Landscape Will Thank You to Remember That

Claim Jumping

In my experience (I’m an architect), any group of architects acts as an echo chamber in which the self-amplified reverberations subside only gradually. In Austin, where I live, years went by before architects finally — well, mostly, and only recently — stopped trumpeting the potential afforded by the many design opportunities (new houses, offices, restaurants, hotels) in what had long been African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods east of the Interstate downtown. Architects were tardy to acknowledge the staggering gentrification our myopia had helped facilitate, and, if not exactly recoil in shame, at least shut up.

While not as urgent, from the same closed room comes this: Over the past few years, I’ve heard more and more architects — mostly but not exclusively young — excitedly describe the competitive public-art commissions they’ve been awarded. I don’t think the increase is coincidental. I’ve sat on a number of public-art selection committees, and there have been ever more independent architects (i.e., not serving as consultants to artists) among the applicants and finalists. It makes sense. Architects know how to make design objects seem inevitable, apolitical, responsible. They say just what city officials, made nervous by listening to artists, want to hear.

Public art is a growth sector for architects, and it makes sense. Architects know how to make design objects seem inevitable, apolitical, responsible.

Public art is a growth sector for architects. Offices have sprung up that describe themselves as “… a design-and-build firm at the intersection of public art, architecture, and technology,” or “practicing at the confluence of art, architecture, and building technology…,” or “working at the intersection of architecture, urbanism and art [and] dedicated to the expansion and preservation of public space.” Here come the degrees! You can, for example, get a Master in Design Studies in Art, Design, and the Public Domain at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Quoting from the program’s webpage:

One of the remarkable developments in contemporary culture is the convergence of practices that once unambiguously belonged to either art or design, but which today share methods, means and concerns. Of particular importance are practices that seek to engage with the public and social realm. The phrase “spatial practice” has become a widely-used term to describe a variety of architectural and artistic engagements with the city, society and with aesthetic practice in general. In many ways it defines the new and moving boundary of the design discipline.

This convergence of practices may indeed be a remarkable development. Or — since the GSD is not home to Harvard’s art program — it may just be claim jumping by a suspiciously unified “design discipline” over a conveniently self-moved boundary, architecture congratulating itself for co-opting the allegedly “unambiguous” territory once reserved for art.

This convergence of practices may just be claim jumping by a suspiciously unified ‘design discipline’ over a conveniently self-moved boundary.

Did art cancel that reservation? I don’t think so. After Depression-era federal art funding ended in 1943, public art funding reappeared with substantial commissions only in the 1970s and 1980s (though municipal percent-for-public-art funding started in Philadelphia in 1959, and at a state level in Hawaii in 1967). It’s worth remembering that in the U.S. most contemporary public-art commissions, as opposed to private and corporate projects, intentionally set aside a small percentage of the money allocated for publicly funded construction — money that includes fees for the work of architects — in order to guarantee paid work for artists. Many architects originally supported this arrangement in the name of cultural enrichment. For me, thankfully so: some big public commissions kept my wife, an artist, afloat.

It’s true this structure requires artists working in the public realm to accept contracts similar to those granted to architects, often for similarly described design services set out in similar stages. These parallels are not in themselves an invitation for architects — who often enjoy better staffing and infrastructural support — to poach. But, more importantly, architects do not think of taking these commissions as poaching. Perpetually deluded, architects assume that artists admire us as fellow-travelers. After all, don’t we now all “share the methods, means and concerns”?

Yet in the echo chamber of FORM, form, form, the possibility that architects accepting public art commissions might not be admired universally never comes up. The degree to which, today, people in design fields (read: architects) more or less hope away the distinction between “artist” and “architect” invalidates the usefulness and deep potential of both terms. And that’s aside from the fact that there really are no architects who support themselves on public-art commissions, which are simply where they go to play. So the question — Wait, I’m sorry, isn’t this your sustenance? — vanishes in the self-justifying voluptuousness of architectural opportunity, where public art is invariably described by architects as a great way to explore ideas you cannot pursue in normal practice.

Architects hope away the distinction between ‘artist’ and ‘architect,’ invalidating the deep potential of both terms.

Maybe “explore” isn’t the right word. Most of the public artwork I’ve seen by architects, while often inventive, is fairly predictable: it invents within the limits of what architects think art looks like. Just to continue generalizing blatantly, such works, from habit or preference, tend toward justifiable form — like the experiments based in materials, variation, or process I see more often in architecture schools than in art schools. They’re also typically benign. While that’s not the same as populist (architecture-culture shorthand for not critical), neither is it a critical definition of public.

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