Monday, October 3, 2011


A few years years back, just before the real estate bubble burst, a housing tract inspired by mass artist Thomas Kinkade’s bucolic townscapes and happy-happy cottages opened near Vallejo, California. Many people found this idea amusing, if not horrifying. But while there’s much that can be said about Kinkade’s trademark painting style--none of which I’ll say here--there’s nothing new about architecture being influenced by art.  It’s been happening for centuries.  

During the 1600s, for instance, the dynamic forms, layering of space, and dramatic use of light found in Baroque painting enormously influenced concurrent Baroque architecture.  In the middle of the next century, the Italian G. B. Piranesi’s engravings of ancient Rome foreshadowed the rise of Romantic Classicism, an architectural style whose austere, sharply-drawn classical forms went on to dominate the 1800s.  

Piranesi’s Carceri, a volume of engravings containing eerily atmospheric depictions of imaginary ruins, was especially influential to a branch of Romantic Classicism known as the Sublime.  Set in motion in the late 1700s by the otherworldly designs of the Frenchmen C.-N. Ledoux and and L.-E. Boullee--many never built, some perhaps not even buildable--architects of the Sublime school used stark geometric forms raised to colossal scale to evoke feelings of awe bordering on apprehension.  

Meanwhile, a romantic style of landscape painting gave rise to architecture’s Picturesque movement, whose work aimed to capture the rustic charm of naturalistic art in three dimensions.  An early Picturesque landmark of 1744, the English garden of Stourhead, was in fact literally based on a landscape painting by Claude Lorrain done a century earlier.  Later Picturesque works in England, such as the thatch-roofed peasant cottages conjured up by royal architect John Nash in 1811, continued to exploit the romance of Picturesque art--perhaps the closest historical parallel to those tract homes based on Kinkade’s work.

While representational art might seem more likely to inspire architects, abstract art has had, if anything, a more powerful influence.  During the Teens, the work of the Futurists--an art movement that deified technology to an almost nauseating degree--was soon reflected in the architecture of the Russian Constructivists, whose startling mechanistic projects of the Twenties might have been widely influential had they not lost favor with Joseph Stalin soon afterward. 

The Modernist architects Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius had close links with both Expressionism and with the Dutch movement known as de Stijl (Corbusier himself was a painter early in his career).  The rectilinear geometries of de Stijl artists such as Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg profoundly influenced Modernist floor plans and elevations, many of which resembled abstract art in themselves.  

Unlike most of the foregoing examples, of course, Kinkade hardly represents the artistic vanguard of his era.  Still, the fact that many laypersons--not to speak of critics--consider his work banal doesn’t mean Kinkade’s influence can be dismissed.  Norman Rockwell’s paintings were long considered to be sentimental dreck;  critics pointedly referred to Rockwell as an “illustrator”, refusing to dignify his work with the label of art.  Today, in the more generous light of retrospect, Rockwell is widely considered an American original.  

Whether you love it or hate it, Kinkade’s work seems to have the same sort of mainstream appeal that Rockwell’s art once did, and his status may someday be equally enhanced by time.  Whether this bodes a coming generation of candyland cottages, their windows all aglow, we can only imagine. 

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