Last night I attended a superb lecture at the St Bride’s Institute given by City of London guide Francis Pugh. He was speaking about the art and architecture of commerce from 1880-1920. Using a number of examples of London architecture he showed how businesses of the period, working with architects and craftsmen, used buildings to make statements about the role and status of the City as the commercial hub of the Empire.
A name which came up a number of times was that of the writer, art critic and social commentator John Ruskin. In books such as The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-3), Ruskin argued that ordinary people should be able to look at, experience and appreciate different kinds of art; and that architecture was one of the highest forms of art which they could so experience.
Which set me thinking, as I am sure it was designed to! I still remember vividly my first trip to London at the age of about 7 – frankly, it was a very underhand and effective sales pitch by my parents to convince me that a move from the west country to London would be “a good thing”! I’d grown up in Plymouth, and so was used to a city largely dominated by postwar construction; even at such a young age I was bowled over by the variety, scale and impact of London architecture.
So why is architecture such a striking art form? I won’t (and couldn’t) even begin to rival Ruskin’s philosophical exploration of the subject, but for my own part there are perhaps four key factors which I think fuelled my fascination with architecture:
- scale – if you are prepared to appreciate the built form as a work of art, then you are in for art appreciation on a massive scale. It’s not just that individual buildings themselves are large by the standard of most artworks; but also that the interplay of different styles across a street, a district or even a city form an artistic creation in their own right. If you really open your eyes to architecture, a walk down any city road or through any village high street becomes a rich and potentially challenging artistic experience.
- accessibility – as a logical extension of that, architecture is all around you. We can all see it – with a few exceptions, you don’t need special permission to look at it, or a ticket. Architecture is living and changing as it responds to the environment, even to something as simple as changing light. And all of that is open to us as we go about our daily lives. It’s one of the things which makes buildings such a pleasure to photograph.
- immersion – have you ever heard someone say “it’s a place you can just wander round and soak up the atmosphere”? Maybe you’ve said it yourself. I certainly have about cities such as London, Barcelona, Venice – and the statement is informed by lots of factors including the people, the smells, and the sounds. And the architecture. As you walk around your environment, whether it’s a single building or a whole city, you are immersed in the architectural experience which literally surges up on all sides of you. For me, it is like being part of massive, never-ending art installation. Which, let’s face it, sounds pretty mind-blowing.
- participation – with some notable exceptions, architecture aims to create spaces which people are part of. If architecture is art, then it is art of which we are an intrinsic component, constantly shaping and reshaping it simply by the act of being there. As you start to examine architecture more and more, you notice how it frames people; how it contains them, or disgorges them; how it guides the ebb and flow of crowds; or how it filters the light which reaches them. To be truly conscious – and I mean really alive to – your own presence in a building is a remarkable experience.
Those are, I guess, the keys to my love of architecture.
Now, outburst over…where did I leave my Ruskin….?