Architecture is not sculpture; it should be more than a visual form. However, contemporary buildings and ultra-modern architectural designs might be blurring the limits between these two art forms.

Unlike sculpture, architecture is a practical art, which means that it operates under a different group of limitations than sculpture, painting, poetry or dance.

Almost all architecture critics over the last two centuries have agreed that the interior space is the defining factor in architecture. Buildings need to facilitate the activities taking place inside them, such as office work, education, entertainment or government, while ensuring people’s comfort and safety, resisting and adapting to different weather conditions and preserving the natural and built environment.

Frank Gehry Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain (1997)

In looking at some modern building designs, however, it is hard to know whether architects are prioritizing the function or the form. Many projects are facing strong criticism, as was the case with Frank Gehry’s University of Technology Dr Chau Chak Wing Building, which is now under construction in Sydney.

Architects are being accused of trying to impose some overall “vision” that no one seems to understand in an attempt to stand out from the crowd. Great engineering complexity and additional dollars are required to make these unique and innovative designs work.

Some people have argued that these kind of buildings should be categorized as sculptures instead of architecture.

Frank Gehry’s silver building in Düsseldorf

Frank Gehry’s silver building in Düsseldorf.

While people’s appreciation of various types of architecture may vary, it is often easy to distinguish between what is architecture and what is just construction. Nobody doubts, for example, that a gothic chapel or a Venetian palace is an excellent and unquestionable example of architecture, while a great petrol tank of similar dimensions does not deserve such consideration.

In the same way, it should be possible to find values that allow us to distinguish between what is architecture, and what is more like a sculpture of huge dimensions. Architecture and sculpture are both three-dimensional arts, but sculpture has many characteristics that a piece of architecture does not share.

Traditionally, sculpture stands alone as a piece of art; it is not inhabited by human beings and no activity is intended to take place inside it. In addition, there are no human safety requirements for sculpture, which is typically not placed side by side with existing sculptures, often from different time periods.

Hotel Marques de Riscal

Hotel Marques de Riscal – A Luxury Collection Hotel in Elciego, Spain, designed by Frank Gehry.

Moreover, there are no systems for water, air, light, electricity and telecommunications inside a sculpture. Sculptures typically do not use energy and the resource efficiency of a sculpture is not determined by its form.

Italian Architect Bruno Zevi, one of the most important architecture critics of the 20th century, alluded to the differences between sculpture and architecture when writing about the Parthenon in his book Introduzione all’architettura.

“Those who investigate the Greek temple in an architectonical way, looking only for a space conception, will have to flee horrified, considering it as a typical example of not-architecture,” he wrote. “But those who approach the Parthenon and contemplate it as a great sculpture will stay admired as in front of the best works ever created by the human genius.”

As many would agree, this consideration of the Parthenon as not-architecture would fit many of the most celebrated structures of today, where the buildings’ showy exteriors turn them into modern temples.

Metro station in Riyadh by Zaha Hadid

Metro station in Riyadh by Zaha Hadid

In architecture, the emphasis should be placed on the importance of both exterior and interior design, creating a remarkable spatial experience for the user or visitor. Architecture also has to adapt to the natural and built environment in which it is inserted.

Architects can be artists and abstract thinkers, but what should set them apart is the ability to transform those concepts into something functional and real.