Figurative And Abstract Art In Architecture – A Discussion

ARTS105-Figurative and Abstract Art in Architecture

Figurative and Abstract Art in Architecture

Every architectural style or theme has a purpose. The art phenomenon appeared about 30,000 years ago and since then, human beings have constantly created and appreciated artworks (Aviv, 2014). In general, the history of art and architecture is very diverse. What stands out is that most of the architectural styles used in modern architecture originated from traditional styles developed in previous centuries. Figurative and abstract art were a trend in sculpture and painting in the 20th century. The two represented different architectural styles and have had a great impact on contemporary art. The relationship between art and architecture cannot be overemphasized. As a matter of fact, architecture can be said to be art. Artwork, including sculpture, painting, installation or visualization, increases aesthetic value of architectural drawings or spaces. Therefore the combination of art and architecture beautifies structures.

Figurative and abstract art are both visual arts, which have been in existence throughout history. Nevertheless, these two forms of art are different in a wide range of ways. One of these ways is the conceptual processes used by figurative (representational) and abstract (non-representational) artists when preparing or describing their artwork (Sullivan, 2009). It must also be understood that people have different emotional responses to any kind of artwork, whether visual or otherwise. This is why people find some artworks to be more compelling or beautiful than others (van Paasschen, et al., 2015). The visual elements of artworks are the ones that trigger the viewers’ emotions. The viewers usually have emotional responses to a variety of features of the artwork, including simple geometric shapes that have no particular context. For example, sharp angles such as triangles and arrows were deemed to be threatening, whereas round shapes like circles were considered to be pleasant (Larson, et al., 2012); (Silvia & Barona, 2009).

Figurative art is a form of representational artwork, mainly comprising of sculptures and paintings, whose sources are derived from real world objects or figures particularly human forms. Figurative art is dependent on several formal elements, including shape, light, color, line, mass, volume, perspective and texture of people, objects and landscapes. These elements are design elements that create aesthetic effects i.e. illusion or impression of space and form. . An example of figurative art is shown in Figure 1 below


Figure 1: An example of figurative art  (The Art Story, 2018)

From Figure 2 above, the viewer automatically sees a female figure at the front of the image, some grass in the middle and building structures at the back. This can be seen by anybody irrespective of their knowledge in art or architecture. In other words, the art in this image represents a young girl, grass and building structures. These objects along qualify the image to be a form of figurative art because it contains real world objects. Looking at this illustration, it can be described as the girl was playing at their home or hiding from someone who was in or near the building structures.  

Conceptual Processes in Figurative and Abstract Art

According to art professionals, cinematic representation if a form of figurative art that portrays temporal properties (Abell, 2010). Figurative artists engage with their viewers in a conversation by depicting a series of landscapes, people or objects (i.e. they use metaphorical expressions or terms). These systems are illustrated by considering elements such as symmetry, balance, composition and dimensions, which are very essential in architecture.

Abstract is non-representational form of artwork. This form of art is not derived from real objects or figures. The main objective of abstract art was to secede from the old-style illustration of physical objects. This was achieved by exploring the relationships of colors and forms. Therefore abstract art went against the traditional rules of art. Instead of focusing on representational and figurative depictions, abstract artists and painters emphasized on composition, color and emotion. Additionally, abstract artists and painters put more emphasis in the process rather than the completed works. Some of the artists who played a key role in promoting abstract art and significantly changed how people looked at painting include: Wassily Kandinsky (Russian painter), Piet Mondrian (Dutch artist), Robert Delaunay, Jackson Pollock (American artist), Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, among others (Richman-Abdou, 2017). These artists and painters focused more on geometric shapes, vibrant colors and floating lines. An example of abstract art is shown in Figure 2 below


Figure 2: An example of abstract art  (The Art Story, 2018)

Looking at the image in Figure 2 above, it is not easy for any viewer to tell the meaning or message expressed by the artist in this artwork. This is the reason why abstract art is usually said to be non-representational. In other words, the painting does not represent any definite object unless the artist him/herself explains the message behind it.

Abstract art was one of the greatest catalysts of contemporary art or modernism. The forward-thinking and celebrated artists of the 20th century who were the pioneers of abstract art started movements against traditional rules of art. These movements led to what was referred to as Abstract Expressionism that started in 1943 and ended in 1965 (, 2018). Abstract Expressionism completely changed the art industry not only in America but all over the world. The Abstract Expressionists mainly pushed for freedom of expression, and this earned them international recognition (Butler, 2014). Their argument was that art is a form of expression and therefore artists needed to have that of freedom of expressing their inner feelings and creativity without being limited with rules taught in class (academic art) (Zucker, 2014). Some of the notable leaders of Abstract Expressionism included Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Barnett Newman and Elaine de Kooning (Mann, 2018). The dominance of Abstract Expressionism in the U.S. increased during 1950s when the U.S. government embraced the style and promoted it as a reflection of her individualism, democracy and cultural achievement. Abstract Expressionists created their artworks by using paint to create canvasses through which they expressed their emotional character without using real world representation (Hajali, 2016). Just like figurative artists, abstract artists also engage with their viewers in a conversation but by using canvasses or materials.

Emotional Responses to Art

Abstract artists do not make any attempt to represent accurate illustration of visual reality but they use forms, colors, gestural marks and shapes to attain its effect. In most cases, abstract art is inclined to painting. This makes it quite difficult for viewers to understand and appreciate the art because it does not have any discernable subject nor depict a specific object. Therefore the art does not communicate with the viewer directly. Nevertheless, this does not in any way mean that abstract art has no meaning. It is only that it requires viewers to move away from the traditional notion of painting where it usually represents an image of somebody or something. Abstract art does not imitate real world objects. Therefore for one to understand the concept behind a particular abstract artwork, he/she will be able to appreciate what the painting actually is – shapes, color, emotions and surface on canvas.

Figure 3 below is an example of abstract painting by one of the pioneers of abstract art – Wassily Kandinsky. The painting was done in 1910 and is said to be the first abstract painting (, (n.d.)). The painting comprises of brightly colored spots, lines and smears that do not portray any object or subject. Many artists were inspired by this painting and they started focusing on using art to express their inner feelings instead of subject matter. Since then, abstract art has always been used to stimulate a person’s thoughts, imaginations, ideas and beliefs (Creative Bloq, 2014).


Figure 3: Abstract painting by Wassily Kandinsky

To appreciate abstract art, one must understand abstract art’s general objective. According to abstract artists, it is not mandatory to have a definite traditional subject for one to create art but instead what is required are colors, geometrical shapes and lines (Gersh-Nesic, 2017). The works of abstract artists are usually influenced or inspired by their experiences, immediate surroundings and emotions. The biggest task of these artists is to ensure that the canvasses they create are able to effectively reflect the situation so as to stir viewers’ emotions. Another unique characteristic of abstract art is that viewers are not expected to comprehend the intentions of the artist. For them to understand the intentions of the artist, they must talk to the artist for explanation. For this reason, viewers of abstract art are advised to stop attempting to understand what the artwork is or means but instead focus on figuring out how it makes them feel.     

Figurative Art

The images in Figure 4 below are examples of abstract paintings that were done by different artists. The painting on the left was done by R.B Murari in 2009 while the one on the right was done by Piet Mondrian in 1921. The painting on the left is just by harmonious and glorious intermingling of red, yellow and green colors. There also seems to be rivalry of colors where yellow dominates some parts of the painting while other parts are dominated by red. The tussle between colors is also brought out clearly by the paint layers. In this painting, color is the only and main subject. The painting on the right demonstrates a relatively different style of abstract art. Looking at this painting, hard black lines have been used to divide the painting into compartments of different color fields. The main subject of this painting is mathematical precision and geometry, which make reference to line, color and form. Unlike in the painting on the left, this painting does not depict any rivalry between colors, forms or lines. Abstract art is now largely being used in interior design where colors, shapes and lines are rearranged to create stunning images.   


Figure 4: Examples of abstract paintings ( (Understanding Paintings, 2009); (, (n.d.)))

The image in Figure 5 below is another example of how figurative art is used in architecture. In this figure, the figurative artist considered several elements of architecture, such as dimensions, shape and arrangement of shapes. The structure, which is a building, consists of a combination of different shapes, including circular, rectangular, cylindrical, square and curved shapes. All these shapes are of different sizes (dimensions). The elements are arranged such that the smaller ones are on top while the bigger ones are at the bottom. In architecture and engineering, this helps in lowering the center of gravity thus increasing the stability of the structure. It is also important to note that symmetry has been applied in this structure as it can be divided into two equal halves vertically.     


Figure 5: An image of figurative art

The debate on which architectural form between figurative art and abstract art is better than the other is never ending. This is mainly because of perception or perspective of the viewer (Ahola, 2008), just like it is the case for product brands where some consumers have trust in certain products and are willing to pay for more even without being sure of their quality standards (Uusitalo & Ahola, 2008). However, most of non-expert art viewers tend to prefer figurative or representative art more than abstract art (Uusitalo, et al., 2009). This is because of several reasons among them being that with figurative art, the viewers are able to understand the meaning of the artwork regardless of their level of knowledge because they represent physical images of objects or humans.

Abstract Art

Figurative and abstract art has always been present in architecture. Artists always express their beliefs or opinions publicly through artwork. They can hide very strong messages in the artwork. The messages can be political, cultural, moral or even religious. On the other hand, these messages can also just have an amusing character where the artist leave his/her personal spot on the artwork (Docevski, 2017).  

Architectural works since the ancient times have been seen as works of art and cultural symbols. Today, architecture is being seen and used as art (both figurative and abstract art). Architects are now using art to express their beliefs, opinions and emotions. This has created a harmonious relationship between art and architecture. When most of the buildings found in the built environment are scrutinized closely, they reveal how architecture is a form of art. This art is visual art, which can be figurative art or abstract art. The artworks integrated onto or into the buildings only feel integral if they are properly suited to the space.   

Modern architecture is fundamentally a combination of figurative and abstract art, that is, it combines abstraction and representation. When people walk into buildings, whether residential or commercial, it is very common to see painting hanging or pinned on interior surfaces. These paintings may be impacted by natural or artificial light sources, changing their depictions and impacts. These artworks are usually used for decorative purposes both inside and outside buildings. The photos in Figure 6 below are examples of artworks in architecture. The mages portray a variety of artworks, mainly of figurative art. These artworks make the indoor and outdoor spaces look more beautiful, which is the main objective of architecture. The figurative art in the image on the left is located where it is directly impacted by natural lighting to make it more visible to people entering the building. The various figurative artworks in the image on the right also make the outdoor space of the building more attractive and pleasing. Color is the main element of abstract art that has been used in the figure on the right. An expected, green is dominant in landscaping to make the building more compatible with the external environment.      


Figure 6: Examples of artworks in architecture (Swartz, 2014)

Architects have the freedom of using their imagination and inspiration to create extremely visually stunning forms that have no relation to anything that existed before. However, they must also put the function and purpose of the structure first (Davies, 2014). Next is to ensure that the structure relates impeccably with the landscape or the environment where it is situated. They also have to ensure that they select materials properly considering factors such as functionality, availability, cost and sustainability. Last but not last is to consider the cultural beliefs and architectural tradition and/or styles of the area. This simply means that application of figurative and abstract art in architecture should be guided by proper art principles.

Pioneers of Abstract Art

Figure 7 and 8 below are examples of some of the world’s famous buildings. These buildings are famous because of their exceptional architectural designs, which combine art and architecture. The building in Figure 7 is Lotus Temple located in New Delhi. Construction of the building was completed in 1986. The building comprises of 27 structures each resembling lotus flower’s petals. This is pure figurative art. When someone looks at this building, he/she can easily know that it represents petals of lotus flower, as shown in Figure 9 below. The architect of the building, Fariborz Sahba, was inspired by flower petals, which according to Hindu tradition it symbolizes cleanliness and purity. To come up with this design, Fariborz had to convert the flower petal concepts into geometric forms like spheres, cones, toroids and cylinders.  


Figure 7: Lotus Temple (Hughes, 2017)


Figure 8: Sydney Opera House (Hughes, 2017)


Figure 9: Form and shape of Lotus Temple (Wiki Arquitectura, (n.d.))

The building in Figure 8 above is Sydney Opera House. The main architectural work of the building is its interlocking curved shells that make up the building’s roof. Looking at the building, you can easily figure out that it represents shells. According to the designer of the building, Jorn Utzon, his inspiration was nature, beauty and efficiency. Peeling an orange is what inspired him and what some people may not know is that when the shells are combined, they form a sphere as demonstrated in Figure 10 below. This kind of inspiration and imagination is what makes art and architecture more fascinating. Looking at the final structure cannot instantly or easily reveal what inspired the architect or artist to come up with the design.


Figure 10: Forms and shapes of Sydney Opera House (Technology Student, (n.d.))

Generally, figurative and abstract art are two forms of visual art that have been present in architecture since historic times. Architects use these two forms of art for symbolism, expressionism or informative purposes. For instance, art can be used in architecture to depict an area’s cultural beliefs or traditional architectural styles. Most of today’s architectural buildings are designed and constructed by combining both figurative and abstract art for interior and exterior spaces. Architects are constantly drawing inspiration from unprecedented elements or sources to come up with unique designs. They combine these designs with figurative and abstract art to create stunning structures. As a matter of fact, the most famous buildings in the world always have exceptional figurative and abstract artworks. This demonstrates the role that art, in general, plays in architecture. The fundamental different between figurate art and abstract art is that the former is representational in nature while the latter is non-representational in nature. Additionally, figurative art is easy to understand as viewers an easily relate it to real world objects, such as people or other physical items. On the other hand, abstract art is quite difficult to understand because it does not depict any physical objects but only uses form, color and lines. This usually requires the artist to explain the meaning of the abstract artwork. However, these two forms of visual art are widely used in architecture. The architects and artists always express strong messages through the figurative and abstract artworks. These may include cultural heritage, traditional beliefs, religious traditions, etc. As architects continue to create complex buildings across the world, figurative and abstract art are expected to play a more critical role in making these building stunning. One of the major objectives of architects in building projects is to increase aesthetic value of buildings and this is largely achieved through use of figurative and abstract art. Therefore the role of figurative and abstract art in architecture is inevitable and cannot be overlooked.

Abstract Expressionism


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