What makes a building architecture?

As soon as the word “architecture” was recognized there has always been a constant search and understanding of how to make buildings more than just buildings.  Some of the ancients such as Vitruvius, referred to buildings as requiring 3 components to be considered architecture:  function, economy, and beauty.

The first one is pretty easy to understand…a building has to function as it was intended to function.  If an owner needs a bank with drive-thru drive aisles, the building needs to account for vehicular traffic or else the building won’t function.  If an owner needs a restaurant to serve 200 people and the kitchen is designed to accommodate 50, then the building won’t function.  Without function a building isn’t a building at all…it is merely a piece of sculpture.

Economy refers to the cost of the building.  What the ancients were basically saying is that anyone can make a building function and make it beautiful if there is no budget.  When budgetary restraints are placed on a building (as is any case in the real world) then all of a sudden every decision has to be questioned to allow for the most bang for the client’s buck.  Most of the time budget is the hardest thing to deal with in terms of making buildings that have the third qualifier of beauty.

Beauty is also pretty self-explanatory, although it is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.  Just like with human attraction there are many different ways a building can be beautiful and interpreted as such.  I personally feel that in today’s age of instant gratification, the first two are considered in pretty much every project whereas the third, beauty, is considered only if the owner can find value in the aesthetics of the building.  This is where a lot of buildings fall short of being considered architecture.  How many buildings do we see popping up everywhere we that look like boxes?   Well they definitely function as the interior space is being utilized for whatever function the owner intended such as:  endless aisles of clothes, food, wood, pets, pet food, hand tools, frozen food, yadda yadda you get the point.  These buildings are definitely economical because it is pretty self-evident that the closer to a box a building becomes the more cost effective it will be.  But what about beauty?  That is where these buildings fall short and fail to make the crossover into being considered architecture (at least by me!).

The Egyptians going back to nearly 3,000 B.C. used ratios for their columns and architecture that they would refer to as “the one”.  What this means is that the closer to “the one” an architectural project became, the closer to the gods the building or building complex would be.  One of my personal favorite examples of their proportions could be found in the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak.  A hypostyle hall is basically a room filled with columns.  The columns represented trees and grouped together in the room they would be interpreted as a forest.  This concept is still used today.  I have always romanticized this concept as it was attempting to blur the lines between interior and exterior space.  I also saw it as an attempt to blur the lines between natural and man-made structures.

The Greeks used what we now refer to as either the “golden section”, “golden mean”, or the “golden ratio”.  This concept goes back to almost 500 B.C.
ionic columnThis ratio is roughly 2:1.  For some reason people for over 2,000 years seem to think that when we see a shape or structure that is of this rectangular form, we are more drawn to it than a shape that doesn’t take on these proportions.  What makes this building ratio even more interesting is the allure it had and still has for:  mathematicians, artists, musicians, and even astronomers.

This time period came up with all sorts of proportions that architects pretty much lived by.  This classical era of architecture dealt with what we now would refer to as “temple fronts” which consist of columns of varying orders (i.e. Doric, Corinthian, Ionic, etc.), porticos, gabled fronts with architraves/friezes/entablatures, etc.  As time progressed these proportions changed as people’s visions of what was beautiful changed and societies came up with their own architectural styles.

In human psychology there is a term called “physiognomy” which is the assessment of a person’s character or personality solely based on the outer facial appearance.  I always thought this was interesting as it relates to architecture.  When we look at people we immediately form opinions about the person whether we believe/admit it or not based on their appearance…especially that of their face.  How many times have you said to yourself, “he looks mean…” “she looks snotty…” “he looks smart…” etc.?  Well this can be extrapolated towards how we think about a building.  What do we think of when we see a colorful or whimsical building?  Most people would tend to think that said building has some sort of fun usage like a children’s museum or arcade.  What do we think when we see a building with curves?  Perhaps that the building is trying to emit a feeling of being organic or of the earth?  What about when we see an orthogonal building (one with many angles)?  I would say the opposite of curves in that the architect is probably making an effort to say that the building is not created by mother nature but is in fact man-made.

Beauty is why I became an architect in the first place.  I have always felt that a properly designed building, or piece of architecture, has an almost magical ability to actually affect us spiritually.  Some buildings like cathedrals, synagogues, and mosques, are designed with the soul intention of lifting our spirits and bringing us closer to some sort of higher power.  When people walk into a religious building they tend to talk a little quieter (most people…ahem).  They tend to dress a little nicer.  They tend to be a little more polite.  I always find this fascinating because a lot of times people don’t even realize that the building is subtly influencing their behavior.  I’m fascinated by the psychological factors architecture has on people.  Some buildings are actually designed to do the opposite, which is to intimidate and make people feel uncomfortable.  A good example of this typology would be a prison.  Prisons are specifically designed to give prisoners the feeling that there is no escape.  Granted, most architects try to be sensitive to the fact that people should not be discarded and should try to have the building allow for rehabilitation…but when it is all said and done, if there is a fist fight between the prison and the prisoner, the prison will win every time.

No matter what typology I am dealing with I always try to have my buildings lift the spirit in some way.  I see buildings as a great movie – when it is over people talk about different scenes for days.  Some people like it, love it, or hate it.  That isn’t the point.  The point is that they talk about it because it moves them in some way.  That is the reaction that I go for in all of my work.

If you’d like to discuss how we can make your next architectural endeavor beautiful feel free to contact me directly here.