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Editorial> That's Not Architecture
Sam Lubell asserts that architects must engage the world, not just the gallery.
Patrick Tighe's Out of Memory installation at SCI-arc.
Brandon Shigeta / Flickr

One of my favorite activities in Los Angeles is visiting an architectural installation at SCI-Arc or at Materials & Applications. Some of our field’s most creative, innovative thinking goes into this type of work. And of course there’s a long history of architects carrying out inventive and important architectural installations, from Mies van der Rohe to Frank Gehry.

But let’s make one thing clear. This isn’t architecture.

Installations are a vital part of the architectural process—allowing firms to push form, surface, process, and material to new levels. Well-respected architects here in LA like Ball-Nogues, Oyler Wu, Greg Lynn, and Freeland Buck have produced installations displaying remarkable craft, rigor, sophistication, and originality. (Note: I had a role in selecting installations for the upcoming MOCA show about contemporary LA architecture, so I'm involved as well.) But they generally do not perform a function in their own right outside of display. Nobody lives in them and nobody uses them for a regular purpose. In my opinion they are instead architectural art or architectural research.

Installations should be used to inform architecture, not to take its place. If our most innovative architects get caught in the installation trap—insulated from the painful constraints of the real world (not that making installations doesn’t involve pain)—we’ll not be making a large enough contribution to the built world.

In many cases this is exactly what’s happening, especially with the economy limping along in the United States. Significant architects in this city and elsewhere create only installations, not designing buildings at all. The same goes for architects who are only creating digital architecture. This is often striking work (so-called paper architects have long influenced the built world, and many like Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid have become successful in building in it after some time), and it does transform how we think about the possibilities of the built world. But, I repeat, it’s not architecture.

Of course it’s easy to tell architects to build when there is so little work to be had. And of course the definition of architecture is a loose thing. It should never remain static, incorporating digital technologies, landscapes, and other elements that would never have been part of the field even fifty years ago. But the fundamentals should hold true: architecture is built for use, not display. I can’t help but thinking that if the same attention to innovation went into our built world as the virtual and gallery worlds this would be a far better place to live.

Yes, real world constraints are maddening. Zoning and building codes are often frustrating. The economy is still meager at best. Clients are often capricious and taste-challenged. But this shouldn’t be a reason to back away from it. In fact real world challenges, when properly addressed, often make work get better.

Yes, installations should be actively promoted as a way to improve real world architecture. We at the newspaper will always be huge fans, especially when such work focuses on architectural innovation over mere form. It is one of the most valuable ways for architects to improve the profession; the lack of constraint lets architects experiment even in tough economic times like these. They just shouldn’t take architecture’s place. If they do, then somebody’s going to continue to form the built environment. It just won’t be our most innovative architects.

Sam Lubell