The student voice of the Knowlton School of Architecture

The Ignored Vernacular

Photo: Eli Ramirez, Illustration: Adam Welker

by Adam Welker

As the architect uses form and void to create his art, he is often unaware of the unintentional canvas his building creates for other artists. Graffiti is an art form that is mostly ignored in architecture. If considered, it becomes the degradation of an architect’s work; a grievance which is to be discouraged at all costs. There are many ways to thwart graffiti artists; installing lights, surveillance, gardens, and automatic sprinkler systems. Cities develop huge task forces, at the tax-payers’ expense, to eliminate the spread of graffiti and immediately remove the offending artwork. Have we considered that perhaps we’re stunting a visually compelling voice of the city, and destroying what is essentially a free en-plein-air gallery?

This is assuming, of course, that we believe graffiti can be beautiful; that it can be an interesting look into the unarticulated psyche of the community looking for a mode of expression. However, just as there is a difference between shelter/enclosure and capital ‘A’ architecture, not all graffiti is ‘art’. The chicken-scratch “tags” that blanket any downtown area are evidence of this. Anyone can carve their initials into their desk. But even the lowly tag can become elevated to art with attention and thought to design, detail, and just plain physical height–by putting it in a ridiculously hard to reach area. Graffiti also has the ability to carry a timely, thought provoking message. For example, Florida saw an explosion of graffiti responding to BP after the recent oil spill. Graffiti can be encouraging, offering kind advice or providing social critique. Finally, graffiti can just be damn-impressive, a work of tempered skill and attention.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of people out there that want graffiti to be stopped. Justifiably, landowners want to protect their investments and prevent their building from being defaced. But that’s not going to stop graffiti artists. The formation of a graffiti task force becomes a challenge to the artist to overcome ‘the man’ and bedeck the protected canvas. Can’t we come up with a way to re-direct this creative output in a more constructive way? Cities that have problems with skateboarders build skate parks. Skateboarders then have a place to call their own, and are less likely to knock down Aunt Wanda as she’s pushing her grocery cart down the sidewalk. This may go against the sociology of the act, as graffiti is often the result of defiance, a need to rebel, or simply done for an adrenaline rush. But where have graffiti parks been attempted?

A quick Google search dredges up few examples. Long Island has a building called “Da Five Pointz”, where graffiti artists are allowed, via a permit from the building owner, to display their work. This poses an interesting idea for reclamation projects. Old buildings slated for demolition could become temporary city-sanctioned galleries. Hundertwasser coined an idea of personal art space he called the “Window Right”:

“A person in a rented apartment must be able to lean out of his window and scrape off the masonry within arm’s reach. And he must be allowed to take a long brush and paint everything outside within arm’s reach. So that it will be visible from afar to everyone in the street that someone lives there who is different from the imprisoned, enslaved, standardised man who lives next door.”

Hundertwasser’s idea was on the right track, but it is mostly superficial as he still had some level of control over the art. We could also look to Herman Hertzberger. In many cases, his architecture was more of a framework for its inhabitants to customize. For example, he encouraged the residents of his LiMa Housing Complex to take broken tiles and create their own courtyard mosaics. A more recent example is the “Free Speech Monument” in Charlottesville, VA, a large public chalkboard where citizens can write or draw whatever they please. This temporary form of self-expression is washed clean every few weeks. A similar installation by Mary Miss can be seen here at Ohio State, out front of Evans Laboratory on 18th and College Ave.

Architecture may be against graffiti, but perhaps takes more inspiration from the medium than we think. Herzog & de Meuron come to mind. There are obvious connections in their work to graffiti. Think Cottbus Library and 40 Bond St. This sort of give-and-take between architecture and graffiti is a one-way street; architects can borrow from graffiti, but the graffiti artist is pushed away from the architect’s work. In architecture, we are extremely concerned with fitting into the existing fabric and vernacular of a site. I’d posit that the graffiti in an area should also be considered as part of the vernacular. In fact, places like New York should celebrate that vernacular, as recognized by Herzog & de Meuron at 40 Bond St.

Graffiti is inevitable. It has been an inescapable art form since ancient times and is not fading anytime soon. Why fight it? An architect typically doesn’t sign their name on a building, but that level of ownership can be claimed by the common tourist scrawling, “Bob wuz here ‘89!” Can’t we build in such a way to encourage graffiti artists to cover our buildings with beautiful artwork? Rather than promote the sacrosanct blank white wall of modernism, why not invest in it; as a blank, white canvas?

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