03 August 2012

Firmness, Utility, Delight

Vitruvius, the original author on architecture, stated that architectures function is firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, that is firmness, utility, and delight.  Firmness, of course, refers to the ability to stand up and resist the forces of man and nature, whether they be the heavy stone of the buildings of Vitruvius's time, wind, rain, snow, furnishings, or people.  Utility, again quite obviously, speaks to the fact that architecture serves a specific function.  This can be a very specific function as in a residential building that has rooms or areas designated for specific uses or a large community space that can accommodate many different functions.  This brings us to delight, a more ambiguous or subjective quality.  Certainly when Vitruvius wrote of delight he was pointing to the form, order, and proportion used in his day, the subject of his Ten Books on Architecture.  However, since the time of Vitruvius, some 500 years ago, our opinions of what brings delight have changed.  

Delight from architecture, or anything else for that matter, reflects personal taste, style, and culture.  Looking through a book on art history illustrates how much taste and culture has changed.  The fact that architecture is experienced in many different ways using all the senses it is important to point out that its delight may come in many forms.  One may enjoy the form from the outside, the view from the inside, its usefulness, the materials employed or countless other characteristics, but not others.  This leads me to wonder, what defines "delightful" architecture?  Put another way I could ask what defines “good” architecture.  Again, this can be quite subjective but I believe there are a number of characteristics of good architecture that could be agreed upon, looking beyond the firmness and utility of course.

The first characteristic of good architecture is that it respects its context.  Every piece of architecture exists in a specific place at a specific time and addressing this is paramount.  Context should be considered completely from the community through to the site and even on-site microclimates.  The siting of a building should consider orientation as it relates to its environmental context; the climate of the region, the sun, wind, the ecology of the site and surroundings, water bodies or wetlands, and migration patterns of local wildlife.  Likewise there is the man made infrastructure context; this can include utilities like power, water and sanitation, roads and public transportation, as well as nearby buildings and community resources.  Cultural context is also important to remember, this includes the character of the community, whether it is rural or urban, residential or commercial, what the local customs are and even the massing of the surrounding buildings and the predominant architectural styles.  

In addition to respecting context good architecture should respect its users, after all without users there is probably not much need for the architecture to begin with.  Speaking of which good architecture should address its primary function in direct relation with the people who will be using it.  This means bringing in the users during the design process to learn how the building will really be used, not designing it how you think it should be used.  To truly respect its users architecture needs to have comfortable and healthy interiors.  Much of this will relate to respecting its context, which I addressed above.  For instance, a building that has been poorly sited in its context and is left exposed to harsh summer sun may overheat and cause its occupants discomfort, so it should be stated that all these items relate to each other and should be considered holistically.  Providing a healthy indoor environment may include providing fresh air, access to daylight, and non-toxic finishes.  The fact that buildings cost money should also be a consideration.  A building may have a bold form or display an innovative use of materials but if its users can’t afford its operations and maintenance than it can’t serve its function.

I have a strong belief that architecture should also respect its time.  I have worked on both modern and historic buildings and find part of my love for architecture is in the fact that they are different.  Each with its own massing, form, materials, details, layout, character, I can go on and on, the point is that good buildings are of their time.  To build a modern building to look like a historic building to me is disrespecting both the past and the present.  On the one hand it’s like telling our predecessors, “we can do better than you” and on the other we are telling our contemporaries “you’re not good enough”.  So I think good architecture respects its own time and the issues of the day.  

Finally, good architecture should consider the future.  Buildings have a long life, hopefully beyond the lifetime of their designers and builders so they will be part of the future and so must consider that from the beginning.  Through its lifetime a building may serve many functions.  In New York City the Church of the Holy Communion, finished in 1845 has gone through many changes since it was a church it has become a nightclub and now a market, the Limelight Marketplace.  Surely if this wasn’t good architecture it would have been torn down a while ago.  This brings up another point when considering the future; what will happen to the materials when the building is demolished?  Is it full of toxic materials that have no value and will be thrown in a landfill to pollute our air and water, or can it be deconstructed or reused?

Green building has been growing over the past decade, it has had some false starts in past decades but it looks like it’s finally catching on.  These buildings, in my view, best demonstrate the qualities I described above.  Apart from a certification or a label I think defining good architecture is still subjective but we should hold it to certain high standards, it must respect its context, its users, its time, and it must consider the future.  I might be so bold to update Vitruvius and say regardless of style in order for architecture to be considered good, or even great, it must be useful, appropriate, and thoughtful.

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