The Architectural Image: An Interview with David M. Schwarz

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The National Building Museum opened an exhibition titled The Architectural Image, 1920–1950: Prints, Drawings, and Paintings from a Private Collection. The person behind the collection was David M. Schwarz, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based firm David M. Schwarz Architects, which has a large portfolio of projects across the country. National Building Museum Online interviewed Mr. Schwarz about his collection and its relationship to his professional work.

National Building Museum Online (NBM Online): How and when did you begin collecting?

David Schwarz (DS): I started collecting art when I was in my early teens. At first, my collecting was a little haphazard. When I was in my early twenties, I discovered that art collections need to have a focus. So I sold everything that didn’t fit with the theme that most interested me, which was urban images. It’s that collection that I started when I was 14 and have been working on ever since.

NBM Online: It’s extraordinary that you began collecting so early. How did that come about?

DS: My father was an art collector. I had grown up in a family that had a high reverence for art. My father had an extensive collection, and was probably one of the larger collectors of Edvard Munch prints at that point in time. Collecting was something that was a part of my upbringing.

NBM Online: What is your collecting strategy? Has that strategy changed over time?

DS: I don’t know that I have a strategy per se. I am very interested in artistic interpretations of the built environment. So much of my life is about making buildings. I’m not so interested in looking at my own buildings, but I am interested in seeing other people’s interpretations of the built environment. I find it very enriching.

NBM Online: What advice would you have for people who are just beginning to collect art?

DS: At any price level there’s always good art. I think you should buy what you love. At the moment, fashion has become too instrumental in art collecting. I don’t think that in the long run fashion dictates which art will last and what will be good. Buy what you love, and buy the best of what you can afford to buy, and buy with a focused intent. I think the most unsatisfying collections are those that don’t have a theme.

NBM Online: Are there items in your collection that have particularly strong resonance for you personally?

DS: It’s interesting: this is a place where my art collecting and my architecture have a very similar place in my psyche. There is no one building of mine that is of seminal importance to me—rather, it’s how they talk to each other over time and space. It’s the same with my art collection. The art is more important as a whole. There are some [works] that have an emotional connection to me, but it’s because of the circumstances of their acquisition rather than their subject matter.

NBM Online: How has your collecting influenced your work as an architect, and vice versa?

DS: I don’t know that either has affected the other specifically. I think they come from the same sensibility. I think that the art I collect explores some of the same themes as the buildings I design. The linear or rectilinear nature of the art collect is important—one thing a lot of the images have in common is their verticality. One of the things we tried hard to do in our [architectural] work is to accentuate the vertical, which can be hard to do in Washington, D.C. I think these prints explore some of those same notions—a balance of the horizontal and the vertical.

NBM Online: Why do you think architecture has long been such a popular subject for artists, particularly during the early 20th century?

DS: I tend to think of architectural art as being another form of landscape—it’s just an urban landscape as opposed to a rural landscape. If you look at 18th-century painting, the rural landscape was celebrated. As we came into the 20th century, it became more about machines for living. We became a much less agrarian society after World War I, which had a huge impact on the world—the death of the British Empire, the rise of the machine, the beginning of urbanization. I think that era came to an end with World War II and the birth of the suburb.

NBM Online: What does your collection reveal about the time period between 1920 and 1950?

DS: I think if one looks at the imagery of the built environment over time, the way we celebrate it has changed. Art between the wars was really about fantasy and reality—a celebration of the works of man. Man can control his environment. I think that was a pervasive view in the interwar period, which continued through the 1960s. It’s interesting to note that when Disney was founded, it was all about the future—what can happen, what will happen. Now it’s all about nostalgia. It’s all about looking backward.

Art both leads and reflects how we are thinking about ourselves at the point it is made. I think the art in my collection talks about the heroic nature of the creations of men.