Simply... How To Judge Architecture

new internationalist
issue 202 - December 1989

Simply... how to judge architecture

How does it look?
Illustration: Clive Offley Style is the most hotly debated issue within the architectural profession. As with all questions of aesthetics a lot of personal preference is involved. But the preoccupation with style has led architects to concentrate on producing an artistic masterpiece with little attention to 'place-making' - how a building integrates into the street, neighbourhood or city in which it is constructed.

Look at the latest 'design triumph' and ask whose needs it serves. Is it the architect with an image to preserve or the person who actually works on the ninth floor? Is it the corporate Chief Executive or the poor souls who live in the shadow of the beast?

While there are some very striking large buildings (there are a lot more ugly ones) the monumental edifices that dominate the skyline of almost every large city do more for the reputation of the architect than the quality of urban life. A design whose stylistic purpose is mainly to enhance corporate prestige or add to the pomp of government tends to leave a bittersweet taste for even the most discriminating palate. And too often style means being able to afford and show off what's 'in' - the latest in glass or aluminum is somewhat akin to the latest in leather and suede.

Is it a good place to hang out?
Illustration: Clive Offley Public buildings are much more user-friendly when they are designed to allow people to interact in a number of ways (eat lunch, read, gossip, watch the street life) in foyers, courtyards, mini-parks and other public spaces. But the architectural gospel that 'form follows function' has led to a utilitarian view of design that excludes such expensive frills. Buildings with a single purpose such as office towers, government offices, shopping malls - are likely to be strictly organized according to their function as working and shopping spaces.

But more inventive malls can and do allow room for human amenities - comfortable seating, waterfalls or fountains, cafes and greenery. Form does not have to follow function. It is quite possible to have an attractively designed, friendly-looking police station and a sterile barracks-like school building. Commercial pressure on land and shrinking budgets for public building mean more crowding and designs that ignore creative public use.

What does it mean?
Large public buildings (churches, court-houses, universities) are designed to express an idea: the glory of God, respect for authority or love of learning. When we look at a building we should try and recognize the 'message' that the architect has been aiming to convey by its style - and be ready to resist it.

Take government buildings. Should they be classical structures (the favourite of dictators of Left and Right) that Illustration: Clive Offley intimidate the citizenry, filling them with awe for their leaders? Or should they have more approachable designs that encourage ordinary people to feel they can petition their leaders, help to give them a sense of control over government?

The classical structures can be quite awe-inspiring but our response to them should not stop there. The US architect Lewis Kahn's magnificent Dacca Assembly Building in poverty-stricken Bangladesh is a case in point. By most accounts the Islamic-inspired design is impressive but how appropriate is it to spend 17 years and the equivalent of three years of the Bangladeshi Gross National Product on one set of buildings? A degree of modesty in design (and thus cost) may prove a useful caution in architectural style wars.

Is there room to breathe?
A city without parks and other green spaces is a city without lungs. Yet it often takes the fiercest of battles to create or preserve them. In Third World countries room to breathe takes on a different and more urgent meaning: fights over space are a key to survival for the homeless and marginalized. Thousands of people squat on unused land wherever they can find it: on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, for instance, or even in cemeteries in the centre ot Khartoum. They resist eviction and gradually mould these 'squats' into fully-fledged communities.

Illustration: Clive Offley But the efficient use of space to meet a variety of needs is the key to effective design even of individual homes. The amount of living space you have is a good indicator of your social status. Real-estate developers work hard to cram as many people as possible into a building - except when they are selling luxury accommodation. The average house is designed to accommodate a nuclear family and this use of space fails to take account of the increasing number of alternative living situations: single parents, people living co-operatively or by themselves. Social isolation (particularly for older people) is becoming a major problem. Feminist designers are pioneering a more creative mix of space that combines some sharing of kitchens, gardens, laundry and child-care facilities with the privacy of living and sleeping rooms.

Is it well thought out?
Planning is essential to maintain the stylistic integrity of a streetscape or neighbourhood - and guarantee the provision of recreational and other community services. A lack of planning controls can result in runaway development out of character with existing communities - a shopping mall that dislodges local street merchants for example.

But over-planning can be just as bad. In order to house the masses the pioneers of modern architecture believed in 'starting over' by tearing down existing 'slums' and building mammoth protects that would provide a self-sufficient life for the industrial workforce. This kind of housing strategy anticipated the bulldozer urban renewal that has torn apart many viable urban neighbourhoods and replaced them with soulless public housing estates. More recently designers of new Third World cities like Brasilia or Chandigarh (in India) came up -with completely inappropriate planning: a car-based design in societies where most cannot afford bicycles; and strict zoning that hampers the informal sector within which most poor people live and work.

A community's life is multi-faceted and has all kinds of needs that the orderly mind of the planner often fails to recognize. Ordinary citizens having their say is the best guarantee of planning with a human face.

Illustration: Clive Offley

Illustration: Clive Offley

Would you want to live there?
Homes have to be comfortable. Historically the idea of a comfortable and private domestic life is relatively new - it dates from the middle-class homes built on the tightly packed streets of Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the 1600s. But through the centuries we have arrived at a number of house forms which provide intimacy and comfort for people. And often the house styles with which people are most happy are those which recall the past.

Architects are often critical of the nostalgia that many feel for old houses and past architectural styles. For the purist architect this evokes nightmares of a 'dog's breakfast' of styles (a little Gothic here, a little Tudor there) that lacks coherence and is inappropriate to modern life. But the nostalgia is rooted in a profound discontent with a modernist architecture that uses prefabricated building methods and standardized often machine-like images to turn out thousands of soulless housing 'units.'

The challenge for more recent architectural trends is to address the problem of housing millions of people without sacrificing their sense of comfort. So far the modernist approach that advocates austere concrete slabs, pipe railings and stairs that look like ship ladders has failed the 'comfort' test.

How green is it?
Illustration: Clive Offley Buildings must be judged as to how they fit in with their built and natural environment. Do they make good use of their aesthetic surroundings? Or do they dominate the neighbourhood, disrupting established social patterns? Overall urban design should allow public access to natural features such as waterfronts and parks. Too often such choice features are reserved for expressways or privately-owned luxury apartments.

The environmental awakening is focusing increased attention on the ecological impact of buildings. Some preliminary efforts have been made to integrate solar power into the design of houses. But at the very least buildings have to be designed to use natural resources more efficiently - minimizing the use of wasteful heating and air-conditioning systems through good insulation in winter and natural cooling in summer.

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page

New Internationalist issue 202 magazine cover This article is from the December 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop