The Third Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2001
Berkeley Prize 2001

David Foxe

Architectural designs are often antisocial, ignoring an aesthetic or functional dialogue with their surroundings. Part of modernism's legacy is the temptation for designs to stand apart, visually and psychologically, from preceding buildings and subsequent construction. While each structure's individualism gives richness, combinations of such designs act independently as 'spare parts' rather than functioning in the larger machine of urban or regional planning. Architecture is a necessary social process involving designers, users, and the public, but a far greater objective is for architecture to integrate aesthetics and functionality as a 'social art.' Walter Burley Griffin and his body of work, along with those of later architects, present historical yet relevant examples of architecture as a social art, and these examples can be translated into principles for achieving such a 'social art.' Two such principles are the local application of global perspective and communication through written and visual media. These principles are necessarily generalized, shedding situation-specific content in favor of a broader definition of 'social art.' Rather than define social art as having sociopolitical motives, I view it as the artful enunciation of that which is valued by a society (e.g., democracy, open landscape, etc.), translated into beauty and design through architecture.
Part of an early generation of formally educated American architects in the Midwest, Griffin (1876-1937) studied at the University of Illinois, where he incorporated his love of landscape into his architectural studies. After designing buildings and landscaping for Frank Lloyd Wright, Griffin designed homes and neighborhoods independently and with his wife Marion before winning the competition to design Australia's capital of Canberra. The remainder of his designs are in Australia and India.

The first social art principle is using global perspective while acting locally. From Griffin's small planning projects in America and Australia to his Canberra design, he used architecture to enunciate social, municipal, and environmental values. A primary example of this occurs in Mason City, Iowa, where he transformed a ravine used previously as a town dump into a semi-urban nature preserve with perimeter housing. Each of the houses uses different geometric details, but they are linked through common materials, low stone walls that join houses along roads, and a similar plan organization elaborated to reflect the different site conditions.

His designs influenced new vernacular use of concrete, proto-Modern simplicity, and landscape sensitivity in a region of Iowa that previously had little connection to contemporary architectural innovations elsewhere in the world. The entire development demonstrated a re-emphasis of nature as focal object, and of common land as democratic symbol. His Australian work develops the architecture of the socialized individual not only through residences and government buildings in the community, but also through aesthetic unification of the landscape with necessities like communal trash incinerators. In viewing functional oddities like incinerators along with government monuments in urban spaces, he conceptualized the city not only as space and landscape rather than individual monuments, but as a link between the power of government and the everyday democracy of individuals. His later work in India built on regional building traditions, adapting his earlier concrete textile block and ornament ideas to new settings. Paul Kruty (1997) asserts that, 'For Griffin, a direct response to the natural environment offered a possibility for a localized modern architecture' on three continents. Griffin achieved social artistry in adapting spatial languages to cultural settings worldwide.

In application, this global perspective can be trivialized since up-to-date information is available worldwide through electronic means. Rather, I believe globalism is most tangible in architecture through how architects deal with wide ranges of scale. Griffin developed the L-shaped space from small built-in furniture, to living spaces, to community site plans where the L embraces a community space, as in Iowa. Canberra presents a social microcosm of a nation translated into the city, streets, traffic hubs, neighborhoods, and structures. Another particularly codified example of social art exploring the wide range of scales is Christopher Alexander's _A Pattern Language_ (1977), which journeys from global definitions of regional character through minute details of furnishing and materials. Like Eliel Saarinen's advice, Alexander has considered each design problem 'in terms of the next largest thing,' relating solutions hierarchically.

Such global and hierarchical relationships are part of architectural vocabulary, but when used towards 'social art,' architects need to utilize the second principle, which is communicating architecture's social implications through written and visual media. Griffin's wife Marion communicated their holistic plans through renderings and correspondences, capturing architecture's inspirational, sociopolitical role. Her spare, eloquent visual language emphasized the abundance of landscape in the interaction with built geometry; her renderings of Frank Lloyd Wright's work gained global (albeit anonymous) influence as published in the Wasmuth portfolio. Her acts of detailing leaves but not bricks, and rendering both incinerators and government centers in the same drawing, likewise communicate social values.

Walter's writings in Australia and India, as codified with Marion's recollections in _The Magic of America_, link creative design with democracy in a moral battle against government bureaucracy. The Griffins were among the first Australian architects to have both international careers and interdisciplinary implications, as they wrote and occasionally lectured on the relationship between their architectural interests and science, the arts, and philosophy. Thus, the social values implicit in architecture become cultural narrative through visual and written explanation. Griffin even found resonance with eventual clients in India through mutual values of natural preservation.

Extending architectural values to psychology, Mark Jarzombek (2000) enumerates examples of how architecture could be socialized as cultural philosophy, whether in the extreme determinism of attempts to develop 'the harmonious totality of a people's life' through 'sick and healthy art forms,' or merely associating goodness in aesthetic architectural form with moral consciousness. The Griffins' fascination with anthroposophy has similar connections between moral and architectural goodness. Either way, design, the act of construction, and extant architecture present cultural value judgments. I believe the Griffins' work extends the American values of individualism, handicraft, and rejection of European precedent in favor of the landscape as embodied in the Prairie School, and communicates them through not only architecture but through planning.

These principles evident through Griffin's oeuvre can be found in more recent works by Alvar Aalto and Santiago Calatrava. Aalto humanized modernism in terms of forms and materials. His designs unify communities by providing a focal point, whether on the rural scale of Saynatsalo or within the urban center of Helsinki. His multi-level common spaces, such as in the Viipuri library and the Baker House dormitory, serve as juncture points for subsidiary functions within the building as well as defining pedestrian axes for social interaction. Furthermore, his architecture reflects cultural contexts from Massachusetts to Karelia, while defining the social history of Finnish independence.

With respect to Calatrava, Alexander Tzonis (1999) describes how, 'By overcoming the borders separating art, architecture, and engineering, Calatrava broadens our collective understanding of the artificial environment and provides new ways to improve cities and landscapes and the human communities within them.' Hence, Calatrava's bridges are both structure and conduit, acting as the physical connection between alienated places as well as the social connection between people. His addition to the Milwaukee art museum re-establishes a cultural destination as well as pedestrian access to the main city thoroughfare, a path long obscured by highways and onramps. Meanwhile, the atrium's transparent form visually connects the urban streets to Lake Michigan's natural landscape.

For the first principle of social art, Aalto and Calatrava share similarities with Griffin in work both international and highly specific to localized urban pedestrian conditions. In the second principle, all three also utilize extensive visual communication, particularly watercolor sketches, to communicate spatial interactions. Rather than Marion's eloquent perspectives, Aalto and Calatrava express social implications through investigations of technological and human functions. The technology and landscape, however, are both metaphor and vehicle for placing architecture in a social context.

Learning from Griffin that architecture is 'meaningless' without planning, architecture should eschew becoming isolated, antisocial 'spare parts.' Instead, architecture becomes socially relevant and beautiful through working in harmony with the larger whole. As a designer, one should not let designs become anonymous mirrors of their surroundings, but rather aspire to understand the place of new design within existing built and natural conditions. Since urban sprawl and suburban development currently pave a difficult future in which to create truly sociable, well-connected communities, it is on the level of architectural intent that one can begin to express values of interpersonal connections. This intent must be exercised, with global perspective and through appropriate communication, so that the built environment and its interaction with nature can become translations of values, not as mere functional considerations, but as principles for social artistry.


Alexander, Christopher. A Pattern Language. (1977). New York: Oxford University Press.

Brooks, H. Allen. The Prairie School. (1972-1996). New York: W. W. Norton

Correa, Charles. 'The Spare Part and the Machine.' [Unpublished notes from a lecture at MIT, 21 November 2000.]

Foxe, David. 'Finland: Architecture and History / The quest for national identity from traditional vernacular architecture through Saarinen and Aalto;' 'The Prairie School Architecture of Mason City in Historical Context.' (1999) [Independent study essays from high school;]

Griffin, Marion Mahony. The Magic of America. [Manuscript, Art Institute, Chicago.]

Jarzombek, Mark. The Psychologizing of Modernity. (2000). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kruty, Paul and Paul Sprague. Two American Architects in India: Walter B. Griffin and Marion M. Griffin. (1997). Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Saarinen, Eero. Eero Saarinen on his work. (1962-8). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tzonis, Alexander. Santiago Calatrava: The Poetics of Movement. (1999) New York: Universe.

Weston, Richard. Alvar Aalto. (1995). London: Phaidon Press.

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