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Pictural Arts and Architectural Harmony

Pictural Arts and Architectural Harmony, an article written by Maurice Raymond (Professor at Montreal’s École des Beaux-Arts) published in Architecture, Bâtiments, Construction, April 1954, p.40 to 42.

Over the last few years, contemporary architecture has entered a new phase: there are quite a number of recent projects in which plastic arts were treated as an integral part of the whole. This is a wholesome evolution that is cause for rejoicing, for it is a sign of maturity. Having left behind the intransigence of the early days, architecture today has enough self-assurance to qualify its expression. Besides, this trend is consistent with the finest tradition: has it not always been this way? An example that naturally comes to mind is that of the dazzling medieval cathedrals, where architecture, sculpture, painting, stained glass, mosaics and tapestry were placed together and fused into marvelous orchestration – which, in fact, earned the architect the most beautiful title ever bestowed upon him: that of maître d’œuvre (Master Contractor).

Though we should avoid getting too far ahead of events, it would go without saying that present circumstances are once again conducive to cooperation between architects and artists – which is only normal, in fact – were it not for the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the confusion and dubious eclecticism of that period: resorting to inverted classical orders, senseless ornamentation; in short everything whereby the natural interaction between the arts had been disrupted, for a while. We know that those who were sensitive to what is true and vibrant were revolted at the sight of this generalized practice of the pastiche, and by the same token had swept away all ornamentation – which had suddenly seemed to them like the most nauseating side dish…

Consequently, the most characteristic forms of contemporary architecture have long ignored any input other than what was directly in line with its combined vital forces. Thus it generalized the appearance of extreme starkness applied to its industrial buildings – and their beneficial example had pointed the way, from the start of the reaction.

Stripped down to the essentials, these buildings have a very unique beauty: that of intellectual order applied to matter. Its logic can be admired in the layout of its parts, the rightness of its proportions, the honesty of its structures, the exquisite rigors of its volumes. Such is the beauty of the Intelligible. We are moved, it is admirable – yet we are also worried. This concept of shape is so bent upon impeccability that one might wonder if, apart from its technical and sometimes dimensional boldness, the most intoxicating moment of these designs might not have been the immaterial working drawing laid out on the draftsman’s board. Stemming from intellectual abstractions, this is a highly vulnerable art form in terms of both time and space: the slightest imperfection is a deadly blow to the resonances of its harmonies.

The bottom line is that the whole construct constitutes an odd mix of angelism and, at the other extreme, of materialism. Angelism: the cerebral heights of solutions found, and the rationalism of forms. Materialism: concerns of a practical, and almost solely physiological nature, with regard to human beings – circulation, air conditioning, lighting, sound proofing,… etc.

We understand that the economy of means and function cannot constitute, in and of themselves, a durable concept of aesthetics in the architecture of our times. Those are items of reaction and transition. In fact, are these aspects not the indispensable values of any valid form of architecture? These value are certainly essential: yet they are too narrow to constitute a real “credo” in and of themselves. In the end, this is about something far greater than the art of building “shelters” or “housing machines”. Architecture is also a need for expression: the expression of an age – or Man. Already the stage that architecture is presently going through –  and that we are pleased to point out here – leads us to believe that it is reaching the fullness of its mission: to serve humankind, taking into consideration all aspects of human beings. It will be in the image of man, of global man: a rational being, of course; also a sensitive, emotional being; a social being seeking happiness through the fulfillment of all his abilities. Indeed, we may be attached to “functionalism” – but let it be an “integrally human functionalism”.

Among the factors that can humanize dwellings, one of the most effective is color. Color relates directly to our emotions. Its suggestive power is simply magical: it can swell our breast, unwind tensions, appease irritable sensitivities. Our century uses and abuses these aspects of color. But there will always be unheard of harmonics to enthrall us.

In civil or religious architecture, the art trades must be part of the very substance of the design, instead of add-ons. The glassworker, as the case may be, must fuse his art with that of the architect: both must work together from the very start. Otherwise, there is a great danger that the work – the stained glass window, in this case – will not fit, or will be superfluous.

Besides the “humanizing” qualities of the forms generally cherished in the field of plastic arts, their relatively free character – far from undermining the very special harmony of the rigorous structures of architecture – can only emphasize them in fact. They mutually set each other off. There is no reason to think that artists aspire to cover all available surfaces with arabesques: the memory of the follies of an all-too-recent past is still vividly present. Indeed, are they not as eager to stick to the essential as their contemporaries?

Another consideration: a sculpted relief feature or a polychromatic arrangement, in the folds of their smile or the earnestness of their subject, can convey the wrinkles of time. It is worth noting that the stark face of our arrogant constructions bear the marks of nature as an affront. Yet one of the major qualities of a work of art is that it ages gracefully.

One would hope that, along with the advent of a new social order, the architecture of today, in which we can take pride – not all periods have had such a distinctive legacy – would end up with a better blend of technical and aesthetic aspects. There will obviously be a great number of pitfalls that will have to be dealt with. Not the least of these will be economical considerations, and the public will have to be educated in this respect: dollars that people are reluctant to spend on enhancing their daily living environment, they will spend tenfold on frustrating entertainment. And there is another, no less serious complication: that of the multiplicity and complexity of the requirements of present-day construction – especially given a climate like ours! These requirements are gradually growing beyond the capacities of a single individual. So it is likely that circumstances will dictate that the practice already in use in certain collective work environments overseen by an architect will spread here.

We will then see the concerted efforts of the architect, the specialist engineer and the artist build dwellings to meet Man’s material needs, of course, and his intellectual requirements; but also, once again, to meet the needs of the heart, which, from a broader perspective, will be for the greater good of the city.

© Copyright - Maurice Raymond, painter