Kandinsky Anew | Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

The Spiritual in Art and Architecture:
Notes for a New Context


Elijah Williams
edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud


Recently, making notes in my copy of Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art (Dover, 1977), it struck me how much of Kandinsky's thinking, theory and writing have manifested themselves in the world of Architectural discourse. From the start, I found that some of Kandinsky's Introduction (see pp. 4-5), as well as his "The Movement of the Triangle" (see pp. 8-9) have strong parallels to architecture discourse without reducing any element of either to actual buildings or paintings.  


The complete book is full of potent quotations, and many of my dozens and dozens of notes could have been expanded into essays. But already at these two key points—Introduction and opening chapter—the book speaks directly to the duty and function of the built environment, so I chose these two as starting places:




Often, many years after his body has vanished from the earth, men try by every means to recreate this body in marble, iron, bronze or stone on an enormous scale.

Wassily Kandinsky, "Introduction"


The most literal manifestation of this "recreation" is in the form of the built environment, where the legacy of a single person or a family can be prolonged through the construction of a work of Architecture. These objects, sometimes buildings and sometimes not, have the capability to create a physical narrative trail that will long outlast any individual human or even generational family. This ancient practice, employed by nobility and the religious devout, is an indicator that the spaces and objects that surround us are not simple in purpose or function, that their origin may be a set of twisted extremes. Memorials to great love rival those that are tributes to war and greed. For every Holy Mosque there is a skyscraper with gold lettering, twelve feet tall, emblazoned across it. We are surrounded by physical reminders that it is a recreation of self that these builders are looking to achieve. These acts, of constructing these monuments, signify their importance as legacy markers for human activity.


The materials listed—Marble, Iron, Bronze and Stone—have a chronology to them, suggesting correctly that these symbols of power date back long before the use of aluminum ducts and plastic flashing in skyscrapers, to a time when building a monument to power meant using a scale unimaginable.


What would the world around us look like if we were without the desire to build tributes to our own power? Would the line between our art and our architecture be more severe? We could dramatically identify Architecture as that which serves the practical functioning of life, and art as everything else. This feels short, because we know there is something more involved, something that concerns the spiritual in Architecture, which we have a harder time pinning down. Architecture and the objects it produces are often regarded in the public as if they are not also part of the world where things can have simple origins. Or as if a work of Architecture could have an ulterior motive or be a monument to the greatness of humans.


Objects at this scale sometimes take on purely representational form, such as sculptures of gods or animals or men, but most often are disguised as Architecture. Hidden in the endless mirrored windows of corporate business parks and the stale stairways of skyscrapers is another form of representation that is driven by ego and the acts of seizing power. Looking at a building alone doesn't reveal the whole story of why it exists; instead we must tread into the murky waters of Architecture to find out who built it, why and what they were hoping to compensate for.




[Art] seeks her substance in hard realities because she knows of nothing nobler. Objects, the reproduction of which is considered her sole aim, remain monotonously the same. The question "what?" disappears from art; only the question "how?" remains. By what method are these material objects to be reproduced? The word becomes a creed.


This "what?" will no longer be the material, objective "what" of the former period, but the internal truth of art, the soul with which body (i.e. the "how") can never be healthy, whether in individual or in a whole people.

 Wassily Kandinsky, "The Movement of the Triangle"


One key element in the field of Architecture, both in academia and in the public, is the relationship between architects and engineers. The relationship is not straightforward, with architects proposing a giant sphere and the engineer saying it can only work as a square. Often it is the engineer who has a new technology or methodology that is primed to revolutionize the scope of what the architect can think. While this may seem to be a purely bureaucratic dynamic, it represents how the relationship between "why" and "how" can become distorted in its aspirations.


The question of why humans continue to build buildings, long past pure necessity, is commonly addressed through statements about creating transformative and impactful spaces that complement the human condition or, at best, challenge the nature of our existence as we currently occupy it. But in tangible reality, what we see is a field driven by best-practice construction and short-term memory, restricted not by the depths of the imagination but by the pockets of investors.


The "why" becomes wrapped up in the want to construct monuments and give metaphorical weight to concepts of stability in the form of banks made of stone, or technical complexity to the world of scientific research with climate controlling multi-layered façade windows. Reasoning, or motive, can come in such a variety of forms that it is no longer straightforward, these buildings are no longer representational manifestations of the ideas behind them, but instead they become surreal billion-dollar metaphors. This is the role of Architecture, the muddy gray area between art and engineering, where there is plenty of "why", but no one asks, and a little "how" ends up going a long way. These ideas are not in any way new: they point out how related the work of the "why" is related to the work of the "how".


While the architectural concept of materiality deepens the relationship between what something looks like and what it is made of, the "how" in this case is very literal. To say a building is made of brick, implies that it is a composite object, amassed from a set of smaller objects called bricks. We have no issue with describing it as a brick building. When we are describing the construction method we are describing the building, not the Architecture. Buildings are made of bricks. Architecture is made up of complex systems of objects, including bricks but also including things like the absence of brick and, the ever-ephemeral, light.


There is an ever-changing web of progressive, carbon footprint-reducing and visually spectacular building technology systems (solar panel roofs, integrated grey water collection systems, computerized shading, etc.) that make up what we call contemporary architecture. Which is to say that innovations in the world of building technologies drive much of the "why" buildings exist. The line between where the systems, the construction method and the architecture itself exist becomes so blurry that we no longer have objective truths about where our Architecture starts, and are without the proper language to describe what has grown to occupy our built environment.


Construction and innovation in fabrication give a purpose to the creation of entire buildings. The classification of Architecture as a scientific-art reveals that it is a field that may not actually be interested in what things look like past the superficial idea of bringing an object into existence. Which is to say that, in Kandinsky's terms, the "why" has turned so far into a "how" as to be confused for a "why" again.





Note: This article originally appeared in Kandinsky Beyond Painting: New Perspectives,

ed. Lissa Tyler Renaud, for a special issue on Kandinsky, Dramaturgias journal, Brazil.




Elijah Williams, Guest Writer
Elijah Williams is currently on the Adjunct Faculty at the New York Institute of Technology School of Architecture and Design and founding member of ARTIFEX Tools, a spatial data research company. He has been Invited Architecture Faculty at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and a Foundation Studies Instructor at Boston Architecture College. He was Recipient of the Peter Hoyt Berg Scholarship for Design, member of the Hearst Foundation Lecture Committee and focuses his work on the relationship between Architectural Scale, Development and Model Making.

Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Curator, writer and editor, Kandinsky Anew Series
Lissa Tyler Renaud BA Acting, MFA Directing, PhD Dramatic Art with Art History (on Kandinsky's theatre), summa cum laude, UC Berkeley (1987). Founder, Oakland-based Actors' Training Project for training based on Kandinsky's teachings (1985- ). Lifelong actress, director. Book publications: The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge); an invited chapter in the Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky. Has taught, lectured and published widely on Kandinsky, acting, dramatic theory and the early European avant -garde, throughout the U.S., and since 2004, at major theatre institutions of Asia, and in England, Mexico, Russia and Sweden. She is a senior writer for Scene4.  
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.


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