Architects as Artists: The City as the Medium

By Arif Javed

            What defines an artist? I think a true artist is someone who uses a creative medium to produce a truly unique and powerful expression. What is this expression? It can be anything, from an expression of an emotion, an outcry for help, or an interpretation of some form of human spirit. Are architects artists? I strongly believe that architects have the possibility to be artists, just as much as any painter or sculptor or musician. My examinations in my past blog posts would seem to indicate that space is the paint that the architect controls and composes onto the canvas of the city. But what happens when the city is not just the architect’s canvas but the medium that is used to form the artistic expression? The group Coop Himmelb(l)au and the architect Francois Roche have both explored this in their work.
            Coop Himmelb(l)au’s 1971 project “Restless Ball” was essentially an urban experiment that used an architectural idea interpreted through a radical lens. The idea of this small, inhabitable sphere that they walked around the city in was to embody the spirit of approaching old spaces in new ways. The “Restless Ball” was both symbolic and completely literal. It was an actual, physical space that a person could inhabit and use to walk around the city. Thus, this was the concrete aspect of getting around the city in a different way and the literal modification of how someone sees the city. Symbolically, I think that Coop Himmelb(l)au were trying to show, using a radical and strange approach, that the city is not static and rigid, that architecture can be perceived in many different ways, and that sometimes the spirit of play and whimsy have a place in the architecture of the city. This “Restless Ball” was a truly powerful artistic expression, especially considering its simplicity. I think Coop Himmelb(l)au successfully used the city as a canvas to make a discourse on the spirit of change that dominated the 60’s and 70’s and how the old can coexist with the new.
            The next project that seemed to show this idea of the city as an artistic medium was Francois Roche’s I’mLostinParis project. I think that this project has some conceptual similarity to the “Restless Ball” project because they both in a way take the city and give it back to itself. I see the radical, invisible form of the Roche house as an interesting expression of individuality in the courtyard of a rather public piece of urban development. Roche covers his project in the vegetation of the site, essentially retreating within the city without changing its fabric. In this context, the fabric of the city is Roche’s medium that he uses as the driving concept of his expression. By this I mean that the architect managed to coax the materiality of the city into allowing him become a part of the city while also expressing his own individual interpretation of how the city should be experienced. The project is a completely unique way to experience the city and is thus a completely unique artistic expression of the spirit of individuality and the ability of every person to create their own view of a place.
            Defining what makes a true artist is a difficult task, but I think it can safely be said that some architects can be considered artists in the purest sense. These two projects showed me just how powerful an expression architects can produce through using the city as their artistic medium. I think at the heart of both the “Restless Ball” and the I’mLostinParis projects is the idea of that there is no one correct way to view and interpret the city. Though they are both very different works, they both manage to embody what is, in my opinion, a strong artistic expression working with the city as the medium.

Sketch of Restless Ball by Coop Himmelb(l)au

Restless Ball in the context of the city

Francois Roche's home disappearing into the city

"I’m lost in Paris / R&Sie(n)" 23 Jan 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed 24 Nov 2012. <http://www.archdaily.com/12212>

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