What makes good architecture?

“Architecture” is a noun that denotes a subset of the world’s buildings, as well as the profession that creates the subset. Not all of the world’s buildings can be called “architecture” at the same time. What features or special conditions allow one building to belong the the architecture subset, and not another?

It is not the case that there is one definitive criterion or set of criteria that define the subset. In fact, there are many subsets. We can speak of New England vernacular architecture. This architecture is the subset of buildings that share similar traits that distinguish the common buildings of New England from all other buildings. There is an architecture of the sub-Sahara. Those buildings are completely different from the buildings that comprise the architecture of New England. That there are traits allowing such distinction demonstrates a difference between buildings. One can recognize differences between buildings that allow us to classify some as architecture and others as not.

Likewise, we can speak of “financial institution architecture” when we perceive differences between the design of banks and credit unions that distinguishes them from other buildings: houses, grocery stores, city halls. We can speak of the architecture of the 1890s when we perceive traits unique to that time period. We can also say for each of these subsets that they will include examples that are devoid of architectural merit. There is an architecture of fast food establishments, but most would agree that entire subset of buildings has little architectural merit.

There is, however, a subset of buildings that is qualitatively different from all other buildings because of their superior quality, independent of their location, function, or time period. Just as “New England Architecture” connotes buildings that contain qualities unique or definitive of buildings in the New England region, there must be a subset of buildings whose architecture is “good”. This is what we mean by “good architecture.” What is it?

To the extent that the making of buildings is a craft, good buildings must be made well. However, a well-made building does not define good architecture: it defines a well-made building. It might be necessary or helpful for a building to be built well in order for it to be good architecture, but being well-made is not the defining characteristic.

What are buildings in their essence? They are objects that modify the environment in order to create useful space. That sounds simple enough. I argue that good architecture is in fact buildings that do these two activities well, in conjunction with one another. Architecture is a fitting modification of the environment that creates space for a particular activity. Architecture is the fitness of the modification to the activity.

How does this clarify the difference between buildings- the sum of all environmental modifications- and architecture?

First, architecture is not simply artificial space. The primary reference space is nature. Nature is cool. When we modify the environment for a particular activity, we must hold on to the cool. Architecture is cool space that someone made.

Second, architecture is not simply any space that will do. Yes, a bank could set up shop in an empty grocery store. Does it really work? No.

What we strive for in creating good architecture is space that maintains the wonder of nature, while being optimized for a human activity. These two must be present, and they must work together. That is good architecture.

What’s that photograph above? Antoine Predock’s alumni building at the University of Minnesota. Now that’s good architecture.

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Principal at Sealander Architects, Ellsworth Maine. Revit guru. Married with 3 children. Avid gardener. Lived in San Francisco for nine years. Master in Architecture from Columbia University Bachelor of arts in religious studies, Wesleyan University. Graduated Staples High School, Westport CT. Hope to spend some time in Hokkaido before all is said and done.