Architecture as an Art Form: Navigating Between Aesthetics and Purpose

What inspires us when we see art? What makes something visually appealing? How does a viewer perceive an object’s significance? I’ve been trying to discover the components of how we view art, and how that translates into how we feel about architecture. With mounting client pressures and professional standards that focus architectural designs on pragmatic issues – such as program, building codes, the environment, circulation, economic values – how does an architect defend the need for beauty and pleasure, and is that an important defense?

Architects frequently regard our profession as an application or type of art. To reach such a conclusion, it would be insightful to disassemble what is meant by the term “art.” After researching this often studied issue, I deduce that we are talking about two separate simultaneous processes in artistic pursuits: creating a visually pleasing environment and instilling meaning to our designs. Though they aren’t entirely separate goals – design solutions can cater to both – we need to be aware of their difference in execution. If we aren’t aware of this decoupling, we might create buildings that respond poorly to one condition or miss opportunities to create richer environments.



Anjan Chatterjee approaches the nature of “art” in his popular book The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (the inspiration for this essay). In his introduction, Chatterjee makes it clear that his research is about visual stimulation and the conditions for viewing art, not with the process of creativity itself. He is evaluating finished products, not the process of production. And his approach, as a scientist himself, is rooted in evolutionary psychology.

The basic idea of evolutionary psychology is that our mental abilities, like our physical traits, evolved if they enhanced our survival.  Our ancestors from a distant past adapted certain behavioral traits to survive tough environments and to choose partners that would give them healthy children. [xviii]

Viewing art is a multisensory and emotional action which has its roots in our human ancestry. One place to search for answers about the significance of art is therefore to uncover the elements of artistic work that we respond to, and why. Here are many of the questions we can try to answer:

Should we think of appreciating art as analogous to perceiving depth, to understanding oral language, or to learning to read? Is appreciating art hard-wired as an instinct? Does it have an underlying universal grammar despite its surface differences? Is it a cultural artifact, perhaps etched in our brain, profoundly important in our lives, but not something that contributed to the survival of our ancestors? [126]

Chatterjee discusses how the brain processes art as a network of simultaneous sensory responses:

We find that there is no art module in the brain. Rather, our subjective experience when we encounter art is cobbled together from bits and pieces of the brain that are used to do other things. .. The brain responds to art by using brain structures involved in perceiving everyday objects – structures that encode memories and meaning, and structures that respond to our enjoyment of food and sex. [142]



Chatterjee spends considerable energy questioning the origins of art, all the way back to the cave paintings in Lascaux. Is art a singular instinct, or is it a by-product of other evolutionary skills?

If a behavior is universal, surely it serves an adaptive function. . . it is a short step to believing that we have an art instinct. [But, notably,] human culture as we know it has only been around for about 10,000 years, not long enough for the brain to have changed in a substantial way from selective pressures. Given this limited time frame, cultural artifacts must be a by-product of our large brains that evolved to solve other problems faced by our more ancient ancestors. [165]

There simply hasn’t been enough time for humans to have developed a specific trait for creating and interpreting art. Rather, our sense of art is a by-product of other skills humans maintained from our survivalist origins. At our high level of intellect, from cave paintings to hieroglyphics, we seem to have a desire to represent our thoughts of the sensory world, either by trying to more literally recreate moments or by adding further meaning to our original sensory impressions.

A logical extension may be that Art is a by-product of our desire to create tools, to represent actions in physical form. For example, “I need to bang something, so I shall make/physicalize a hammer.” We have an imagination which produces physical representations in our heads, which inevitably translates into manifestations within our physical world. We could just bang something, maybe with our hand or foot, but instead we use our sophistication to inflict varying degrees of usefulness and metaphor to the simple act of banging.

Functional Hammers

Metaphoric Hammers, from sculptor Roy Mackey

We will discuss later how to compare these functional manifestations and metaphoric representations, but it is important to note the variation for how to represent the idea of banging: carpentry, cooking, judicial enforcement, and metaphoric juxtaposition. The judge’s gavel is a superb example of how articulating features may lead to alternate understandings. The last three visual examples barely function as “bangers.” Instead, these “hammers” utilize the concept of banging for alternate emotional effects, moving them deeper into the realm of “art,” as we shall explore.


Ultimately, Architects should be encouraging an environment of enjoyment for the buildings they design (with rare exceptions). Chatterjee spends several chapters on attempting to uncover our pleasure sensors. A good example might be food, a relatable experience of pleasure for most individuals. It is important to understand that pleasure is an integral component of the human desire for art. Without an intense emotional feedback within an individual, mundane objects lack the complexity to become art, or architecture.

To attempt a comparison to architecture, food elation could be analogous to the fetishization of certain architectural components (cantilevers, organic forms). There is a flood of pleasure for how sophisticated architects feel about certain forms and textures. It is unlikely that the common public feels any of this elation, for what we will learn, may be a lack of information and context regarding the subject matter in their view.

Chatterjee decouples pleasure into two distinct human operations: “Liking is the pleasure we get from some objects, and wanting is the desire we have for those objects.” [103] “Liking” is a relatively simple concept or ideal for architecture, though understandably complex to execute successfully in design. “Wanting,” however, is not an emotion often considered by architects in the design process. As architects, we certainly forecast what a user experience may desire. But the human subjects of that paradigm are generally disinterested. This is not entirely the architectural profession’s fault. Unlike commercial opportunities such as food or radio, there is little sophistication for a building inhabitant to have the ability to “want” something of architecture, since they have hardly any sense of the options on the table. As a general rule, we do not offer people a “menu” of architectural spaces immediately available for consumption. (A rare exception might be during a tenancy/leasing process.) Thus, Architects may therefore have a special obligation to design buildings that have more readily pleasing spaces than say a chef or a musician might in their sensory delivery.



What is art then?

An enduring idea is that art depicts the world. Art is imitation. . . the art historian Ernst Gombrich characterized the history of Western arts as a long process driven to get better at rendering reality. . . regardless of the desires to render the world accurately, the advent of photography made the goal of painting to imitate the external world less relevant. [116]

Ella McBride, Dancers, and Matisse, La Danse

The advent of photography* presents an early indication of why art is an alternate representation of reality, or “reality adjacent.” In his seminal essay in 1936, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin points out that the advent of photography signaled a fundamental change in art whereby it ceased to be about literal representation, and instead became about the author, the context and the aura of originality.

Art is positioned adjacent to [supposed] reality because of the concept of authorship. The author of an artwork invariably instills some form of message, opinion, or perspective, regardless of the art form. And this has been true for all types of visual representation, both before and after technologies such as photography. (*I’m referring to literal photography, there are certainly photographic artists that instill authorship in their work as well, by varying components such as timing, lighting, and composition)

For painting a portrait, this idea of authorship is relatively simple; the strokes, colors, and techniques of a painter invariably impregnates the artwork with the painter’s perspective. For another example, if one were to film an occasion, and share it directly with friends and family, that would be a literal representation of an occurrence. That might be considered a form of documentation, but not necessarily “art.” If instead, one were to add music, titles, edited moments, and altered sequencing, “authorship” creates a work of art one might refer to as a “movie” or a “film.” The viewer is enabled to see alternative realities through an author’s filter. If we use the hammers as an example, there is a stark difference between the opportunities for authorship between a standard hardware store hammer and a judge’s gavel.

Architecture might become art in a similar manner, when it transcends or augments direct functionality with the implementation of other visual tools. In the spectrum from tool to art, each instance of Architecture falls somewhere in between. Tool being pure function and art being more surreal. A similar (frequently asked) question might be, when does a building become architecture?

I propose that “art” is the umbrella category for (1) visual sensation, (2) meaning, and (3) the subsequent nature of how a human would neurologically process and embody their visual scene in the form of emotions. Chatterjee sees the structure differently: “Aesthetic experiences have the core triad of sensations, meaning, and emotion. . . and emotions is the neural manifestation of an aesthetic experience.” [138] I would substitute the term “aesthetic experiences” for what I consider to be the broader term, “artistic expressions.”



Of the two components of art I propose, aesthetics (visual sensation) is arguably the most relatable. We need to first distill “aesthetics” from “art” in order to aid our research. Aesthetics may have developed as an evolutionary adaptation to appreciate/prefer elements from our environment. From Wikipedia: “aesthetic judgement refers to the sensory contemplation or appreciation of an object (not necessarily an art object), while artistic judgement refers to the recognition, appreciation or criticism of art or an artwork.” Chatterjee elucidates:

It is worth underscoring the fact that aesthetics and art are not the same. They are overlapping but different ideas. Aesthetics, as generally understood, focuses on properties of objects and our emotional responses to those properties. The object need not be art per se. It could be a field of flowers just as easily as it could be Van Gogh’s painting of irises. Aesthetics typically relates to the continuum of beauty to ugly. . . However, aesthetic encounters need not be confined to beauty. The philosopher Frank Sibley listed examples of other aesthetic properties that include objects being unified, balanced, serene, tragic, delicate, vivid, moving, trite, and garish. [115-116]

That is why for something we consider beautiful, we typically modify the term “aesthetics” with the word “pleasing” as in, “aesthetically pleasing.” Indeed, opposite to delight, Aesthetic goals can be much darker in spirit, including elements of horror, disappointment, or sadness. Besides the “continuum of beauty to ugly,” aesthetics also has a spectrum of intensity, varying from mild to overwhelming.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch, The Scream

The philosopher and political theorist Edmund Burke also emphasized and expanded on the way beauty evokes feelings. He distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime. Beautiful objects are tied to pleasure. By contrast, sublime objects overwhelm us, produce awe, and force us to face our own insignificance. [117]

Adjacent to the discussion of beauty or sublime, is how accepted such value judgements are amongst a population. This adjacent discussion is about “taste,” and perhaps can be measured along a spectrum, in which the two extremities are never quite reachable: singularly affected vs universally affected. (ie, singularly beautiful vs universally beautiful, but we need to be careful to consider when aesthetic triggers are utilized for emotions other than pleasure). I would conjecture that the majority of considerations for beauty or disdain have general effect, though taste is of course by no means universal. For theorist Pierre Bourdieu, taste is only definable through a sociological filter, where social class might be the determinant factor in artistic comprehension.

People do not always agree on which art is beautiful. . . David Hume. . . developed the notion of “taste.” He viewed beauty as a pleasure that involved a value judgment. These value judgments were an expression of taste rather than the result of logical analysis. . . Hume recognized that education and culture profoundly influence our experience of art. [118]

Chatterjee spends much of his text identifying the elements of our visual environment which relate to aesthetics, including human facial properties, human sexual desires, natural landscapes, and mathematical proportions. Since most neuroscientists seem to agree that our brains generally process the physical components of human interactions separately from how we cognitively process our sensory environment (though they may share certain cognitive processes, such as pleasure), I’ll focus on the latter two.

Humans of all types consistently admire natural landscapes for mostly obvious evolutionary reasons, including security, abundance, and power. Images with expansive views, bodies of water, forests, and mountains, all evoke these positive emotions in viewers. Scientific research has also noted the recurrence of the “savanna principle,” where people tend to have a preference for images of the African Savanna even if they have never been there. Scientists would argue this relates to our evolutionary origins.

Many scientists believe the images of the Savanna offer more than just emotional reassurance, as there are mathematical (fractal) relationships that are measured in the human preference for natural landscapes. This second recurring theme throughout human aesthetics is the consistent appearance of certain proportions and a desire to develop visual environments that offer a cohesive effect on a viewer.

Specific parts of the brain are specialized to process numbers and mathematical relationships. Numbers could be like language. . . .In the same way that we can combine words and sentences beautifully, maybe we can combine numbers beautifully. [60-61]

There is a strategic advantage for humans to see pattern:

People who enjoyed quantities, probabilities, and correlations would have had an evolutionary advantage in meeting their needs to assess immediate and future sources of nourishment and shelter. . . A more general evolutionary advantage for taking pleasure in math would be in seeing patterns in what would otherwise be an overwhelming amount of information. [63]

In other words, consistent adherence to proportion engenders recognizable patterns in the brain processing of the viewer. The ability to more quickly identify patterns in our visual environment would reduce cognitive processing, thereby adding survivalist speed. Though we no longer require cohesive pattern processing to find food or shelter, a more contemporary usage of cognitive recognition of pattern environments may more likely to lead to mental comfort.

Understanding pattern recognition elicits a discussion of Gestalt, the concept that our brains process entire scenes rather than individual objects, thereby reducing the necessary cognitive processing.

Our minds actively organize visual elements into more complex chunks, thus scientists should be studying these organized chunks. [135] . . The physicist Richard Taylor drew attention to the fractal dimensions in art by examining Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. He and his colleagues found that Pollock’s early paintings had fractal dimensions around 1.45, the dimensions found for many coastlines. . . Taylor raised the possibility that we respond to hidden mathematical regularities in artworks. . .scientists found that visual art and natural scenes share statistical properties, including that they are typically “scale invariant.” This property means they contain the same kind of information whether one zooms in or out of the images . . . These investigators identified scale-invariant properties of visual art by using the Fourier power spectra of images. Fourier spectra describe the range of spatial frequencies from low (broad swathes) to high (fine details) in any image. [136]

Jackson Pollock’s Convergence

Artists create images with Fourier spectral-image statistics seen in complex natural scenes. These image statistics also apply to abstract images. Viewers prefer abstract paintings that match the statistical properties of natural scenes. . . cultural variables, such as technique, century, and country of origin, and subject matter did not change these quantitative parameters in the art. . painted portraits have statistical properties that are closer to those of natural landscape than to those of natural faces. [137]

Architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros has a relatable view of architectural coherence: we can more quickly identify our surroundings and more quickly take action if our visual scene has a consistent use of patterns between operational scales. Mathematically, rulesets help our brains process the visual scene and can lead to a more pleasing experience. For example, Salingaros would advocate there be consistency of proportional detailing, in descending order, from the outline of a whole building -> the outline of a story -> the outline of a window -> the outline of a window pane.

Salingaros “Complex structure is obvious at every magnification,” and “Fractal links different scales in a hierarchy”
While I have often consciously ventured to implement these multiple scales of details within my architectural designs, I had not previously thought of these relationships as aesthetic in nature.

Chatterjee had also spent quite a few pages on understanding the value of the “divine proportion:” the phi/fibonacci/golden rectangle. Undoubtedly, humans tend to find such proportions pleasing. Even if one might believe the sanctity of this proportion is exaggerated, its continued recurrence over many centuries undoubtedly implies that humans tend to find it pleasing.

People who believe in the ‘divine proportion’ find it in many places



Humans have always had a desire to develop and uncover meanings in our visual environments. We like to assume or discover “why” something has a particular physical appearance. This search will typically rely on an author’s expression of ideas, whether political, emotional, organizational, religious, etc.

Consider the role of meaning in art. A short description of an artwork or even knowing the name of the artist changes our aesthetic experience of looking at a painting. People can judge very quickly whether they like a painting, but it takes longer (10 seconds or more) for the descriptions to produce an initial understanding of the painting. People can also be given information that fits or doesn’t fit with what they see. . . When given ambiguous information, people found modern abstract artworks more interesting and liked them more. [140]



Chatterjee writes an interesting chapter on Conceptual Art, which turns out to be a good vehicle for examining the two proposed components of art. In Conceptual Art, visual sensations and meanings are especially distinct. Chatterjee discusses Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ most extensively. In this work, a “mass produced crucifix floats in golden amber fluid.”

Andres Serrano, Piss Christ

As a work of art, there is little to discuss about the project’s aesthetics. We could assess the amber color, the proportions, or luminescence; but, even those properties are laced with symbolism. Piss Christ’s emotional power derives from politics much more than visual processing, employing symbolism and raw information to bestow the viewer with emotion.

For further analysis, we can disassemble the work into its two physical elements: (1) the cross, a trite object, with religious connotations and (2) the bodily fluid, oddly also a trite condition, offering political connotations. The first element is so commonplace, there is little to distinguish between instances. Instead, the artist’s authorship is most heavily contained in the bodily fluid, which completely alters the meaning of their combined product. Without knowledge of this second component, the artwork holds little purpose.

Let’s test my hypothesis – that art is composed of aesthetics and meaning – with an xy graph opposing these two components. Then we can evaluate the relationship between visual aesthetics and meaning for individual works of art.

As I began to chart example artworks, I realized that a further classification of art had to be addressed: the difference between quantitative criteria and qualitative criteria. Quantitatively, artwork has properties that can be measured for intensity, both for the level of visual stimulation (sensory impact) and for how spiritually demanding that message may be (message impact). Qualitatively, artwork can be evaluated across impressionable spectrums, both for the level of visual appeal (beauty) and for the profoundness of meaning (depth and complexity). Let’s try with Piss Christ, La Danse, The Scream, and Mona Lisa.

Judgments about art will certainly vary between individuals, though perhaps less so when measured quantitatively. Regardless, charting the two components allows for a deeper understanding for the balance between how we interpret our sensory environment and how we accommodate meaning from that visual world.

After plotting, I’d propose that The Scream has the greatest variation between quantitative and qualitative analysis. Quantitatively, the work is highly visually stimulating, and it’s message of horror is easily identifiable. When we review the work qualitatively, this horror evokes an ugliness of spirit, and the singular message is a relatively simple concept. Of course, an art historian would expand my oversimplification of The Scream. We will explore how additional information can affect these types of analyses in the next section.



To extend the hypothesis to architecture, it may be necessary to reconceive the application of “meaning” when we are to discuss an “applied art,” where meaning might come from more pragmatic purposes. Good architecture arises from a design process that not only makes a beautiful building that resonates with its inhabitants, but that also genuinely accommodates constraints and strategizes for purposeful opportunities. I wrote a whole separate article on “purpose” two years ago, which though a bit less mature than my current writing, offers some perspective.

Purpose, I would concede, is a generously broad topic, and could incorporate applications varying from environmental strategies, circulation strategies, daylighting strategies, emotional impact, and so on. Theoretically we could plot each thematic application on a chart independently, evaluating each across a corresponding spectrum. That would be a bit excessive for the purposes of this article, so we’ll attempt to simplify a particular building’s purpose as a whole, even admittedly if that is a bit judgmental. What role might “purpose awareness” play in the experience of architectural design for a building’s user?

Diagrammatic Organization such as this competition submission for the Varna Library by TheeAe could be used to experiment with people’s perception of architectural meaning

I’ve been considering possible experiments comparing the architectural experience of someone who acquires knowledge of a building’s organization before they visit, versus the experience of someone acquiring such knowledge after they visit. Any experiment might have to take into consideration the subject’s prior general knowledge of buildings and architecture, a sort of litmus test of architectural sophistication.

Investigating people with and without expertise is another way to find out what happens in the brain when knowledge influences visual experiences. One study recruited architecture students as experts in buildings and compared their responses to those of other students as they looked at pictures of buildings and faces. The architecture experts had more neural activity in the hippocampus when they looked at buildings than when they looked at faces. [141]

In evaluating purpose, It is difficult to determine when the user of that space understands the purpose of their environment. Besides functional spaces, there are symbolic works of architecture like Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, which has a fractured appearance. Such visual obfuscation may affect an unsophisticated occupant singularly by the fragmented nature of the shapes. In addition, Libeskind has also expounded that the shifts in the building’s form are derived from a mapping project of historic Jewish locations in Berlin. Such additional information may affect a visitor even more when such a conceptual strategy is shared. Therefore, in addition to plotting the building on the xy graph, we might plot the building twice -both before and after additional information is provided to the visitor -to represent the differences in architectural experience. For comparison, we can also plot a banal building, Ralph’s Supermarket, and a graphic building, Randy’s Donuts.


Daniel Libeskind, Jewish Museum

Ralph’s Supermarket and Randy’s Donuts

And what about more diagrammatic buildings, where purpose relates to programmatic and circulatory information? If we try plotting OMA’s Seattle Library, we find that the building reads differently between the exterior and interior experiences. Outside, the form might be oppressive and offers few human scaled details. Inside, the layout is color coded, the spaces are inviting, and the circulation is clear.

Let us also try plotting an [almost] universal aesthetically pleasing project, Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus, against an [almost] universal aesthetically unappealing project, Morphosis’s Perot Museum. The former finesses form to magnify light and offers a skeletal metaphor for comprehending the geometries. The latter employs jarring imagery to suspend your sense of place, utilizing the sublime nature of aesthetics to jolt the viewer.

OMA’s Seattle Library


Santiago Calatrava, Oculus at World Trade Center, and Morphosis, Perot Museum

Historically, one of the original tenets of what inspired modernist thinking was a conceptual separation between decorative elements and functional geometry. This separation allowed modernists to pare their designs down to the minimalist surfaces one might see at the Barcelona Pavilion, and is analogous to our discussion between aesthetics and purpose. Architectural theorists may reflect back to Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who was perhaps the first architect to conceptualize that the geometric form of his architectural designs could be severed conceptually from historic precedent and associated decoration. (I discuss it here)

There is, however, at least one neurological condition that doesn’t fit snugly into the aesthetics/purpose opposition. For the cognitive peculiarity of “associative purpose,” a viewer might mentally associate certain architectural components on a subject building with their purpose from other structures. For example, a pitched roof still seems like it makes sense in southern California, even though there are few environmental reasons to design for it (slope, attic space). Does that pitched roof engage us as purposeful in spirit, or is it decorative because of its lack of practical application?


In Closing

If we acknowledge architecture as a form of art, we cannot ignore how visual sensations complement purposeful strategies when we design. I believe that successful art and architecture will mine both of these components for maximum effect. As an architect, my goal has been to provide as much easily interpretable information within the organization and visual texture of a building so that purpose is conveyed with little effort. The more logic that can be infused into a building’s geometry to relate to context, program, and circulation, the more readily a building’s inhabitant may understand its purpose, without copious signage or instructions.



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