Architecture's Place in Art History: Art or Adjunct?

Article excerpt

In a community discussion of the look of Chicago led by a working group of three faculty and three visiting journalists from the University of Chicago's Franke Institute for the Humanities, W.J.T. Mitchell observed that he and his fellow faculty tend to take the local built environment for granted, depending on newcomers to provoke them to notice its qualities. Invoking Walter Benjamin's observation in his essay of 1936 "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Mitchell concluded that Benjamin remains correct in claiming that we receive architecture in a state of distraction.1 In this case, however, distraction was not working through architecture in the sense in which Benjamin imagined it working, to redemptive revolutionary effect. Here it was the contemplative reporters for Time, the New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune who had the most to say about how buildings engage problems of visual culture, while the faculty related to their own built environment in a mode of distraction unharnessed to empowering revelation.2

The frequency of situations in which architecture falls out of art historical focus makes it important for art historians to think about how buildings and constructed landscapes fit within the current practice of art history, both in terms of disciplinary traditions that continue to inform teaching and research and in terms of how the discipline is changing as it broadens its geographic and cultural scope to span the globe, its range of media to include camera- and computer-based works, and its artifactual range to extend beyond art history's "finest." The questions I wish to pose here are what accounts for architecture's eccentricity within art history and whether study of the built environment might make a uniquely valuable contribution to art history's examination of visual culture. This essay focuses on the implications of the singular status of buildings as three-dimensional objects that, unlike sculpture or paintings, constitute occupiable environments. I begin with the problems this characteristic poses for several persistent traditions of art history.

First, Mitchell's remark that architecture does not lend itself to the contemplative attention on which art history has long been predicated. Benjamin's explanation of that claim, often cited these days in architectural circles, was that "buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: ... by touch and by sight.... On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side. Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit. As regards architecture, habit determines to a large extent even optical reception."3 The inescapable physical condition here is that a building is a three-dimensional object at habitable scale, such that it may and often does constitute our environment. Consequently, architecture can only be grasped-it is more a matter of proprioception and cognition than of literal fingering. The impossibility of ever seeing a building in a single synthetic view renders it resistant to art history's traditional techniques of visual analysis. Skills of spatial imagination are needed to collate a variety of disparate visual experiences, as well as technical drawings of aspects invisible to a visitor to the building, in order to understand a building synthetically. If this is true for a single beholder of a building, how can we effectively teach inexperienced students to accomplish such a thing solely through pictures in a classroom? This difficulty points to ways in which architecture is at odds with the pictorial orientation of art history.

In reflecting on the relationship between pictorial and three-dimensional works, I have turned for insight to the somewhat more manageable situation of sculpture (insofar as sculpture does not presuppose habitable scale), consulting a recent collection of essays on the ways photography translates sculpture into pictorial terms. …