Art and architecture have been linked since early humans smeared ochre paste onto a cave wall. The annals of architecture are loaded with artist/architects from Michelangelo, Bernini and Vasari in the early years of the Italian Renaissance to Frank Gehry, Frank Lloyd Wright and Zaha Hadid, all of whom exhibited their artistic endeavours (as opposed to their architectural ones) in museums around the world. Art is a means of storytelling that allows us to experience an emotional response. Architecture should do the same as well as fulfil the requirements of form and function. The challenge for the domestic architect and the homeowner is to find a solution for this intersection between two disciplines. How do you build a house around an art collection or how do you build a collection around a house?
The integration of art and architecture became even more meaningful during the early 20th century when the Avant-Garde merged into Modernism. Some of the greatest architects of that period – Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer – all incorporated art into their designs. When Bauhaus emerged during this era, the unification of all arts into architecture was favoured and combined painting, sculpture, industrial design and crafts. Walter Gropius, architect and founder of the Bauhaus School, was adamant that art and architecture stem from the same creative urge and should never be separated. “Architects, painters and sculptors must recognise anew and learn to grasp the composite character of a building both as an entity and in its separate parts,” he said, urging his peers to embrace his vision. “Only then will their work be imbued with the architectonic spirit which it has lost as salon art. Together let us desire, conceive and create a new structure of the future which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity.” For these architects, art was critical to the success of their designs.
It’s one thing to be commissioned to design a structure of social significance and another to build a family home, yet the principles remain the same. There are two ways to approach art in domestic architecture. The first is additive, meaning the art is installed after the house is completed. If the homeowner already has a substantial collection or is intending to build one, the discussion with the architect should happen early in the design process. Bringing in an art advisor to work directly with the architect and interior designer (and in some cases the landscape architect too) is a good idea. Installing art is so much more than making sure there is enough wall space. Lighting – both natural and artificial – is crucial, as is ceiling height, volume, scaling and understanding how people will physically move through the space for the enjoyment and appreciation of the collection. In this method, the architecture is designed as a home not only for people but also for art.
The second approach is to integrate the art with the architecture. If the art is to become part of the architecture itself, it’s vital this idea is considered well before the architect has put pen to paper. Perhaps the homeowner already has a selection of large scale works or sculptures requiring appropriate and sensitive treatment within the architecture or perhaps there is a desire to create a site-specific work. While this method may bring its challenges, it can also prove to be an exciting creative moment where the architecture supports the art and vice versa prompting the question of where does the art end and where does it begin? And what a lovely question to ask of one’s home.
The practical side of this integration necessitates some concrete fact collecting. What is the size of the art collection? Are there plans to expand it? Is there a flow of connecting styles or is the collection more arbitrary? Where does the sunlight enter and what other lighting solutions are available? Art needs an environment that not only fits but also contributes to the experience of the viewer. Conversely, architecture needs art to transform brick and concrete into a space that nourishes the soul. In this sense, art and architecture are two sides of the same coin.
The Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, who is known for large scale installations, joined forces with German architect Sebastian Behmann in 2014 to create Studio Other Spaces. Along with a cohort of artists, designers, architects, activists and academics Studio Other Spaces ‘connects art and architecture through works on interdisciplinary and experimental building projects and artworks for public space.’ Of the many crossovers between artist and architect, Eliasson probably has the best seat in the house. His work is essential for anyone interested in either discipline and his words are the best guidelines for those incorporating art into their home: ‘The potential I see in architecture is to create a space that is hospitable, generous and gives the visitor a feeling of being welcome.’