Skip to content

Art In Architecture Essays

“Building contra Image,” an extensive interview with Richard Serra that Hal Foster includes in his recent collection of essays, focuses on the artist’s work and its relationship to space and architecture. Serra recounts how Romanesque churches in Europe have informed his sculpture and how Zen gardens have opened up the perceptual field: one moves through an undifferentiated field (a Pollock painting, for instance) by articulating the details, and then the eye returns to perceiving the entire field. Similarly, lost within the maze of Serra’s steel spirals, the viewer only afterward is able to reconstruct the entire object in their mind.

Both Serra’s artistic evolution and Foster’s premise regarding the ambiguity of the relationship between art and architecture are indebted to Rosalind Krauss’s seminal 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” In “Image Building,” Foster looks at Pop art’s evolution in the late ’50s in London and its influence on a group of British architects and, later, at Robert Venturi’s brilliant opposition framing architecture as either “Duck”—referring to a building in Long Island that looks like a giant duck, where eggs are sold—or “Decorated Shed”—think of a roadside stand with a big sign saying Eat Here. Foster calls this a Reaganesque “deceptive populism” and includes the CCTV building in Beijing by Rem Koolhaas as a late example of a “building as Pop sign.” Venturi’s Duck has become decoration, as in Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, and his Decorated Shed has become Duck, as in the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The “Decorated Duck” synthesis prevails as a winning formula for global architects.

For Foster, Richard Rogers’s Millennium Dome represents the inherent contradiction of the desire to approach public space as a public good. In “Pop Civics,” Foster’s question is pertinent: does the do-good altruism of some architects have its dark side? And looking at the expressionistic branch of pop architecture, the critic notes how Zaha Hadid used Kazimir Malevich paintings as a stylistic basis for architectural renderings in her brilliant early watercolors, whereas her current renderings are descriptive digital animations meant to seduce corporate clients. Minimalist museums are regarded by the general public as the paragon of an architecture that is an illuminated jewel of mysterious ambiance—commodity fetishism at a grand scale.

In my view, all this transparency and elegant, misty luminosity is as opaque as a brick wall. I highly recommend this book and only wish Foster had included an essay on Aldo Rossi’s “La Archittectura de La Citta,” from 1966. This could have opened up the discussion to include the expanded field of the city as a work of art.

Essays and Articles on the Social Art of Architecture

The essays and articles below by "seasoned" thinkers provide a unique on-line resource for study.  When these thoughts are read in combination with winning student essays, it is more then abundantly clear the scope and importance of the fact that architecture is a social art.


Each year the Berkeley Prize Committee invites a distinguished professor or scholar in the field of architecture or the related social sciences to write about some aspect of the year's Berkeley Prize topic.

These essays serve several purposes:

  • They are meant to help focus students' thoughts on the issues surrounding the year's Question.
  • They are a model for excellence in writing.
  • They exhibit both how defined and how broad the range of possible response to a Question.

List of Essays

Anthony Schuman: Toward an Architecture of Solidarity 

Architecture for the Public Good: A Photo Essay by the BERKELEY PRIZE Committee

Paul Broches: A Gentle Push Toward Design for Everyone

John Cary: 2011 Commencement Address, College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley

Benjamin Clavan: Creating Architectural Monuments

Charles Debbas: Zimbabwe Childcare Centers: A Collaboration between the International Child Resource Institute and Debbas Architecture

Tom Fisher: Public-Interest Architecture: A Needed and Inevitable Change

Lance Hosey: The role of the street in fostering social life

Nathan Koren: Architecture in Reverse: Building the Pyramid from the Top Down

Raymond Lifchez: A Digital Archive of the Architecture of Charity (view exhibit) (view essay)

Michael Pyatok: Personal Choices, Social Purpose

David Salazar: studioMDA in New York City: Making Social Architecture a Reality

Statements Regarding the 2004 Berkeley Prize Question


Articles of interest to those concerned with the social art of architecture from the general press are posted periodically on the BERKELEY PRIZE Facebook page.  The growing number of these articles attest to the fact that there is now more public discussion (and more in-depth discussion) about the role of architecture in the social and cultural life of the world's population.

List of Articles


  • From the current issue of ARCHITECT magazine, published in the United States in association with the American Institute of Architects, a few words about the future of architectural discussion by the architectural critic for the NEW YORK TIMES that reinforces the idea that architecture is, ultimately, a social art.                      
    "Social Agent/Expanding Architecture's Discourse"
  • Jargon interferes with our appreciation of the art that has perhaps the most impact on us.  "Why don't we read about architecture?" is the question asked by Allison Arieff in this recent online opinion piece - and yearly by the BERKELEY PRIZE.  Arieff argues that jargon interferes with our appreciation of the art that has perhaps the most impact on us. (From the New York Times Opinionator blog). 
    "Why Don't We Read About Architecture"
  • The Curry Stone Design Prize was created to recognize that designers can be a force for improving people's lives.  Read about this year's winners from around the world and how the prize not only rewards ingenuity, but it is also rewarding bottom up social change.  (From Huffington Post's IMPACT internet newspaper)
    "Curry Stone Design Prize: Design with a Mission."
  • The exhibition "Design with the Other 90%: CITIES," organized by the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, is currently on display through January 12, 2012 at the United Nations in New York City. Curator Cynthia Smith's in-depth assessment, adapted from her catalogue essay, of the research that took her to Asia, Africa and Latin America explores innovations in humanitarian design and describes how she found many examples of hybrid solutions that work "to bridge the formal and informal city" and to make the planet's rapidly growing cities "more just and humane." (From DESIGN OBSERVER, 10.20.11) .  Read a review of this survey of Design for the Public Good from around the world in the New York Times.
  • In a shift from a time when New York City hired only the lowest bidders for civic projects, dozens of new city buildings have been designed by gifted architects...for the public good.
    "New York's Public Architecture gets a Facelift"
  • One attempt at making city streets more pedestrian friendly by greening  the hard cityscape quickly, cheaply, and creatively.
    "Tiny Parks are on a Roll in San Francsico"
  • One of the best summaries of the state of humanitarian design today, part of ARCHITECT magazine's September 2011 issue on Natural Disasters: Architecture to the Rescue.
    "Altruism, Architecture & Disaster"
  • BERKELEY PRIZE Committee Member John Cary on public-private art pieces.
    "The next growth industry in America? Public-private arts projects"
  • Opinion piece by BERKELEY PRIZE Committee Member John Cary: "Architect Barbie" fails to address the very real gender gap in architecture.
    "'Architect Barbie' builds a dream home, but her profession needs a makeover"
  • Read the recent editorial, 'Apple's philanthropy needs a reboot', co-authored by John Cary, a BERKELEY PRIZE Committee member.
    "Apple's philanthropy needs a reboot"
  • Read about this United Nations effort to tie colleges around the world together in the pursuit of, among other ideals, the organization's Millenium Development Goals. These precepts provide a foundation for the social art of architecture.
    The United Nations Academic Impact initiative
  • It is not pretty, but here is some imaginative thinking about how to let cities grow naturally and incrementally.
    "New York's Low-Tech, Low-Cost, High-Style DeKalb Market"
  • Read about an architect who has gained international fame by thinking about design in its essence as first a social art.
    "The Ascension of Peter Zumthor"
  • From one of the United States' premiere intellectual journals, an article about the need for more skyscrapers that barely addresses the issues of the day-to-day lives of all those who would be asked to call these new structures 'home'.
     "How Skyscrapers Can Save the City"
  • Eye-sores to eye-catchers?
    "Cities embrace temporary fixes for stalled construction projects"
  • A great audio piece about "Privately Owned Public Open Spaces," little sacred spots scattered throughout the city, from the fabulous 99% Invisible.
    "99% Private at 99% Invisible"
  • Contested semantics around calling the Cordoba a "Mosque-Cathedral," and the history of a place that has been sacred to two faiths.
    "In Córdoba, ‘Mosque-Cathedral’ Reflects Clash of Faiths"
  • Mad Men, the critically-acclaimed United State's television series, is more than just a period piece about Madison Avenue, New York in the 1960s. The social art of architecture hits the airwaves!
    "In 'Mad Men,' fewer places to hide"
  • A report on a current attempt to tie together sustainability and the social art of architecture in the Mid-East.
    "In Arabian Desert, a Sustainable City Rises"