What is Good Architecture?

Defining Design

Let’s talk architecture. A friend, syndicated real estate journalist Katherine Salant, recently asked me to explain what I meant by good design. I went into my usual rant about functionality, balanced light, good proportion, deft use of materials, connection to a place and time, and the need for serendipity or an occasional sense of surprise. And it occurred to me that this is a lot to ask from a home plan, so maybe it’s more relevant to public buildings — like, say, the Pantheon in Rome, one of my favorite structures.

This extraordinary monument built between AD 118-126 by the emperor Hadrian — apparently an amateur architect in his own right, or at least a very well traveled and informed client with a sizable checkbook — uses the simplest of forms: cylinder, triangle, dome to create a grand, formal, almost abstract structure. Called the Rotunda, it was a designed as a temple to all the gods (photos, gothereguide).

It is a vessel for holding nothing less than the universe itself (ambitious folks, those Romans). The swelling dome encircles the visitor in a spatial surprise, at once vast and intimate. The oculus — a skylight to beat all skylights — brings the real universe inside (one cloudy day when I  entered, it was actually raining inside) as the shaft of sunlight falling from it moves across the floor and walls like a high intensity tractor beam.  It centers the space on the individual, er god. Standing in the middle of that space you do feel almost deified… well  maybe I’m getting carried away. But that’s great architecture.

Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha in Bangkok, begun in 1788, achieves a similar effect by doing the opposite.

Here the space is overfilled by the marvelous monumental glowing gilded statue. The disparity between container and contained heightens the sense of wonder as you crane your neck upward to take everything in. There is hardly room for the visitor, which makes the visitor appreciate the experience of walking through this sacred space  all the more.

I think I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre is a stroke of genius

for the way it uses  geometry and transparency to fuse history and modernity. The pyramid acts as a simple and eloquent foil for the facades of the 17th century buildings lining the Court d’Honneur.

At Kiyomizudera Temple (founded in 780) in the hills above Kyoto, the journey up to it from the valley floor  is almost as important as the arrival  at its gate

because on the way, you catch glimpses of the enormous interlocking timbers that support it, making you realize the feat of engineering that made the building possible. The artful manipulation of structure and scale is most memorable here.

My favorite building in Houston is the Menil Collection of 1981, a museum by Renzo Piano to house the modern art collection of Dominique de Menil. It is an understated but powerful frame. Slender columns

float across the porch-wrapped front under skylights that are curving leaves of iron. Architecture is reduced to a play of proportion and light — and therefore becomes magnified.

What about context and connecting to the site and the world around us — this too is an important characteristic of good design and fine architecture. I think Chicago’s “Lima Bean” sculpture, officially known the “Cloud Gate” by artist Anish Kapoor at Millenium Park, is an excellent example.

The myriad highly polished stainless steel plates on the convex and concave form wrap the world around you and beckon you through to marvel at everything inside-out and outside-in, a sort of Mobius strip- as-mirror. The bean is all context and unreality at the same time. It makes you look at it and the surroundings in a new way. To me it says “Look at me, look at you, look at us!” That element of surprise, the way it draws you in for a double-take,  is the sign of great design.

So, can, or even should, a house plan hope to do any of these things? A few do, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater or  Philip Johnson’s Glass House. But they can be difficult to live in every day. Most homes are not, and probably should not be, art objects or architectural monuments — but I think they should still be artful in some way, if only in their warmth, or flexibility, or the way they make you feel comfortable. What are your definitions of good design?

12 responses to “What is Good Architecture?

  1. what about Nick Lee’s 508-1- great design and simple

  2. I strongly believe that your “…usual rant about functionality, balanced light, good proportion, deft use of materials, connection to a place and time, and the need for serendipity or an occasional sense of surprise…” is still dead on. The most effective and memorable architecture, it that which has withstood the test of time and culture. In sociology, a people’s values establish their norms and their norms create their technology. Architecture is the apex of a people’s technology, for it is the technological environment that they create for themselves.

    Obviously in the modern age, our control of the atom and thus the ability to produce energy from non traditional sources and thus harvest and fabricate non local or natural materials for construction, has made a major change in how the different people’s of the world produce their architecture. The notion of the “International Style” as a ubiquitous form of architecture that would forever trump the antiquated local craft and culture of geographically different environments is now rapidly falling apart under the tremendous cost of the energy required to maintain it. Whereas local craft and culture developed their architecture based on the material locally available, their embodied energy and cost of energy to maintain their form of architecture was substantially lower than a style that depends on mechanical equipment and imported materials. This is the chief reason why sustainability has taken center stage for architects around the world. The people’s for which they design can no longer sustain a form of architecture that is alien to their environment, values and norms.

    Is this to much to ask of a home plan? I don’t think so. We think in the language of our culture and our architecture is the fullest expression of that conscientiousness. Good design is that which is the fullest expression of a culture in a self-sustaining manner within its own environment. Examples of good design in architecture are the “bones” of cultural antiquity which have lasted a millennia and are the subject of archeology. The principles of Vitruvius, that good design must has commodity, firmness and delight, still stand true even in our modern age.

  3. Dan,
    I don’t think that ‘functionality, balanced light, good proportion, deft use of materials, connection to a place and time, and the need for serendipity or an occasional sense of surprise’, is too much to ask of home design. You spent a lot of time teaching me this with the Idea Houses and I have not forgotten it. Of course you need to add “no dead end rooms” as well as the need to create an inviting space where one might go at the end of the day to sit and enjoy a gin and tonic.. all very necessary. Cheers!

  4. Most excellent “RANT”! Perhaps one could also add the absence of something to your list: like the absence of the forest grove once planned for the Salk Institute plaza/courtyard by Kahn…he was dissuaded by a colleague..and now VOIDAL DOMINANCE and the conversation with the sea …(like your fully capped off Pantheon)..
    or the Japanese often empty room used for the tea-ceremony (read: gin and tonic)..giving small houses an immediate feeling of abundant EXTRA space…
    ..or a courtyard house?..things left out often allow for the unforseen to occur..
    Nature DOES abhor a vacuum after all.
    Great piece Dan!

  5. Love the Voidal Dominance and the Empty Room…which remind me of the last lines of “Unharvested” by Robert Frost: “May something go always unharvested! May much stay out of our stated plan, Apples or something forgotten and left, So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.”

  6. Dan, you devil! You must have known you would draw many a comment with a piece on ‘What is Good Architecture?’ I think, like others who have responded, that your ‘usual rant’ is just fine. And of course we can never go wrong with firmness, commodity and delight.
    I think that, if we are looking for a common thread tying examples of good design together, it might be called ‘projection of belief.’ It is no accident that several of your examples are religious. We know that the makers of such buildings are striving to put into physical form a certain creed, or hierarchy of the saints, or myth. There may not have been any interest in making the building ‘beautiful,’ but we, coming later, see that it is. We instinctively honor the conviction of the builder.
    When it comes to houses, we know we are in good hands when the spaces provided reflect perfectly the occupant’s way of life. The houses of Greene and Greene, villas of Palladio, courtyard houses of Beijing all come to mind. Philip Johnson could have his glass house because the mess was elsewhere!

  7. Great architecture! Like your post. It gives information that would really help.

  8. Your definition of “good design” is admirable.
    But the trouble is these matters need further, amplified, definition to be useful to designers or people who will experience, assess or judge buildings.
    What is “good” proportion? “Deft” use of materials? When is light “balanced”? Hopefully “balanced” does not mean uniform. (See Junichirō Tanizaki’s book “In praise of shadows”.)
    And surprise could come from unbalanced light (a dark area next to a bright area), or materials juxtaposed in an unconventional way.

    In Britain, the Design Council/CABE dedicate their activities to promulgating good design. They even have a publication called “Good Design – the fundamentals”. Yet in this 12 page document good design is defined by only eight words.

    A far more useful definition is contained in the same organisation’s “Design Review” (2 pages of definition in a 28 page document).

    It is easy to provide a list of qualities good design should have, but it is far harder, in any particular instance, to judge whether those qualities are present or absent. I am sure also, that there will not be just a set of yes/no answers. There will also be differences of opinion whether particular qualities are achieved.

    But let’s continue the debate.

    • I quite agree. The CABE definition is useful in the way it distinguishes between intent and use.

      I think Rowan Moore’s excellent new book — Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture — has lots to offer on this topic. I especially like Moore’s statement: “A building’s meanings and uses are unstable and ungovernable, despite which architects have to impose fixity and certainty in order to get anything built at all. A good building is decisive but not rigid, which is one of the reasons why architecture is difficult.”

  9. Dear Dan,
    I know that it’s been quite a while since you published this post, but I am just wondering if you could recommend me any further readings in this topic. I am an architecture Student at TU Delft, currently working on my Master Thesis- “Back to Basics”, in which I want to adress the topic of good design.
    Thank you for your help,

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