Free Falling

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Free Falling is a sculpture by Richard Serra. It consists of three plate-steel waves, each 150 feet long, leaning slightly outward and held in place with cables. The sculpture was made for the courtyard of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and was designed specifically for that space.

The title comes from the experience of standing between two of the waves when they are in motion. There is an illusion of being on a ship at sea, or drifting through space. That doesn’t happen very often; usually only when gusts of wind blow across the courtyard does anyone feel like they are in the sculpture. But when it does happen it is breathtaking: you feel that you are about to fall off the edge of the world.

All art is about emotion, and all good art elicits emotion. But because we have been taught to associate fine art with beauty and ugliness with badness, we tend to see “beauty” as a matter of taste and to believe that only beauty can elicit emotion. And we tend to see this as a virtue rather than a failure: art that elicits no emotion is seen as cold and irrelevant, whereas art that elicits the right emotions is seen as touching or profound or whatever other positive word fits

I have never seen a skyscraper in real life, and I have no plan to do so. Before seeing the World Trade Center towers, I wondered why they were built. Was it just a way to make money? Now that they are gone, we can see what they meant. They showed us the end of any attempt at a different kind of architecture, art, or life after September 11th. We have started falling towards the earth again.

Losing weight is like free falling through outer space. You can’t control your movement and you don’t know how long you will fall for. There is nothing to grab onto in order to slow down or stop yourself. The only thing you can do is adjust how fast you are going and try to increase your distance from the ground by pulling your legs up towards you each time you fall.*

“Architecture is frozen music,” said the architect I.M.Pei in 1976, “and music is the temporal release of architecture.” Pei was describing one of his favorites, the 17th century Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel, with whose Canon in D the piece begins. It’s a nice conceit, but it doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny. The Canon is actually a very constrained melody, which makes sense because it was written as a keyboard exercise for students. It’s possible to set pretty much any text you want to it; there’s even a version of the lyrics from the musical South Pacific that is sometimes performed. (It’s less common than Pachelbel’s other famous work, “Canon and Gigue in D minor,” which uses the same melody over a different bass line.)

There are thousands of examples of architecture being frozen music in this sense: designs that started out as musical scores or instructions to musicians or poems that were intended to be sung or maybe just something someone whistled while they worked. A great many buildings are built on musical principles: everything from cathedrals to modernist housing blocks. But they don’t read like music when you’re inside them; they read like architecture.

The appeal of

The more I look at the history of architecture, the more it seems to me that there are two kinds of creative people. There are the architects and there are the artists.

And what’s really interesting is that they have almost nothing in common with each other. There is no overlap between their skills and interests, and there is no overlap between their motives for doing what they do.

The architect’s job is to build buildings that stand up and remain useful over a long period of time—and to make them reasonably pleasing to look at as well. The artist’s job is to create things that move us emotionally or capture our imagination, but which we know must inevitably fall down or fade away.

The architect wants to create something that other people will use—and only partly because he wants to make money from it. The artist doesn’t care whether anyone actually uses his work; he just wants us to look at it and feel something about it.

The artist loves structure because it shows his power over space, but he loves freedom even more because it shows his power over time. The architect needs order because he needs buildings that will last, but he cherishes freedom because a building that must be altered or torn down every year or two isn’t very useful.


There are many interesting and profound questions about architecture and design, but the question of whether architecture is art is not one of them.

This question was settled in 1867 by Thomas Henry Huxley, when he delivered his lecture “On the Physical Basis of Life.” Huxley was Darwin’s bulldog ; he was also the most prominent scientist in England, so his opinion carried a lot of weight.

“In matters of philosophy,” Huxley said, “the majority of competent persons are agreed that a broad distinction is to be drawn between the Beautiful and the Sublime; between such modes of Art as appeal altogether to the feelings, and such as appeal chiefly to the intellect.” And then he made a more precise statement: “Architecture is to be regarded as an Art, not a Science.”

Taste cannot be argued with. If someone explains to you that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is ugly because it has too many notes, you will have no choice but to agree (though you may regret having done so). If someone else tells you that the Eiffel Tower is ugly because it doesn’t have enough corners, you will have no choice but to disagree (though you may regret having done so). But if someone tells you that Rem

In the summer of 1967, architect Robert Venturi was waiting for his wife to give birth. He was also waiting for the results of a student competition he’d judged. It turned out that both things happened on the same day.

That day changed architecture forever. The student who won changed it, too—though not in the way Venturi expected.

Venturi knew that America’s cities were filled with buildings that looked like what architects had always built: tall and thin with an ornamented façade at the top and a distinctive “style” (the architectural equivalent of a brand name). But he thought that style was just a surface, or “skin,” which masked deeper problems. He wanted to change the way architects thought about buildings. He wanted them to focus on what happened inside buildings rather than outside them. He called this approach “decorated shed.”

Because of its surface, the decorated shed seemed shallow at first glance. But it was deeper than it looked. Deep enough, in fact, to cover up flaws in construction and engineering? Venturi didn’t think so. In his criticism of modernism, he warned that buildings had to be more than skin deep; they also had to be well constructed and sturdy enough to last.

This approach

In architecture, the governing principle is to maximize the amount of usable space given a fixed amount of construction material and a fixed amount of money. Space planning is the process that turns that mathematical problem into a series of practical decisions about where to put things.

The architect’s job is to take into account as many factors as possible in order to optimize the group’s use of space. In addition to being open, bright and airy, the office needed to be flexible enough so that it could easily be converted into a conference room or other configuration if necessary. Aesthetics also played a role in the design; it had to look good while still keeping within budget.

Obviously, you can’t bend steel beams like rubber; you have to have some kind of structure, which means that there are always tradeoffs between different goals. It’s not just about aesthetics. Every decision the architect makes will impact on some other aspect of the project.

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