Saturday, January 2, 2010

What Is Architecture?

Campbell Memorial Courtyard, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (photo by Erik Bishoff)

What distinguishes architecture from mere shelter? As an architect, I have considered this question many times. The answer can be elusive. Certainly, good architecture works well – that is, it satisfies the functional requirements of its program, and is soundly built. These days it is also likely to be a model of sustainability. However, most of us recognize that a building that simply achieves these ends is not necessarily an example of architecture. Most people have a vague sense that architecture – the kind with a capital “A” – is something more.

So, what is architecture?

Fundamentally, architecture is the art and science of designing buildings and other physical structures. It is the art component – the skill and imagination employed to aesthetic effect – that is most vexing when considering this question.

Must a building be widely acclaimed as beautiful to be considered architecture? Most people consider beauty to be a necessary component of true architecture. I firmly believe that all humans respond to common measures for beauty, such as proportion, balance, and harmony. Certainly, the buildings most widely regarded as beautiful – the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater among them – are excellent examples of architecture. But beauty is also in the eye of the beholder. Some famous buildings are purposefully awkward looking, even ugly. Many people consider Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project in Seattle ugly (I do), but few would claim that the building is not architecture.

Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project, Seattle, 2000 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Is architecture by definition designed by architects? Of course not. It would be the height of vanity for me to believe that my profession has a privileged monopoly on the creation of architecture. The artistic, functional, and cultural richness of many vernacular, anonymous structures often outshines the self-conscious efforts of the most-skilled architects. The trulli dwellings of the Apulia region of Italy and the minka folk houses of rural Japan are just two examples of outstanding vernacular architecture.

Trulli, Alberobello, Italy (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Does problem-solving characterize architecture? The design of a building today can be an extraordinarily complex undertaking, requiring the specialized expertise of large teams of architects and engineers – so yes, problem-solving is an aspect of architecture. As I suggested above, buildings should address the needs of those who use them, while not being dangerous to occupy or profligate in their use of limited resources. Buildings should also respect the landscape of which they are a part. But just as literature is more than simple prose, architecture rises above basic problem-solving.

Literature raises questions about the human condition, of what it means to be human and alive. Literature stimulates the imagination and renews the spirit. The best literature speaks of the particular while touching the universal. The same is true for the best architecture. Architecture purposely affects the way people relate to the world they inhabit. This, Sir John Summerson asserted, is what distinguishes architecture from building. In his words, “architecture adds to the experience of living by heightening the actions of ordinary life.”(1)

Similar views about architecture have been shared by many:

  • Bernard Rudofsky, well-known to architects for his essays on vernacular buildings, believed that architecture is not just a matter of technology and aesthetics but also a frame for “an intelligent way of life.”(2)
  • William Kleinsasser wrote that the “essential, defining purpose of architecture is the creation of good places for people: evocative, particular, protean places that contribute significantly to human well-being and awaken profound echoes.”(3)
  • New Zealand architect Claude Megson said that "whatever space and time mean, place and occasion mean more. For space in the image of man is place, and time in the image of man is occasion.” According to his former student Peter Cresswell, architecture to Megson was not about building buildings, but rather about building ritual, building occasion, and building life itself.(4 )
  • The Scottish philosopher and psychologist Kenneth Craik observed that architecture enhances the quality of our experiences and expands our conceptions of reality and life. He said that “the goal of architecture is to design places that help people realize their full potential as thinking, feeling human beings.”
  • In his book The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton asserted that “works of design and architecture talk to us about . . . the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their inhabitants.” He believes it is the architect's responsibility to design buildings that contribute to happiness by embodying ennobling values.
  • The German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger deduced in his essay Building Dwelling Thinking that architecture is crucial because it supports and reflects a person’s way of being in the world. He wrote that “man's relation to locations, and through locations to spaces, inheres in his dwelling. The relationship between man and space is none other than dwelling, strictly thought and spoken."

These thinkers answer the question with greater eloquence than I could ever hope to. It’s been a pleasure to learn from others who have already sought to define architecture.

The common thread is that it is with intent that architecture shapes our perceptions and interactions with our environment. Architecture is an interpreter of our existence – a medium for narrating and representing space. The best architecture engages all of the senses. It heightens our awareness of being in a particular place at a particular time, helping to explain where, when, and who we are. It meaningfully defines the spaces we inhabit. Like literature, architecture is a vehicle for conveying shared experiences and memories. Just as a good book reveals more with each reading, a profound work of architecture offers rewards upon every visit and at every turn.

Le Corbusier’s (unrealized) Plan Voisin, Paris, 1925

The potential and pitfalls of architecture are vast. Talented architects have forever challenged us to view the world we inhabit through their eyes as much as our own. Think of the early 20th century modernists, whose theories promulgated an architecture attuned to the prevailing zeitgeist, one that eschewed traditions in favor of the new social, political, and economic circumstances. For better or worse, their work possessed an undeniable authenticity and contributed significantly to the modern condition and the belief that progress should be regarded as inevitable. Self-consciously or otherwise, architecture has always been an embodiment of our values and often a catalyst for change. With the conception of architecture comes great responsibility.

If architecture is by definition a means by which our being in the world is framed, it behooves architects to design buildings with the greater good in mind. While I do understand the value of art that serves to critique the contemporary condition, or to shock or perplex, I believe we are best served by buildings that are aspiring and life-affirming.

The Lion Court at the Alhambra (painting by Adolf Seel)

I believe that good architecture springs from optimism and that well-designed buildings can make a difference. If our definition of architecture includes that it is designed with principled intentions, our buildings are more likely to be lasting and significant. In my opinion, these are universal traits of good architecture.

What is architecture? Every serious architect must grapple with this question.

What is your definition of architecture?

(1) Quotation from Summerson’s collection of essays entitled “Heavenly Mansions” (1963).

(2) Bernard Rudofsky’s best-known book is “Architecture without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-pedigreed Architecture” (1964).

(3) Bill Kleinsasser, a professor of mine at the University of Oregon, greatly influenced my architectural world view. Specifically, he emphasized experiential considerations in architecture, those having to do with how things and places are perceived and felt over time.

(4) Peter Cresswell is the principal of the Auckland architecture firm Organon Architecture.

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