Why Architects Study Art in School

“The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization.”

This above quote by architect Frank Lloyd Wright seems like quite the statement, and is not made to belittle all other arts, but to emphasize the importance of architecture as art. Many times, architecture is thought to be closely related to engineering, but in the words of architect Walter Gropius, “Architecture begins where engineering ends.” In fact, Art and Architecture belong to the same college in many universities. What, then, is the importance of art within architecture?

The practice of creating art, in its most raw sense, is necessary in architecture. By drawing an image by hand, the architect is able to put an idea onto paper. In hand rendering, different artistic media is used. As a student studying architecture, and interning with architect John Hendricks, AIA, I asked John two questions regarding art in his work:

How important is art in your daily practice as an architect?

“When I design, art comes into play much more than math.  Everything I look at, whether it’s plans, elevations, interiors, etc., needs to flow and work all at once and in all dimensions.  I remember my first art professor at Texas Tech, James Watkins, told us that this class (Art 101 or whatever it was called) will make you see things differently.  At the time, we were going over shades and shadows while painting stately homes across the street from campus.  That’s when I first started thinking about shades and shadows in a different light.  Now I think about those two elements all the time while designing.”

What is your favorite art medium to work with?

Pen and Ink Architect Elevations

Pen & Ink Elevations by John Hendricks, AIA

“Black pens on paper.  Several ideas can be sketched out quickly.  I don’t have the patience for watercolor.   I think watercolor renderings are great if it’s already designed, but if you’re designing with it, you have to wait for the water to dry while your mind is off on other tangents.”

Even in the age of digital media, hand-rendering provides images as unique as the architects themselves. The architect is not limited by their digital creation tools, and ideas flow directly from the hand onto paper.

Architecture as art is not solely confined to pen and paper. Undoubtedly, art affects emotions and is connected to the psyche. Line, form, color, value, and texture unite and create a response within the viewer. Certain pieces may make the viewer feel empty, while others bring light, life, and warmth. In much the same way, music creates an emotional response within the listener. Instruments come together in a symphony to create a piece of art greater than any specific instrument can achieve on its own. In architecture, familiar elements of art and music are utilized and unified; ultimately creating the framework of the spaces we live and work in.

Idaho International Center Architect Intern Rendering

Idaho International Center – digital rendering by Jesse Hart, Intern Architect, using Revit, Photoshop, and Lightroom. This was a University of Idaho School Project.

Winston Churchill stated, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” The built environment around us shapes our daily lives. The layout of space becomes important in the execution of tasks, while the dimensions and character of spaces create intimacy or openness, all thoroughly planned and developed to result in a successful space.

Light is present and highly important through many facets of art: painting, photography, and architecture all included. Quality, quantity, and modification of light to accommodate tasks, save energy, and create a desired feeling of a space can make or break the success of a room and building as a whole. The study of art theory and the psychology of art are therefore important and within the study and profession of architecture.

Art is largely about creativity. Just about anybody can draw walls, cut holes into them for windows, put a roof over the top of it and call it a house, but it is the job and joy of the architect to tap into the potential of a space and  make it a creative work of functional art. It is this creativity and creative problem-solving that separates architects from one another. Just as Monet’s expressionist art is different than Picasso’s abstract style, Frank Gehry’s Deconstructivist architecture cannot be deemed as “better” than Mies van der Rohe’s modern style. They are each their own creative styles and expression as artists.

A building must be structurally stable and strong enough to stand the test of time; however, structural integrity is not all that defines the built world. If this was so, buildings would be cold, uninteresting, even uninviting.  The beauty of architecture as the “mother of the arts” is that it can really affect people’s daily lives. I realize I have been rampantly using quotes in this post, but this final line from Architect Richard Rogers rings true: “My passion and great enjoyment for architecture, and the reason the older I get the more I enjoy it, is because I believe we – architects – can affect the quality of life of the people.”

Jesse Hart, Intern Architect – Hendricks Architecture

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Hendricks Architecture specializes in custom Homes throughout North America. If you would like to know more about designing a custom residence, we would love to hear from you.

Jesse also takes beautiful photographs.  His work can be seen here at Jesse Hart Photography

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Surviving Architecture School

Surviving architecture school can be a tough road, depending on how you look at it. When I went to Texas Tech University in the late 80’s there were over 400 students in my freshman class. Less than fifty of us graduated on schedule. Most of the others dropped out, switched majors, or graduated later. These numbers might be enough to scare anybody off, but the fact of the matter is if you stick with it, remain positive (and realistic), and have fun while working hard, you’re going to pass.

Before I go on, I’d like to note that, yes, I understand that the 80’s may be ancient history to some of you. Computer classes were electives back then. Men wore pink shirts and parachute pants, even in Texas. Some even listened to and had hair like The Flock of Seagulls. The fact of the matter is, the concepts in architecture school are still basically the same whether you’re using the drawing board or the computer.

Anyways, most of the drop off happens the first year. The professors do this quickly so you’re not wasting your time. Some professors will give you those same scary statistics in the first few weeks of school. Soon after, 10% of the students have disappeared. The professors will work you hard enough that you may miss some parties and some sleep. This will get rid of several more.

Architect School Model for the Chicago Public Library

Design Model for the Chicago Public Library Competition

Everybody hears about the sleepless nights of an architecture student. In many cases this is true. There is a way to avoid it though – Don’t Procrastinate! In my first year we had many small design projects, most averaging around three to four weeks in length. I watched many students do absolutely nothing the first week or two, then work late nights the last week. I learned pretty quickly that if I started much earlier my mind was much fresher, the designs were better thought out, and I slept peacefully that last week while many of the other students were working late or pulling all nighters. Plus I always knew that I am one of those people that just needs sleep more than most.

I did stay up all night once, and this was unavoidable. In my second year my professor gave us a short two week project. It was a large viking museum. We had two weeks for design, revisions, renderings and a model. I worked on it every day for those two weeks. I remember it was due on a Friday afternoon. The Sunday night before I had my last eight hour night of sleep. The next few nights I had six, four and two hours of sleep. Thursday night I didn’t sleep at all, spending all night working in the architecture building with all of the other students. The next morning many of us had a quiz in another class. We all failed, and I fell asleep during the test. Later that afternoon as I was finishing up my project, I was drawing a line on one of my renderings and fell asleep again. I ended up drawing a big fat line across the whole rendering.

Wolf acrylic

Wolf acrylic

Architecture school really isn’t all that bad if you enjoy creating things. The projects are typically more fun than many projects architects work on in the real world, and I’ve always enjoyed art classes. One of my art professors told us that once you really understand shade and shadow, the whole world opens up, and you see things differently. That always stuck with me, and I soon saw and understood how he was right.

Woman in charcoal

Woman in charcoal

The professors bring up all types of fun projects. In one design class we each had to design a chair using only paper and string. We all had to sit in our chairs during the critique. Unfortunately for me, I was one of the last ones to present. I sat there watching the others as my chair slowly sagged towards the floor.

During our last year we could choose any project we wanted for our thesis. We spent the fall researching and writing a program. In the spring we worked on the design. I chose to design a clubhouse and resort facility for the Fresno Yacht Club at Millerton Lake. I grew up as a member of the club (and hope to sail in next weekend’s High Sierra Regatta at Huntington Lake) and always sailed by a point on the lake where I imagined would be a great location for a clubhouse and restaurant.

Thesis Model for The Fresno Yacht Club

Thesis Model for The Fresno Yacht Club

Every professor had his or her quirks. One seemed like he wore the same clothes every day. Another must have had a full closet of ties and wore a new one every day. One you weren’t sure if he was looking at you or not, always looking from the corner of his eye. Another had a questionable gender. The fact of the matter though, is they all had something to offer, they all had talent, and they all wanted to teach. Learn from them. Resist taking classes from the same professor twice. I’ve come to realize that there’s no such thing as a person without quirks. We’re all better off because Albert Einstein had quirks.

A thesis rendering of The Fresno Yacht Club

A Thesis Rendering of The Fresno Yacht Club

Be a sponge and absorb everything. One of my professors was either a student or employee of Louis Kahn and would share stories about him. Peter Eisenman, a very prominent architect and a member of the famed New York Five (famed in the architecture world), came to give a lecture. Our professors also taught us the works of all the great architects. I fell in love with the imaginative architectural designs of Frank Gehry and Charles Moore. That was before Gehry was into the curves and was, along with Eisenman, unfairly labeled as a deconstructivist. Now, Frank Gehry’s sculptured geometries may have elevated him to being probably the most imaginative architect, if not the best architect of the last fifty years.

One last thing I would recommend is to work for a contractor or framer before attending school or during the summers if you’re able. I worked for a small contractor named Tom Leonard the summer before going to architecture school. In 3 months we remodeled a business office, framed a house in Monterey, and a cabin in Big Creek, near Shaver Lake. The house and cabin we did everything from digging the foundations with shovels to laying plywood sheathing on the roof. In those three months I learned more that’s stayed with me than any of my years in school. Not just in how buildings go together, but in the value of hard work and the understanding of life from a contractor’s perspective. I learned the value of a well designed, complete set of plans, as well as the value of a good contractor. Tom used to tell me things that still stick ,like, “When you go to architecture school, make sure you dimension the fireplace!”

Architecture is a rewarding field. Very few things are more gratifying than making people’s dreams come true and seeing your work around town. In most cases work you design will remain long after your gone. In architecture school the camaraderie you have with your fellow students is much more pronounced than most, if not all majors. And besides, how hard of work is it when all you’re doing is building models and drawing pictures?

Friends in charcoal

Friends in charcoal

John Hendricks, Architect AIA

Hendricks Architecture specializes in residential design, most specifically in the design of mountain style homes and cabins. We’re located in Sandpoint, Idaho.

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