Realism, leading to Activism

Continuing in my recent theme of activist architecture … I bring you “realism,” the philosophical concept which spurs artists and architects to new interest in relating to the conditions and problems of the world around them and results in much more socially engaged work.

Realism: Philosophy

Philosophers have long debated the existence of a distinct, objective reality.  By “reality” they generally mean a world out there that exists independently from individual and interior perceptions.  Realist philosophers believe that there is a single reality out there that people all get more or less skewed impressions of  through their senses.  This as opposed to the idea that there is no there out there; we all internally generate our impressions of a world.

I won’t get into the details here but suffice it to say that the first idea generally leads to better behavior towards the rest of that “reality” outside of our own selves than does, say, the Cartesian view that nothing really exists except the mind of the philosopher. (More on my hatred of Rene Descartes at another time.)

Realism: Art

“The American who is useful as an artist is one who studies his own life and records his experiences.”

Robert Henri (1923)1

The definition of “realism” as applied to Art is broad to the point of all-inclusiveness and covers styles and periods ranging from fifteenth century Flemish painters to contemporary artists of all media. Each ‘realist’ artist tries to show something of the real world they believe lies all around them and their art is created by “the filtering of their perceptions through their individual intellects, skill sets, training, regional influences, ethnic influences and basis nurturing.2

Socially-oriented realism originated in Europe in the mid 19th century (as a reaction against the prevailing  Romantic style) and flourished in America during the early 20th century under the brushes of the Ashcan School painters who wanted to portray the gritty, pulsing life they found around them in bustling New York and used their art for “editorializing and muckraking.”3

Cliff Dwellers by George BellowsHere’s an example: the 1913 painting, Cliff Dwellers, by George Bellows depicts a congested street scene in a New York tenement area, the foreground packed with children, vendors, workers and city buses and residents hanging out of windows and on tiny balconies going up many stories.  Quite the dramatic departure from the opera or cafe scenes favored by Impressionist contemporaries.

According to Bellows, “there are only three things in demand of a painter: to see things, to feel them and to dope them out for the public.  You can learn more in painting one street scene than in six month’s work in an atelier.”4

Realism: Architecture

But architecture, “the art…which reaches most deeply into the real requirements of life,” still lagged behind, caught up in the imitation of past styles and lacking “truth in form, and Realism in the expression of materials and construction.”

Karl Scheffler5

Although realism is not exactly a “school” or “style” of architecture it was established as a movement in the late nineteenth century when architects began to question the relevance of historical styling for contemporary buildings.   Realist architects like Gottfried Semper, Albert Hofmann and Otto Wagner prioritized program over aesthetics and “style.”  With their departure from historicist conventions of style they paved the way for modern architecture.

Realism: Activist Architecture

What began as a rejection of irrelevantly historicist styling has now extended to a wider acknowledgment of difficult truths about our economy and environment.  Now, as never before, architects and designers are observing  that a wider swath of humanity is in need of design services in what Jason Pearson describes as a widespread, “recognition of the inadequacy of conventional design strategies and practice models to address the full complexity of contemporary social, political, and environmental challenges.”6

Architecture remains primarily focused on the needs of the clients who commission architectural services rather than the community at large  but this may be starting to change.   A new generation of designers has become frustrated with architecture “for the very few,” putting “the benefits of design … out of reach for most.” Bryan Bell is one of many whose disenchantment with the world of high design led him to seek a broader base of ‘clients.’  As a young designer, he was disturbed to learn that only “2% of new home buyers worked directly with an architect.”  It seemed obvious that this 2% represented only the most wealthy and privileged Americans.  The other 98%, especially those in the lowest socioeconomic levels would probably benefit most from design services.  His organization, Design Corps, organizes an annual conference, Structures for Inclusion, to promote community oriented design.7

Similarly, Sam Mockbee founded the Rural Studio in 1992 to get architecture students at Auburn University out of the classroom, the realm of “paper architecture,” and into the real landscape of Alabama where they could build with their hands and work with the extremely underserved population of Hale County, Alabama.8

The projects of the Rural Studio have become symbols of a larger movement in design. Now, architecture students visit them as if on pilgrimage.  Here’s me and a passel of other architecture students from the University of Minnesota at the Rural studio in 2007.

So …

For the realist painters of the Ashcan school their personal philosophy meant expanding their subject matter to explore and represent the world they saw around them.  Architects can benefit from the same inspiration, using a solid grounding in correspondence to reality to see beyond the needs of an immediate client and make their designs relevant to the wider world.  In our production oriented profession, an infusion of philosophy might result in a stronger design practice for the future.


I got started thinking about this subject when a friend from grad school and I recently submitted a paper to the upcoming Architecture + Philosophy conference on the subject of Realism.  My co-author, Aaron Squadroni, is an Adjunct Faculty member at the UMN College of Design and a talented artist who recently had a fascinating exhibit at the school.  Aaron has a background in philosophy and he tackled the sections on Realism as a philosophical discipline and Realism in early to mid-twentieth century modern architecture.  Today I stuck to the areas I researched, namely Realism in early twentieth century art and how it can be identified in recent socially conscious design movements today.

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