20 July 2022


 Watch this video.  Some of you may have already encountered it but it's worth another watch.

So what does this have to do with architecture?  Well, as architects we are trained to be aware.  Aware of the context within which we build, the requests of a client, legal requirements, professional obligations, our own design goals, the list goes on.  Sometimes we become so focused on a single task that we lose sight of everything else around us, and sometimes what we are really trying to accomplish.  Every so often we have to check ourselves and shift our focus, take another perspective, and become more aware.  We may see something we missed before, like the gorilla in the room.

04 May 2022

What is Architecture?

 What is architecture?

This may seem like a silly question to ask on an architecture website.  You may think: easy, ask anyone or look it up in a dictionary; architecture is the design of buildings or other constructed spaces; or it could, also, refer to a style of building, that's a nice clean answer.

So we're done, right?  Not quite.

When asking a question like "what is architecture?'', what is really being asked is what makes a building or space architecture as opposed to just a building or a space.  I recently came across an article that started by noting; 'asking an architect to design a safe building is like asking a chef to cook a safe meal'.  It's a low threshold of expectation, something expected but much less than what the architect, chef, or even the person making the request, really wants.  In fact, this is so low of a threshold that the architect or chef is unlikely to even mention these specific criteria when defining architecture or cuisine respectively.  So asking "what is architecture," is in a sense, akin to asking; 'what is cuisine' or 'what is fashion'.  All food is not cuisine, all clothes are not fashion and, likewise, all buildings are not architecture.  Some would even argue that architecture does not exclusively include buildings.  This may seem a bit pretentious but as architects it is important to evaluate what we are doing, in the big picture.

So, again, our question; what is architecture?

If you ask an architect, you are likely to find a variety of definitions.  In fact you are likely to get as many different answers as architects you ask.  In his "Ten Books on Architecture" Vitruvius devotes a chapter to the fundamental principles of architecture and goes on to assert that architecture "must be built with due reference to durability, convenience, and beauty."  All ten books describe architecture in detail, but many have looked at this passage as Vitruvius' own definition of architecture.  Since this, our oldest surviving example of architecture theory, there have been countless writings that address just what defines architecture.  Vitruvius' definition does offer a basic framework that many others have referenced; durability - a physical object with sound structure; convenience - functional design that serves its users; and beauty - a pleasing aesthetic in form and materials.  These have been singled out by some as having more importance than others.  


One thing we can agree upon is that architecture depends on the built form, right?  I mean many architects have famously, and less famously, noted the importance of a built structure to define architecture.  Vitruvius’ own definition starts with stating architecture “must be built….”  Likewise, Le Corbusier declared "a house is a machine for living in", the physical structure must exist to do the “living in” after all, right?.  Alvaro Siza stated "architecture is geometry",  also noting the importance of the physical.  Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that “Architecture is a physical experience, it needs to be seen and touched to be wholly understood.”, and even Ludwig Mies van der Rohe insisted that "architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together."  

But if we dig further we find that even the point that architecture starts with a building, or other physical object or form, is not necessarily in the consensus.  Some have completely rejected the idea of architecture having to be built at all, perhaps most famously Lebbeus Woods who wrote that we should "resist the idea that architecture is a building", insisting that "architecture is about ideas", a sentiment echoed by, Francisco Mangado who similarly stated "architecture is not always synonymous with building"  and Qingyun Ma who said "architecture is more about ideas than materials."  

These thoughts are not, necessarily, contradictory.  Much of the architecture we study in school we study only as their representations.  We may not visit the buildings we study, let alone all of the buildings that are published which have an impact on the profession.  After all, who among us has the time or resources to visit all the buildings we want.  Can we not expand our knowledge of architecture other than through first hand experiences?  If we don’t visit a building and experience it, is it not architecture?  We have surly studied and appreciated buildings that have since been demolished or succumb to the ravages of time.  But we may have descriptions, drawings, or other physical representations of them.  If a building is demolished, is it no longer architecture?  If you would agree that it is still architecture, then what is the difference between a building that was demolished 1,000-years ago and one that was designed but never built 1,000-years ago, and what does 1,000-years have to do with anything, how about 1-year, 1-day ago, does it make a difference?  


So, if we can't even agree about architecture being built, where do we go from here? Well we can look back at the quote from Le Corbusier above which alludes to the function of a building, referencing the convenience part of Vitruvius' definition. Many are surely familiar with the statement attributed to Louis Sullivan that "form follows function", putting use in the driver's seat.  Without an initial need to fulfill a function, form cannot start to take shape, regarding architecture.  In fact function is a familiar theme when looking at how architects describe architecture.  Steven Ehrlich said that "architecture is first and foremost about serving people..." and "to design buildings that fulfill their practical purpose...."  Some have even given so much priority to function that the importance of form seems to start to dwindle.  For instance Harry Seidler stated that "architecture is not an inspirational business" and instead "it's a rational procedure...." AndrĂ© Tavares has said that “architecture is not about the creation of newness but rather about the fulfillment of needs and expectations." While, Yoshio Taniguchi stated "architecture is basically a container of something, I hope they will enjoy not so much the teacup, but the tea."  

Some of these statements by architects seem to suggest that, if a solution to a problem of function is solvable without building, it could still be an architectural solution.  If function is key, there are many ways to solve problems, even spatial ones, which may not include what we typically consider architecture.  It is even conceivable that a building could be the source of a problem, and removing it is the solution.  That was the approach taken with the Pruitt Igoe housing projects.  So, could the destruction of a building be architecture?  This seems counterintuitive to how we are trained, but likely something that someone like Gordon Matta Clark, who explored “making space without building it”, could agree with. However, it is hard to defend that function alone defines architecture, as much as it defines cuisine or fashion.  Purely utilitarian structures are not typically those which are applauded as great architecture or advancing the profession.  While architecture does center around functional space, those that are designed with care and have other qualities beyond function alone, are the ones we celebrate.  While you may be hard pressed to find an architect who thinks function, or convenience is not important, most believe aesthetics, or beauty, are nearly, just as, or even more important.  


Many, arguably most, architects would put beauty at the top of the list when defining what makes a building architecture.  Alvaro Siza took this to the extreme when he said "Beauty is the peak of functionality! If something is beautiful, it is functional…. Beauty is the key functionality for architects… a search for beauty should be the number one preoccupation of any architect."  Many may not take this intense of a stance but most feel strongly about beauty.  R. Buckminster Fuller famously stated; “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”  So, it is probably safe to say that beauty, aesthetics, is key in defining architecture.  However, as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Architects have debated what defines beauty in architecture, probably since the beginning of time.  Vitruvius’ book sets out a set of complex rules about architecture.  Presumably if you don’t follow the rules the result is not beautiful. But, again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Rem Koolhaas once said “talk about beauty and you get boring answers, but talk about ugliness and things get interesting,”  highlighting our interest in discussing beauty and aesthetics about architecture, and in general.  

Similar conversations happen around art.  What is art, what is beautiful.  Art is something else countless architects have compared with architecture.  Some have even equated the two and placed architecture at the forefront of art.  Frank Lloyd Wright stated "the mother of art is architecture, " and, while not typically associated with architecture Havelock Ellis stated that "...architecture is the beginning of all the arts…”  But what kind of art?  Julia Morgan plainly stated that “architecture is a visual art” while Peter Zumthor insisted that "...architecture is a sensuous art..." something you experience and is perceived with the senses, something you feel, beyond the visual”.  I think Jay A. Pritzker, of Pritzker Prize fame, summed things up nicely when he said “Architecture is intended to transcend the simple need for shelter and security by becoming an expression of artistry."  

Using such a subjective word as beauty, then, may not be our best approach.  Since what is considered beautiful does change across space and time, just like fashion, or even physical features.  Different cultures, different times throughout history, define beauty differently.  With so many different interpretations of beauty, can we agree that architecture must be beautiful?  If it is not beautiful, is it not architecture, or is it bad architecture?  When identifying something, or someone, as beautiful we are usually referring to physical features including shape, form, proportion, symmetry or balance, and the entire composition, the relationship between different parts that make up the whole.  With architecture we also consider context, scale, materials, color, texture, details, decoration, or lack thereof, and countless other factors.  Is it possible to create an objective definition of beauty?  Philosophers have tackled this question throughout time, so we will leave it to them.  Even if we do not agree what is beautiful, maybe there can still be a consensus that aesthetics play a role in defining architecture.  For lack of anything better let’s consider beauty as thoughtful design, that considers the factors mentioned above, even if we still debate its success.  After all, we live in a world where everything is designed.  


As we, I, struggle to define ‘what is architecture’ we may consider what else can define architecture beyond the three characteristics outlined by Vitruvius.  Considering what has been addressed thus far, are there any commonalities between durability, convenience, and beauty?  Even if everyone doesn’t agree on these characteristics, can we believe that the act of architecture is deliberate?  It is created on-purpose (and for a purpose, i.e. convenience), is it not?  It has never been argued that architecture is a natural occurrence, even if that natural occurrence has the properties established by Vitruvius.  Think about it, a cave can offer durability, convenience (function), and beauty, but, is it architecture?  Architects would surely argue against this.  So, let’s agree that a key factor in defining architecture is that it is deliberate, intentional, designed.  As discussed above, design also considers beauty, or aesthetics, but doesn’t assume a subjective nature.  Design, whether good or bad, is still design.  

Design, of course, is not exclusive to architecture.  We live in a world where everything is designed, the technology on which you are reading this, whether digital or print, the clothes and shoes you are wearing, the mode of transportation you use, packaging, literally everything.  So, how do we separate architecture from everything that is designed?  Does it have to do with size, or scale?  Maybe.  Architecture is typically thought of spaces that can be occupied or buildings that can be observed from afar.  But there is large scale art that we can occupy, how do we separate that from architecture.  Richard Serra, who famously creates pieces of art many have compared with architecture, offered a suggestion when he stated that “art is useless, not useful.”  He is offering a clear separation between art and architecture, that of function. 

Likewise, architects often talk about placemaking.  Yes, all types of designers work to create places with simple interventions, like landscaping, benches, even signage, but none of these are architecture.  So, if we are to "resist the idea that architecture is a building,” what do architectural ideas and architectural buildings share?  What are these ideas about?  Perhaps Victor Hugo offers some insight in his observation that “architecture has recorded the great ideas of the human race.”  Christopher Janney shares some wisdom when stating that “architecture is a frame of mind, it’s about ideas” but noted that “the profession is about how to translate those ideas into the real world.”  This implies a separation between architecture as an act and architecture as a profession, and recognizes that architecture is complex and cannot be singularly defined.  


In order to take in the big picture sometimes it is important to step back and consider the context and perspective of architecture.  As with art, the meaning of architecture has changed throughout history depending on the context, both physical and social, and perspective, which changes constantly.  Just as what is found favorable aesthetically has changed throughout time, so have the factors that define architecture, and influence what is considered “good” architecture, throughout history.  We live in a time where sustainability, equity, and history are playing larger roles in the world, including architecture.  With this in mind, this may be a good time to reflect on how we define architecture, good, bad, or otherwise.  Asking ourselves, from time to time, “what is architecture?” is a time to reflect on what the state of the profession is.  While it may seem like a purely academic or philosophical question, it does not have to be, and shouldn’t be.  

The question we are really asking is, what is architecture today?  Yes, it has function and is designed, but in our time it must also respond to the zeitgeist.  Today, architecture must address issues of sustainability, social responsibility, and equity as much as it must address changing technology, material science, and changes in social norms, like how we use space.  Considering the time we live in, it is quite likely that architects will be engaged in more and more projects that are not buildings but do address the issues of architecture.  Architects are problem solvers, so architecture’s primary goal should be to solve problems.  Our first step in this process is to understand what the problem is, or more likely what the many problems are and seek out the solutions.  Architecture is multifaceted and, therefore, cannot be defined singularly, it cannot exist if it fulfills only one criteria.  So, maybe searching for a single definition could be considered a fool's errand (seems I may have played the fool here).  But, just as in the practice of architecture, the process can be just as rewarding as the outcome.  

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said “architecture is frozen music.”  But, architecture is a journey, both figuratively and literally.  Architecture is physical as well as temporal, it is three-dimensional, no, it is four-dimensional as it requires experience, even if not in situ, likewise, architecture exists during its time in history.  Architecture cannot be frozen as it must exist in time as well as space, and so must its definition. 

Final Thoughts (for now)

Architecture is about more than buildings, it is also about ideas.  A drawing, essay, or model, could be considered architecture, just as a recipe could be considered cuisine, or a composition considered music.  It may be incomplete but it still is.  Considering the differences between clothes/fashion and food/cuisine, may offer insight.  What separates buildings from architecture may be quality of materials (ingredients) and design, the user's experience, the designer's intent, and its role in culture.  Often a notable moment in art, music, fashion, and yes, architecture, has an impact that shapes the future both within and separate from the profession.  An impact to the built environment, even if academic or theoretical, is what defines architecture.  So, while architecture is about more than buildings and can be created or influenced without a building, it is about the built environment.  The final product that we, as architects, produce is typically a set of construction documents; like a composer writes music, until it is performed it has not been fully realized.  Architecture is about buildings in the macro but is not necessarily about buildings in the micro. 

I challenge you to explore and answer this question for yourself, based on your context, perspective, and values.  To continue the conversation, quotes from others who have attempted to answer this question will be posted on Twitter with #quoteforarchitecture, join in by sharing yours.  

Thank you. 

16 June 2020

equity - standing against systemic racism

The architecture profession is not one known for its forward thinking in terms of equity. Sure we have social housing, public space, and cultural institutions to our name but even these are largely inequitable. Housing that segregates people by race and income, public space unequally distributed and cultural institutions that largely focus on white European accomplishments. We can do better.

During the current public protests against systemic racism, catalyzed by the death of George Floyd, there seems to be an awakening. I receive daily messages from individuals, institutions, and companies sharing their support for the protesters brave enough to go out into the streets to demand change. I support this cause against systemic racism in our policing, policy, and culture and am here to amplify their voices. We have been quiet for far too long. Injustices against black and brown people in this country, and all over the world, have been happening forever, and the voices of these people have been suppressed for just as long.

It is time we listen. When people say “Black Lives Matter”, it is because the system has been acting as if they don’t. When people gasp “I can’t breathe” it is because they are suffocating from injustice. When people shout “no justice, no peace”, it is because they are willing to fight for the same rights that the rest of us take for granted. It is time we hear.

It breaks my heart, I am disappointed in myself that it has taken so long. But here we are. We must stand against injustice and inequity. In our personal lives and in our profession, we must make a conscious effort against racism, misogyny, and other forms of hate. It is with this that I pledge to work within my community, include people from all backgrounds, mentor, and teach. I ask you to do whatever you do, with purpose and love. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere...whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Act for justice.

26 May 2020

Architecture after Covid-19

Covid-19 has seen the emergence of “social distancing”, the separation of people, the closing of public space, the antithesis of what many architects and urban planners seek. 

Many architects work in the public space, creating spaces for social gathering (bars, restaurants), collective engagement (schools, universities), entertainment (theaters, sports arenas), and culture (museums, libraries) many of which are now closed. 

While technology allows us to collaborate and work from home, and maybe even have social interaction without physical connection, there is no doubt that close physical proximity and social gatherings are part of our nature and enrich our lives. 

Even some of the largest gatherings in the world that don’t bring everyone together physically, think the Super Bowl or the Olympics, things we enjoy using technology are typically paired with smaller gatherings, like your Super Bowl party or a visit to the local sports bar.  

So what will the impacts be of this virus which has forced us apart?  We have seen architecture affected by tragic events throughout history; the Great London Fire of 1666, the Chicago Fire in 1871 and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 all shaped modern building codes.  More recently, the nature of design changed throughout the world after the events of September 11, 2001 and the Grenfell Tower Fire of 2017 made us reconsider building materials and, yet again, our building codes.  All of these events caused a great loss of life, in an instant and caused us to react.  What will be the effects of this current outbreak that has impacted more of us in a wider geographic area? 

Some of the initial reactions to this have been to separate people, restrict travel, close public spaces, restrict social gatherings, and, in the most extreme cases, isolate people.  This can’t be the new normal.  As architects and designers we need to step up to reframe public space where people feel safe.  Some of the spread of the current pandemic has been due to poor hygiene, so we need to address that for one.  One outcome may be the redesign of public restroom facilities to provide more fixtures, more separation, more opportunities for us to practice good hygiene. 

I personally love public spaces, I love going to museums, concerts, public parks, these are the places I love that enrich my life.  Seeing an exhibit online does not replace going to a gallery and experiencing an installation.  Just like watching a YouTube video of a concert cannot replace the visceral experience of being there.  Thank you for Metallica Monday’s by the way. 

So what can we do, once we’re allowed to do it?  Here are some thoughts: 

  1. Use materials that don’t support bacteria and viruses. 

  2. Offer more opportunities for people to practice good hygiene. 

  3. Improve ventilation and indoor environmental quality. 

  4. Promote wellness, daylight, physical activity, healthy food choices. 

  5. Build community - so that people are willing to help their neighbors, we do this best when we know who our neighbors are, and we know who our neighbors are when we see them. 

Time will tell what the long term impacts of a 21st century global pandemic will be.  These are just my thoughts here in isolation.

02 July 2019

Tariffs for a Green Economy

Can we use tariffs to build a green economy?   Imagine if the debates you hear on the news were of tariffs like these: 

  1. Tariffs on products that cannot clearly prove freedom from exploitation throughout their supply chains.  Including freedom from exploitation of people, animals, land, water and natural resources. 
  2. Tariffs on goods that cannot demonstrate that they were produced under fair working conditions. Including living wages, freedom from discrimination, the right to organize, compulsory time off, etc.
  3. Tariffs based on the environmental footprint of goods; including, carbon emissions, water use, natural resource use, and waste production.
  4. Tariffs on products that do not have a clear and sustainable end-of-life.  Meaning they must be easily compostable, readily recyclable, readily adaptable for future use, or come with a buyback program from the manufacturer. 

Shortly there would still be debate about tariffs, some of the arguments would likely be the same while others would be clearly different.  Most are aware that the general goal of tariffs, putting politics aside, is to change the behavior of those whom the tariff is being placed upon.  A sort of tax on “bad” behavior if you will. Justification for the current tariffs has included unfair trade practices and national security, among others. So, one could argue, the tariffs are a tool, used to influence those engaged in unfair, or undesirable behaviors, with a goal of changing those behaviours.  Alternatively, tariffs can be used to encourage more preferable behaviors, using more domestic supply chains for raw materials and technology, for instance. So, it seems like tariffs could be a tool in our path towards a more sustainable society.  

In practice, the cost of tariffs are not paid directly by the entity upon which they are placed, but are instead paid by those who purchase the tariffed goods.  This has been a point of contention in our current situation in the USA, where the general public perception of tariffs is that they are “bad” as they hurt consumers by increasing prices on consumer goods.  These increased prices can serve as an encouragement to purchase other, non-tariffed goods, the producers of these alternate products may look at these tariffs as “good,” as they make their products more competitively priced and, potentially, bring in new customers.  Presumably these goods are produced by entities with more favorable behaviors, fair trade practices for instance. These changing purchasing behaviors, away from the tariffed goods, are the real cost paid by those being tariffed. With the goal that they will lead to a change in the behaviors that provoked the tariffs in the first place, creating a more fair playing field. 

It is here that we see the case where tariffs can be a tool in our move to a more sustainable economy, and society.  The fact is we should be paying the true value of the products we consume, and, in all likelihood, we are not. I’m not in favor of putting undue financial burdens on people, but I’m not opposed to tariffs either, in fact I would support them for the right reasons.  It’s hard to argue against the fact that our capitalist society has thrived off of worker exploitation. There are countless stories of the use of child labor, slave labor, menial wages, and horrid working conditions in factories overseas that produce goods for the western world.  A sustainable society is built around the triple bottom line, which includes social equity. If we are to build a society that promotes social equity, that includes fair and equitable labor practices. This includes fair living wages, a safe and healthy working environment, access to healthcare and time off, freedom from discrimination, no child or forced labor, and the like.  These aren’t unreasonable requests but, some, or all, of these are lacking throughout the world.  

It’s sad to say but, while the USA has laws against child and slave labor, we still benefit greatly from unfair labor practices throughout the world, and even within our borders.  Even those of us who work to be more sustainable may support illegal labor practices, through the purchases we make, due to the lack of transparency. We are often ignorant of where our products come from, what they’re made of, and who makes them. If tariffs were placed on all goods entering the country that could not demonstrate fair labor practices we would likely be paying a more realistic price for all of the items we consume, from food, clothing, electronics, etc. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, that if we lived in a world where all workers had a living wage and the other benefits listed above, and abandoned this culture of abuse, prices would rise, likely significantly.  For this reason, this approach would likely not find immediate favor with many and can only come with a real push towards a sustainable society while working holistically.  

If we are truly looking to build a sustainable economy and sustainable society we should be paying a fair price for all we consume.  A price that reflects the true value; the true cost of raw materials extraction, farming, production, transportation, the whole life cycle.  By identifying unsustainable practices, as well as sustainable practices, tariffs can be used as a tool to help build a sustainable world.

20 December 2017

a [quote] for architecture [11]

"Architecture is supposed to complete nature. Great architecture makes nature more beautiful — it gives it power."

- Claudio Silvestrin

12 December 2017

a [quote] for architecture [10]

"Architecture is always political...what about being against power?"

- Peter Eisenman