Architecture and Self-Expression

Aaron Betsky’s article in The Berlage Institute’s Hunch magazine entitled “Critical Architecture: The Question of the Art in Building” (unfortunately not published online) presents an insightful picture of the architect’s dilemma, but one that makes certain assumptions that may not be valid.  He says, “As free agents, architects are put in a difficult position. They have to find a way to define what they do as more than just making something that disappears into [the client’s demands for functional, efficient and self-image-projecting buildings].”  Architects have turned to art and language as means for self-expression resulting in the concepts of utopian and unbuilt architecture and in site-specific or installation works, a medium they have shared with the artist who aspires to built work.  According to Betsky, however, these forms of self-expression lack the functional impact that full scale built works can have on the world.

Betsky’s first assumption in this analysis is that the architect has to work in a traditional architect-client (and perhaps -engineer/-contractor) relationship.  Today there are a number of models that allow an architect to work for himself or in an emerging rearrangement of practitioners that brings the architect closer to being contractor and/or manufacturer.  For example, as Jonathan Segal advocates, if the architect can begin to operate as developer in addition to his primary occupation as designer, he has the ability to express himself and get work built–and he has demonstrated this successfully, obtaining financing from banks and investors and producing creatively designed and engineered buildings that redefine norms within the building industry (see  Another example is the composites industry in which architects are often directly involved with the design and composition of materials for built work.

Another assumption that Betsky’s article appears to make is that site-specific and installation work is either not architecture (being the architect’s attempt at being an artist) or not of as much value or impact as a full scale work that fits a traditional definition of a building as “something built that we can inhabit and use”.  But the site-specific “artwork” that Betsky says is now prevalent in architecture is often far more front-and-center in culture and society than buildings that fit standard categories for built work, and with the architect’s sphere of influence, which Betsky says is greater than that of the artist, such works have the potential to impact as many people as any other structure.

What does a building that makes for a better world look like?  This is perhaps at the heart of the discussion for Betsky.  Is it a specific functional category of building such as a habitation or hospital?  Is it a high quality structure, one designed according to sound architectural design principles and a sensitivity to the environment and long-term sustainability?  Or, as Betsky suggests, is it one that makes a statement?  If it is the latter, a highly expressive pavilion might have greater potential than a multi-family housing development.

On the other hand, self-expression can take many forms, and it is conceivable that an architect could thoroughly express herself fully in the service her firm provides to her clients.  There is a certain creativity that is required (and which can be a self-imposed requirement) as part of design when it comes to addressing environmental concerns and building efficiency within a tight budget.  There are certainly those who would say better design should cost less.  If this were our focus, we would not harm society and we would have to opportunity to impact it on many levels including elevating design within the common sphere, perhaps through such means even making a statement through a multi-family dwelling.


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