Collaboration: Artists and Architects

“In 1977 Jonathan Barnett, the president of The Architectural League, came to me with the request that I direct the League’s Centennial project. After lengthy discussions, we agreed that a worthy project would be for me to develop some means of assessing the state of collaboration between architects and other artists and of exploring how such collaboration could be increased in the future.

It was an interesting moment for such a suggestion for two reasons in particular. First, the League was founded in 1881 with the expressed aim of encouraging architects to work closely with sculptors and painters. Second, after many years during which that aim was more often frustrated than fulfilled, we seem to have arrived at a moment when architects are once again seriously considering factors like decoration, psychological impact, and historical resonance in their work. For half a century or so, the profession had been dominated by an austere and all too pedantic Modernism that brooked no departures from its dogma. But now architecture is, in effect, being liberated, and architects need no longer fear that they will be accused of “violating the spirit of the age” if they work into their project a mural, or a stained glass panel, or a sympathetic sculpture, or even a touch of pure whimsy. At the same time, some painters and sculptors seem to be moving toward art that is a part of the whole environment or that actively seeks to reshape the environment.

Coinciding with these developments, there has also been an increasing movement toward making art an integral part of public buildings, through official government programs that set aside a small part of the total construction and design budget for works of art. Unfortunately, the results have often been disappointing. Some of the art was simply second rate, or even when it was of high quality, it did not seem an integral part of the building—the sculpture seemed merely to have been placed in a convenient courtyard, the painting simply hung on a long expanse of wall. But the basic idea is an important one, entirely consonant with the League’s original goal and with the concept that informs this Centennial project.

When The Architectural League was young, artists and architects could look to the example of Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston with its paintings and glass by John LaFarge or to the Boston Public Library by McKim, Mead, & White with mural paintings by such artists as Puvis de Chavannes, Edwin Austin Abbey, and John Singer Sargent. The Boston Library also made extensive use of traditional crafts such as stone carving and the creation of wrought-iron gates and lanterns. In 1892 and 1893 Chicago played host to the World’s Columbian Exposition, a project that assembled such a glittering company that the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was supposed to have observed to the architect Daniel Burnham: ‘Look here, old fellow, do you realize that this is the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century?’

The 1880s and 1890s were a self-confident time, a time when artists and architects thought they knew what their art was and shared a common ground of understanding on which to base their collaboration. That spirit of mutuality was soon to fade, however, if not to disappear entirely. So it is appropriate that The Architectural League should commemorate its Centennial by helping to redefine and rekindle the concept of collaboration among the arts. This book is one part of the effort; so is the major exhibition bearing the same title. Both the exhibit and book will, I hope, achieve a number of things: help to illuminate the historic relationship between architecture and its allied arts; trace the uneven progress of that relationship in the United States during the last century; describe the complexities of the present, still somewhat strained relationship; and chart some possible directions for the future. Above all, I hope the book and exhibit will demonstrate to a wider public the point that architecture, so often undervalued or, worse, totally ignored, is in many respects the paramount modern art, the one that can and does embrace all the arts.”

Excerpted from Barbaralee Diamonstein’s introduction.

Architect and artist teams commissioned to produce work for the exhibition and publication:
Emilio Ambasz & Michael Meritet
James Freed & Alice Aycock
Frank Gehry & Richard Serra
Michael Graves & Lennart Anderson
Hugh Hardy & Jack Beal and Sondra Freckelton
Richard Meier & Frank Stella
Charles Moore & Alice Wingwall
Cesar Pelli & William Bailey
Robert A.M. Stern & Robert Graham
Stanley Tigerman & Richard Haas
Susana Torre & Charles Simonds