Paintings made in the west over the last 1,000 years make a pretty good case for the wide range of expression painting as an art offers: symbolic, decorative, narrative, emotional, abstract, conceptual. Perhaps second only to (the more recently invented) cinema, painting is a most versatile kind of art.
Photography, theater and literature are in ascending order mostly narrative genres (although the form or structure of the narrative matters), sculpture, dance and music mostly formal genres (although they can tell a story if the author provides some clues). A well-crafted painting can perhaps more than any other art balance stories and appearances -- sometimes pretty (or terrifying, sad, glorious, wondrous or sublime) to look at while also meaning something to the audience for whom it is intended.
A painting tells a story while it decorates a room, a play tells a story while it entertains us in community with others and a dance tells a story while immersing us in the vicarious pleasures of our bodies’ own movement. A play relies on words to convey meaning and feeling, painting on color and shape, dance on sequences of shapes, music on sequences of sounds, cinema on all of-the-above. In all art forms there is pleasure derived from both understanding and feeling. It is often mostly the feelings that stay with us.
We experience kinds of beauty too. In nature we find it in gnarly trees that are hundreds of years old and in a flower not yet a day old. The one kind of beauty is earned over years of struggle against the elements, the other kind received seemingly without any work at all (countless previous generations having already done the work). We feel beauty as a kind of awe when surrounded by Yosemite Valley’s seemingly permanent granite ramparts and as a kind of serenity beneath the utterly impermanent swelling and dissipation of clouds in the Sierra Nevada’s skies.
In the presence of 19th century buildings in America we sometimes experience the somewhat awesome weight and mass of buildings rendered in seemingly solid stone (Furness, Richardson), with many 20th century buildings we feel the light touch and weightlessness of exquisitely detailed concrete, steel and glass (Nuetra, Frey) and later in the 20th century into the 21st century the sensation of fluidity and movement in buildings (Saarinen, Gehry).
As architects we are constantly thinking about forms of expression and kinds of beauty. Our tools are material and light (mostly the sun’s light and its many forms of expression). And while on the spectrum of artistic expression buildings lie probably at the outer reaches of abstraction we still do often want them to mean something--to at least set the stage, create the backstory if not tell the story.
How we mean depends on the context (time and place) for whom we mean it, certain shared expectations, knowledge and tastes held in common by those meant to experience any given building (hence the challenges we face in the open society that is our America). There is a kind of intelligence held in place by how a building looks—however abstract the art form is buildings still do communicate.
Like an ensemble of moving torsos, arms and legs on a stage or the harmonies and dissonances of the sounds of an orchestra or the array of textures, shapes and colors of paint on a canvas, the materials, volumes and profiles of a building are sometimes just for the looking. We can and should be able to appreciate a building just for the way its surfaces are given shape by the light of the sun or rendered transparent, translucent and reflective by the time of day and the moisture in the air. We can and should win pleasure in apprehending how a building’s parts work together, how they create effects of repose, movement, tension or balance. A building doesn’t always have to mean something or justify itself, but it can and should always be something worth looking at.