intangible and convince clients that their time and money is worth the end result. Art gives the impression that it can more fully divorce itself from logic and this in turn relieves some pressure for clarity and practical reasoning.


During this process one student asked what part of the design we felt was completely unique and “our own”. Thinking back on my response of “spatial sequencing” I realize this probably seemed like a strange answer. While art often reacts to space and aims to enhance spatial experience, our team’s design approach was to rethink the spatial ordering of the entire building. This difference in thought process highlights the distinct goals of art and architecture. As I see it architecture aims to be a peripheral experience existing in the background while still heightening the quality of place. Art is often a more central experience seeking direct reaction.


Art and architecture both rely heavily on composition and creativity and have the power to affect user emotionally and otherwise however, architecture is more tightly bound by logic and constraints. Architecture also bears a more defined burden of a social responsibility, safety, and problem solving. Architects are tasked with pragmatic problem-solving, though the best architecture supersedes this.  Artists are tasked with seeing the world in a unique, highly personalized way.  The work of an artist is often its own self-justification, though the best artwork connects to profound human understanding of our world, and can lead to re-defining the way we understand problems.


Integrating the processes of artist and architects in the conception of creating space and experiences has the potential to challenge the preconceived notions of both parties. Abandoning the need to rationalize every aspect of a built project can elevate and humanize architecture by creating intentional interaction and dialogue with users. This in turn highlights the priorities of architecture and helps conceptual thought rise above the drudgeries of logistics. Artists can use the approach of programming to maximize the impact of their art through general understanding of placement, etc. Also, integrating art into everyday spaces and places through architecture has the potential to expand outreach and influence.


While it is sometime difficult to maintain a creative approach while also considering systematic factors this interaction with the art students reaffirmed my inclination towards designing with programmatic constraints. While architecture isn’t a direct extension of the architects’ mind as art is too artist, I feel as though there is still room for self-expression. Rationalizing aesthetics and creating coherent and subtle interventions in space continues to be an intriguing challenge and understanding human behavior and needs adds a level of interest and complication. In conclusion the dialogue we were able to have with the art students displayed a recognizable anomaly in architectural and art interventions in space, but it also highlighted a shared desire to heighten the human experience. 

Written by Lauren Harness

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