Spotting Good Architecture

Ancient Roman architect Vitruvius insisted that three fundamental principles are essential to architecture. His formula still holds true. A building must balance all three to be considered architecture. These three fundamental principles are as follows:

  • Function: This refers to how a building is used. Whether a building is used as a house, a store, or a museum, it must accommodate practical requirements for every purpose within its walls. A building without function may be beautiful, but it's sculpture, not architecture. Artist Richard Serra, for example, creates room-sized steel enclosures that are structurally daring and mysteriously beautiful, but you can't live in one.
  • Structure: This refers to how a building stands up. Whether it consists of steel columns, wood studs, or brick walls, the framework must resist gravity and the loads placed upon it. But to be architecture, it must do more. It must create beauty from structural necessity — this is what differentiates architecture from engineering.
  • Beauty: This refers to the visual and sensory appeal of buildings. It is what Vitruvius called "delight." Architectural delight can be found in a neatly patterned brick wall, a vaulted stone ceiling, or a tiny window emitting a stream of sunlight. Beauty is the ultimate test of good architecture. Without beauty, a highly functional building is merely utilitarian without rising to the realm of architecture. It's the difference between a suburban tract house and Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Fallingwater.

What is considered beautiful and what is considered ugly changes over time. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., designed by Edward Durrell Stone, a leading architect of his day, was considered the height of architectural beauty when it opened in 1971. Today, it's ridiculed for its boxy shape, gigantic lobbies, and modernistic decorations.

Sometimes, an architectural style that was once considered beautiful will fall out of favor, only to be rediscovered decades later. In Miami Beach, the city's once thriving Art Deco hotels fell into disrepair in the 1970s and 1980s after years of neglect. After preservationists pointed out the merits of these architectural treasures, the hotels were renovated to become hip tourist destinations. Art Deco has once again become synonymous with the beauty of Miami Beach.

Truly outstanding works of architecture never fail to wow us with their spatial power. Such structures as Stonehenge and the Parthenon are still admired for their monumentality even though they are thousands of years old.

How can you tell if a building is good architecture? You can be pretty sure that a building is good architecture if you can answer "yes" to the following questions:

  • Does it express its function in a meaningful and visually interesting way? For example, an airport may be aerodynamically streamlined to resemble flight, a museum may be sculpted into abstract shapes to represent the contemporary art inside, or an institution that values collaboration among its employees may consist of buildings grouped around a shared courtyard.
  • Does it complement or contrast with its surroundings? Good architecture does not end at its walls. The design of an individual building should relate to its environment in a unique way. Some of the best buildings aren't very noticeable right away — they use the same materials and shapes as neighboring structures but tweak them in new ways. Other buildings introduce a completely different vocabulary to call attention to the form and the function of a particular structure.
  • Is it well built? Architecture should be made to last. It's easy to discern a flimsy building from a solid one — hollow doors, shaky floors, and crooked walls give it away. But the difference between average and excellent architecture is harder to discern: It often hinges on, well, the hinges. Small details, such as door hardware, windowsills, stair railings, and even baseboards, can make or break the architecture. As modern architect Mies van der Rohe once said, "God is in the details." That's why the best architects always insist on designing every tiny thing — and then whine about clients who won't spend money on the design.
  • Does it age well? Good architecture has an essential character that remains steadfast even though the building's use and the needs of its inhabitants may change. New York's Grand Central Terminal, for example, was built with large halls for passengers waiting to board trains. Although busy commuters no longer sit in these rooms — the interior has been changed with new stores and restaurants — Grand Central still imparts the same magnificence as it did when it first opened in 1913.
  • Do the building's spaces surprise, inspire, mystify, delight, or disturb? Good architecture solicits a visceral reaction. A tranquil courtyard filled with plants and fountains soothes our senses, while a dark, underground passageway may fill us with dread. An equally spaced row of monumental columns appeals to our sense of balance, and angled walls, floors, and ceilings that look about to tumble over impart danger and disorientation.

Understanding the complexity of architecture can seem daunting. To understand this complexity, you must find out about the science of structures, the craft of building, and the art of space-making, as well as the terminology of architecture. The terminology can be maddeningly obscure, but the rewards that come from understanding it are great. You will be able to appreciate not only your immediate surroundings but also iconic buildings throughout history. Buildings and cities are more likely to improve in the future if more people become knowledgeable about architecture.

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