What Makes a Good Building?

Inge Beckel
Published on
Jan 13, 2014

Prizes, awards, rankings. Tributes, scathing reviews, recommendations. 'Likes', rankings and achieved (or missed) targets for visitor numbers. Evaluations are commonplace in architecture like anything else. So what is it, you may ask, that makes a good building, that makes an award-winner? After looking for ways to create a "happy city" in eMagazin #51/13, Swiss-Architects editor Inge Beckel searches for small clues leading to a "good building."
All Photos: Screenshots 
The Building
The oldest known original work of architectural theory in our culture is considered to be the Ten Books on Architecture by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, better known simply as Vitruvius. He lived in the first century B.C. and was a citizen of the Roman Empire. The transcript of these instructive treatises is thought to date from the ninth century A.D. Vitruvius named three primary criteria of good architecture: firmitas, utilitas and venustas – durability, convenience and beauty. A structure should be well built and stable; it also has to suit the users’ needs, and finally it should be beautiful. It is interesting to note that Vitruvius gave equal weight to all three criteria: none is more important than the others – in other words: a good structure meets the demands of strength or stability, of functionality or usefulness, and of beauty.

Subsequently, Vitruvius' teachings were returned to again and again, adapted to new conditions, and refined. Among the classic works in this canon are those by Leon Battista Alberti, who lived in the fifteenth century, and Andrea Palladio, who wrote his Four Books of Architecture about a century after that.
The Surroundings
Very few buildings stand all by themselves in the middle of a field, so to speak. They are usually situated in a village or urban context, be it loosely associated or closely integrated. This makes any building a neighbor of others, which in turn relate to it as neighbors. When a new building is erected, it is metaphorically a newcomer, a stranger, an intruder. The buildings surrounding the new arrival are older to various extents. Consideration has to be given to them, in whichever way is required. This might be with regard to the new structure's minimum distance from the property boundary, as laid down by law, or its scale and massing, or its shape and the facade composition. Whether a building fits in with its surroundings or sets itself apart may depend as much on underlying parameters – such as plot utilization ratios or conservation requirements – as on the builders, clients, and architects.

Likewise, an apparently unspoiled landscape is also an environment that needs to be responded to – as is a countryside shaped by agriculture, or even an industrial zone. A place is always characterized by fixed elements and varying moods, which require attention when planning a new scheme.

Notable among the more recent thinkers on this subject is Aldo Rossi, whose book L'architettura della città (The Architecture of the City) was published in 1966. After the phase of modernism (the intermediate and post-war years of the first half of the twentieth century), in which architects had sought liberation from history, tradition and convention, and had accordingly sought to redefine the world against the background of ever-advancing industrialization, Rossi turned to history once more – specifically, to that of the European city. Another practicing architect worth mentioning in this context is Robert Venturi. In the year that Rossi published his seminal work, a different, equally influential book appeared: Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. In it, Venturi argued that an added building couldn't always be incorporated harmoniously into its environment, whether that is the intention or not: contradictions are commonplace. So we should seize this challenge as an opportunity – to paraphrase his credo.
The People
Ultimately, the main concern is people, whom a building is meant to provide with shelter and comfort. Its usefulness or convenience in this respect (in the sense of form follows function) chiefly relates to the functioning of a room or building with regard to its proposed use. Thus the schedule of accommodation of one building differs from that of the next. That said, however, there are various ways of fulfilling a schedule of accommodation and giving it architectural form. For instance, we differentiate between the functionalist and the rationalist approaches. Whereas the former primarily focuses on single uses (a bedroom, an office, a classroom etc.), the rationalists aim for rooms that are as 'open' as possible, or to design them so that they permit a variety of activities.

These functionalist and rationalist approaches are exemplified respectively in Le Corbusier's publication Vers une architecture of 1923 (translated in English as Towards a New Architecture) and in the work of Alvar Aalto, who published less but built much – especially after World War II. While Le Corbusier took (impersonal) machines as a model for a long time, Aalto was interested in the handcrafted details that form part of people's everyday lives, such as door handles, fittings, and surfaces.

Durability, convenience, beauty. A place and the surroundings. They all need to be taken into consideration. Ultimately, however, it is (also) the atmosphere prevailing in and around a building, the mood that it evokes, that decides whether it is popular, even loved – or not. In other words: even if an architect has carefully analyzed all of the criteria mentioned above and has studied and responded to them, the result may not necessarily be a good building. After all the scientific analysis, the final test is whether you have a gut feeling that you would also want to live, spend time, work, or teach in the as-yet imaginary building. The philosopher Gernot Böhme has described “atmosphere” in terms of friction between people and their surroundings (see, for example, Atmosphäre. Essays zur neuen Ästhetik from 1995 [Atmosphere. Essays on the new aesthetics], portions of it translated into English in OASE 91: Building Atmosphere, 2013). Only when a building "rubs up against" the people who live or work inside does it acquire atmosphere. Only then is it enlivened. So as a general rule, a good building also needs to feel alive – and to stay that way for as long as possible.

Inge Beckel
Translated by Richard Toovey
Now we'd like to know what you think. What are your criteria for good architecture? Do you agree with the author, or see it differently? Now you can cast your vote for the "Building of the Year 2013". May the best building win.
50 "good" buildings. But only one can be the "Building of the Year 2013."