The Importance of Integrating Art within Architecture

For well over ten years I’ve been working with architectural practices heavily involved in the delivery of public buildings. Equally, I’ve worked alongside visual artists working on community projects. Although I’ve witnessed a few collaborations between the professions, I do wonder why there hasn’t been more importance placed on developing such partnerships, particularly in designing schools and hospitals. One obvious answer is the need to reduce building costs. Limiting or completely removing arts budgets is common. This I guess is an economic answer but how different is art to architecture when they serve the same purpose in the public realm? Some of you may have heard me discuss this at length but I invited my guest blogger Livingstone Mukasa, Founder and CEO of Archibility, an online portal for the sourcing and outsourcing of architectural and design services, to provide an additional perspective on the importance of integrating art within the built environment.

Integrating art within the built environment.

Livingstone Mukasa
Livingstone Mukasa

Mankind’s instinctual desire to decorate habitants has been with us for as long as the need to have shelter. This creative process has, from time immemorial, given meaning to built spaces. Architecture, sculpture, and painting once belonged together. Indeed, they were admirably intertwined at various points in history—in the ancient cultures of East and West, and in the European Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. It is only during relatively recent times in human civilization that the separation of art and architecture has taken place.

The Decline

When the architectural discipline began to align itself with the fields of science and technology, determined by functionality and rationalism, poetic, spiritual and humanising qualities were discarded as unnecessary. The modernist movement generally rejected everything that did not meet the demands of structural necessity or material functionalism. The idea that the building itself, through its shapes, relationship between solids and voids, became the art work, necessitating the elimination of any artistic expression applied to or incorporated into the building.

This lack of art in architecture contributed to the visual poverty and impersonality experienced in most 20th century cities around the world. The modernist trend helped create visual deficiencies of the environment in which we live. Particularly regrettable was the uninspiring appearances of school buildings, a misfortune still present today. Interest in art should be encouraged at an early age and a visually stimulating environment is of crucial importance in a place that serves the early development of personality and value systems.

Another contributor to the demise was economics. Buildings became real estate that often trades hands for money, as are paintings and sculptures. The rules of standardization began to apply, leaving little room for expressionism. Today, it is rare to find architecture, art, and sculpture united in any but the most tentative way.
The inability of mainstream modernist architecture to establish a more humanised environment gave rise to the postmodern movement. The eclecticism of this movement attempted to counter the alienating abstractness of modernist architecture — among others — by means of reintegrating imagery, ornament, colour and various visual art and craft practices into the architectural design.

An Awakening Emerges

But what started out as a powerful critique of the shortcomings of Modernism, quickly lapsed to the level of a fashionable style, more concerned with the production of a striking image that would enhance the building’s commercial value, than with the creation of artistic beauty and the celebration of poetic, subliminal qualities. These qualities — universally admired in the most magnificent structures of the past — have clearly become marginal pursuits in mainstream architectural production of the present.

Today, many urban environments are perceived to be alienating and even hostile, while most public buildings project an authoritative, inaccessible, or at times dehumanising image. Contemporary architecture benefits immensely from artistic content. The use of art helps create a humanising, scale-giving and psychologically benevolent factor. Also, the vast majority of people never see original paintings and sculpture in an art galleries or museums. This provides substantial reason to equip public buildings with art.

Given the architectural discipline’s established alignment with the `hard’ rather than the `soft’ sciences, and the absence of serious research and verifiable data about the effects of art on the users of buildings, the necessity of art is often given little consideration among clients, local authorities and even architects. The separation of art and architecture in mainstream architectural practice and training is moreover conspicuously out of touch with the recent shift towards more interdisciplinary teaching and research in most other academic fields. Art is no longer taught and not generally presumed to be an integral part of architecture — neither among architects, nor among the general public. Most often architects blame either the cost factor for the absence of art in their buildings, or the negative attitude of an unsympathetic client. Artistic adornment is perceived to be expensive and inessential.
A wide range of artistic embellishment, however, cannot only be achieved at very low cost, but its execution can also easily be performed by virtually untrained craftsmen. Costs for such projects are thus hardly excessive; they could be motivated for on the basis of job creation and skill’s development and built into the project budget for community engagement and training.

The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Centre

One outstanding example of this integration is The Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Because hospitals are often accessed only during times of crisis, the design of the building and the integration of artworks specially created for the Bloomberg Children’s Center is integral to the mission of the institution, which seeks to bring comfort and healing to both the pediatric patient and their loved ones. The Bloomberg Children’s Center serve as a blueprint for other facilities interested in adopting a similar approach. Working together, the team from Johns Hopkins, the architecture firm of Perkins + Will, landscape architects from Olin, along with consulting architect Allen Kolkowitz, and art curator Nancy Rosen, worked together with over 70 artists to create a state-of-the-art medical facility and featuring more than 500 custom works of art. The project was a tremendous opportunity for this diverse professional to work collectively using their broad vocabulary to create something unique. The architects had to learn to allow the artists a certain freedom and integrity to express their art in the architectural space. And the artists had to learn how to incorporate elements into the architectural core that integrate rather than explode out. Working together, they all became parts of a complex chorus.

The Ever-Changing Language of the Colour Alphabet

The collaboration is clearly visible, even miles away. Covering almost the entire exterior of the building in a seamless bond is a massive and intricate multi-colored work of art by Spencer Finch. Each panel of the shadowbox-like work is made out of two layers of glass through which shines one of Finch’s color alphabet—a carefully distilled palette of 26 shades—with blue as the dominant color—inspired by Claude Monet’s Impressionist landscape paintings and Finch’s visits to Monet’s studio outside Paris. The result is a shimmering exterior that captures the light of the sky, allowing the building to change in sync with the environment, establishing it as a natural and inviting presence. While the glass and color accentuate the curves and dimples of the building, its transparency beckons the community.

Artistic Wayfinding

Robert Israel artwork
Robert Israel artwork

The art and design of the Bloomberg Children’s Center also has practical functions. Spencer Finch’s palette for the building exterior is composed primarily of a range of blue tones. The presence of the colour blue is used throughout the interiors—in all of the elevator lobbies, along the patient floors, even on the walkway of the bridge that leads into the building, immediately letting visitors know that they are in the children’s section of the hospital or on a path towards it. There is a unique work of art in every one of the twelve elevator lobbies, each inspired by a different book. This idea of linking reading and healing continues throughout the building’s reception and waiting areas and along its main circulation routes. As patients and visitors navigate through the building, they will discover unique works of art that become memorable landmarks that help with way finding. Setting the Stage with Playful Sculptures The airy bi-level lobby and its four-story atrium reinforce the feeling of accessibility and openness that permeates the building. When considering how artworks could enliven these entry spaces, curator Rosen proposed reaching out to set designers. In the natural course of their activities, these magicians of the stage are experts at dealing with active, populated spaces, and are thoroughly accustomed to working collaboratively. Based on a series of enchanting concept sketches, stage and set designer Robert Israel was brought on board. Rather than just filling the space, Israel’s work transforms the area to continue the sense of delight sparked by the shimmering glass of the building’s exterior. Swimming above the broad stairway that connects the ground floor and the main level lobbies is a family of giant puffer fish. And suspended beyond the main level information desk is a flying cow with a nine-foot wingspan, heading towards a ring of the 28 phases of the moon. Just outside, a very colorful huge rhinoceros, with a baby rhino on its back, both built out of block-like cubes, stands at over 20 feet high at the entrance to the Bloomberg Children’s Center’s Emergency Department. The craggy, uneven pavement at its feet is evidence of its weighty stature and rootedness in the community. Israel did not get to see the final building before he designed the sculptures. He worked with architecture plans and models and tried to figure it out.

Every form of Architecture ought to be an Art

In many parts of the world, where the encouragement of more accessibility to art and the promotion of cultural self-expression have high priority, individuals from local communities are given the opportunity of getting involved and collaborating with the architect on the artistic embellishment of the new building in their midst. This is a scheme easily adapted. Themes for art works — be they murals, mosaics, relief works, or sculptures — can be generated in community meetings. Local narratives can provide specificity to broader and more general themes and issues, allowing the artwork to become a focal point of shared memories or aspirations. People thus become active producers of the building rather than passive consumers and the process of engagement may contribute to public responsibility, ownership, and the prevention of vandalism. Artistic decoration is also the easiest way of involving the future users of the building — who might be children — hands-on in shaping their own built environment. Art can describe a building’s function; it can imbue a space with a spiritual quality; it can visually enlarge a space by creating an illusion; it can confer status; it can demonstrate wealth; it can convert a neutral space into one suited for a particular ritual; it can ascertain claims about a building’s owner or users; it can establish links between cultures or attempt to recover values of the past; in short: art plays a vital role in shaping a building’s identity.

Architecture is not the making of an exquisite object for the select few, but has a much broader function in society. Human beings have a fundamental need to experience their existence as meaningful. In this context the ability to identify with one’s environment — be it natural or built environment — provides a sense of belonging. Architecture often falls short of providing this sense of belonging, of truly capturing the genius loci. Art can play an important role in this regard, because it is more accessible and can be experienced on a more immediate, emotional level, thus allowing people to relate to a building through art. Art must once again be understood to be an integral part of architecture, as it always has been until fairly recently. Only when architectural students are taught that art is part of architecture just as plumbing or wall finishes or landscaping, will budgets be established accordingly and architects will not be forced to `hide’ costs for murals under the codes for paint or landscaping. The general public, from which clients emerge, can hardly be expected to revise their established understanding of architecture if professional architects themselves do not understand the integral unity of art and architecture. The challenge lies with the educational institutions to revise their curricula and reappraise the role of architecture and the role of the architect in society.

LeCorbusier, the famed modernist architect who represented a movement to integrate art and architecture once said: “You employ stone, wood, and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces: that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say: ‘This is beautiful.’ That is Architecture. Art enters in…”

All architecture has the potential to reach that state. And any architect, planner, or designer working in collaboration with the owners or the public, can do what Corbu is describing.

My thanks to  Livingstone for providing this entry. For further information on Archability  please visit

7 thoughts on “The Importance of Integrating Art within Architecture

  1. David Emmanuel Noel, thank you for asking my friend Livingstone to write this! Livingstone, thanks for sharing these thoughts. these are thoughts i have been wondering about for a long time, the place of art in public spaces. i think we can do so much more to integrate art in all aspects of life. we all know art is necessary for our existence. i hope we can do more than employ stone, wood, and concrete – let’s infuse them with our soul. perhaps we relegate art too much into museums and galleries. we need to have art spill out into everyday spaces.

  2. Thanks Soyoung. Another important factor we must also consider is the role of the client and the design brief, particularly with public sector buildings. One may argue that the importance of art and its therapeutic benefit must be recognised by those commissioning buildings, not to mention other professionals in the supply chain. The client without doubt must feel art provides an improved experience for the staff, visitors and or end users. This is where documented case studies such as the Bloomberg Centre and evidence based design is vital.

  3. Ricardo

    While the author of this article provides some truth I think it’s too much of a general statement to suggest the divide is that much. Many buildings including offices incorporate art and acknowledge this as an important factor in the function of the building. An interesting article nevertheless. Thank you David.

  4. As president of Murphy Rabb, Inc, a 25 year old art advisory firm, I have had the opportunity and pleasure of working with clients, architects, designers, dealers, artists, and private collectors to recommend, commission and purchase artwork for public and private businesses and residences.

    My first project was to write the first Public Art Plan for the City of Evanston for their new library,. My job was to work with the architect, early in the planning process to recommend locations for the purchase and commission of artwork. Sometimes architects overlook opportunities for artwork in their plans, except perhaps for major focal points. But together, we came up with numerous locations for artwork, that the architect may never had considered without my prodding.

    I had the same opportunity to work with the architect for The Northern Trust Bank, who were building their first bank in a middle class African American community. My opportunity was to create an environment, using artwork that was appropriate, welcoming and reflected the staff and the clientele who did business at the bank.

    Another project was to create the entire Art Program for 8 story 3 million square foot, Stroger Hospital in Chicago. My goal for this project was to make the hospital warm, welcoming and accessible with artwork that reflected and spoke to the diverse populations it served.

    A private client wanted me to curate an African American art collection in the new home they had just purchased. She was clear that artwork was to be the focal point before they made any lighting, architectural and furniture purchases. This was a dream project, because we succeeded in making the artwork the focal point.

    In doing all these projects, I will often butt heads with architect and designers to make sure they understand that locations for artwork must be taken into serious consideration. I have to be ever vigilent in studying floor, lighting, signage and furniture plans, and then being on site to make assure that art can be located in the most advantageous way, and that the artwork never looks like an afterthought.

    When I have the opportunity to collaborate with the client, architect, interior designer and artist, early in the planning/design process, the final project always benefits and everyone wins.

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