What Inspires Meaningful Architecture?

posted by James Lindsay

Denver's Art Museum & city skyline.

Denver's Art Museum & city skyline.

“Truly successful, enjoyable, meaningful architecture is the synthesis of context, creativity, and service.”

What is it that makes one piece of architecture endearingly meaningful and another passé? One building can make a bold statement while failing to fulfill its purpose, while another can serve its practical function to the letter but be void of excitement and creativity. What are the ingredients that go into successful architecture that achieves the right balance? I recently read an intriguing interview from The Talks with noted Architect Daniel Libeskind that re-triggered my ponderings of these questions. I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Libeskind at the grand opening of his Denver Art Museum project in 2006, and have long been curious to learn more about the influences behind his rather distinctive creations. The article served up some good insight to help satisfy that curiosity, but beseeches a conversation of the broader ideas that shape the creation and experience of architecture. While some question whether Libeskind’s realized work has lived up to all the values and principals he discusses, I can relate with a number of his sentiments and found the interview to be a provoking impetus for reflecting both on our own work at JGA, and on the influences behind meaningful architecture of any place or era. For my part, I’ve arrived at a belief that truly successful, enjoyable, meaningful architecture is the synthesis of context, creativity, and service. 

Service

“When most fruitful, the program inspires the architecture, and the architecture in turn inspires the healthy advancement of the program.”

The meaningfulness of a work of architecture is earned in part from how well it serves its program and occupants. While this applies to any genre, religious architecture is easily among the most meaningful and experiential forms of architecture, largely by virtue of its aspiring program. To be sure, religion has been one of the steadiest forces throughout history in the creation of great works of architecture and creative advancements in the field. Churches and other bodies of worship are characteristically about bringing people together to place their focus on something greater than themselves. And serving this cause is a heavy edict for a piece of architecture. Best known for the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the master plan for Ground Zero in New York, Daniel Libeskind has completed numerous civic structures around the world, but has yet to have a church or other religious building constructed. However, in the interview, he expresses a deep reverence and aspiration for such work:

Those are really amazing programs because they deal with something that is the most difficult thing – to present an experience of divinity. In a way every building aspires to do that anyway. Whatever they say about the secular, about the sky and the earth, we long for something that isn’t just the question of causality, but answers why we are doing it.

It is certainly a humbling challenge and privilege to work on church projects.  Even in the modern era where religious buildings have perhaps become more casual and practical on average, there will always be a core mission of the architecture to serve and help foster community and meaningful experiences for those who attend. And the modern realities of how churches function only solicit an ever-expanding creativity in what is built. Modern church bodies do much more than just meet in a worship space on Sunday mornings, also serving countless community building, educational, and outreach functions. Our work as church architects today must support all of these activities while encouraging a healthy communal focus on the underlying faith.

Successful architecture must always serve its program well – But meaningful architecture transcends raw utility for a richer symbiosis with the program. When most fruitful, the program inspires the architecture, and the architecture in turn inspires the healthy advancement of the program. This can be observed in everything from churches, to schools, to industrial labs, to successful high-end retail stores. Whatever the program, architecture must be both a servant and an inspirer to the people that fill it.

Context

Also key to creating meaningful architecture is forging a strong connection to the context. While his work is sometimes compared to that of Frank Gehry, both frequently employing large sculptural metal forms that may at first seem foreign to their surrounding sites, Libeskind speaks with passion about the importance of context to shaping his buildings:

You can’t build anything meaningful if you don’t understand the context in depth. The context is extremely important, but the real context is not always apparent – very often it is forgotten and hardly visible: the history of a place, the traditions of a place.

His buildings are undeniably sculptural and not subtle in presence, but there are also traceable, albeit abstracted, bloodlines and interpretations of cultural, historical, and regional identity woven into his forms, which ground them in their place. Libeskind’s approach to realizing contextual meaning is quite different from other noted Architects through history, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Fay Jones, who have favored a more natural, tangible, organic approach to embracing the contexts for their works. But the underlying respect for connecting with the context is there at both ends of this spectrum, compared with an architecture that willfully ignores any sense of place, culture, or history to instead be only a monument to its own ideals. The most timelessly successful and meaningful architecture, in my experience, regardless of the style or age, always seeks to learn from, relate to, express, and engage its immediate and underlying context.

Creativity

“When you leave a building, it is like leaving a piece of music. It is still in you and still with you.”

– Daniel Libeskind

The DNA of meaningful architecture is also woven with artistic creativity and emotion. An Architect is in part an artist of forms, materials, light, and occupiable space. And while the range of medium employed to achieve architecture from start to finish is perhaps more complex and technical than other forms of art, the beauty of architecture, like any other art, comes in the compelling expression of ideas and in how the elements are composed and executed. As a trade, architecture is both an art and a science. This can also be said of music. On that note, and coming from a family of musicians myself, I find much truth in Libeskind’s comments about the overlap between architecture and music. Having been a virtuoso musician before beginning his architectural journey, he has a particularly passionate perspective on this notion:

Architecture is not just an intellectual or abstract exercise, it is an emotional experience just as music is… It has to communicate to the soul and everybody has to share it in a deep emotional way… When you leave a building, it is like leaving a piece of music. It is still in you and still with you.

So much of the meaning in something or some place is personal – in how one experiences it and connects with it. As with music and visual arts, the creativity, originality, craft, and emotion in an architectural work is largely what compels the occupant to appreciate it – to want to experience it and spend time with it – to be challenged and inspired by it. Where architecture must take the art a step further is in coupling this creativity with a respect for the context and an ethic of service to its cause. If a house is designed as a creatively formed, unique habitat, grounded in its context, and is tuned and composed around its owner’s character, lifestyle, and aspirations, then it resonates as truly being home. It compliments the occupant’s life, facilitates and even inspires what they do, and becomes the vessel for meaningful times. This union for realizing meaningful architecture also applies to the communal experience. An inspiringly designed public building, civic space, or place of worship will strike an emotional chord with its visitors or parishioners and create a meaningful experience by being both an engaging occupiable art form, and by serving and honoring the greater physical, historical, and social context of which it’s a part.

“Unlike most visual art, the realization of architecture is a team effort.”

Of course, a big part of successful architecture is in the process and the execution. All the right creative and functional elements can be there in theory, but it has to come together well. Unlike most visual art, the realization of architecture is a team effort – The Architect must work with the client to conceive and develop the right solution, then it must be well documented, and finally constructed by a contractor with proper coordination. It takes both conception and production – Again, not unlike music. Libeskind puts it this way:

You have to be able to create a series of drawings just like a musical score, you have to orchestrate it, you have to be able to communicate it, to conduct it... I don’t think I’ve given up music, I’ve just changed the instrument!

Architecture is a craft of expansive creative and functional possibilities. But it’s also one that can produce an expansive range of results in terms of the successfulness and quality of experience of the spaces created. It is in harmoniously layering the creative art with the contextual and service elements, that architecture achieves greatness. Without any one of the three elements, it falls short of resonating with enduring greatness. And these three elements are not just the required check box items for completed pieces of good and meaningful architecture but the core sources of inspiration for it. I’m proud that our firm places a high value on understanding and responding to the multi-layered contexts of our clients’ projects, on collaborating to craft artful forms and spaces, and on how the architecture can creatively serve the gamut of causes and activities of the occupants – all hopefully contributing to lifetimes of meaningful experiences.

The full interview with Daniel Libeskind conducted by The Talks can be viewed here.