ar·chi·tec·ture…i know it when i see it

What is architecture? Oh, spare me the Wikipedia answer or the dictionary answer. What is it? How do you define it? Maybe this is a rookie post early in my blogging career, but sorry folks, I call them as I see them (or think them actually). This is the kind of stuff that circulates in my noggin as I drive home from teaching. I think about it.

I know how architects have begun to define it; typically in some intellectually evasive fashion. We talk about big ‘A’ and small ‘a’ architecture. I believe one could posit a difference. Is there? Do architects define it differently than people who are not architects? Do we the architects get to define it?

At what point does a building, shelter or some other man-made intervention into the natural world become architecture? Are all buildings architecture? I would argue no. Is all architecture a building? Most likely I say no as well.

So at what point does a constructed object, building, whatever become architecture? Does it transform into architecture or does it start as architecture in the mind of the designer? Is it just the idea that is architecture, or must it actually be built? What about buildings with no formal designer? You are starting to see I have many questions here.

Is it an “I’ll know it when I see it” type of thing? Does a building have to “stand the test of time” first before it graduates to architecture? What is that qualitative difference between a building and architecture? I submit there is a difference (**laugh Amy**).

I have contributed to the design of many buildings in my twenty years of practice, but I’d be a bit arrogant to say all of it is “architecture.” I wish they all were, but I am confident (fortunate) that many of them are architecture.

So is this architecture?


How about this?


If we as architects are practicing architecture, wouldn’t you think we as architects could define it?

What do you think…architects and not-so-much architects please respond? I am not baiting you; I just want to talk about it. I’ve asked at least sixteen or seventeen questions…your turn.

“All architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.” ~ Philip Johnson

ar·chi·tec·ture…i know it when i see it

22 thoughts on “ar·chi·tec·ture…i know it when i see it

  1. Ironically I had already formulated my response, to some degree, before reading the quote by Philip Johnson at the end. And I think you’ve captured the essential nature of “what is Architecture” with that quote. But here’s my answer:
    A building, something constructed by human hands for habitation or occupancy of any type, that is purely functional in nature but lacks a level of creativity and imagination is not Architecture.
    Conversely, a building becomes Architecture when an architect or designer takes a desired function or program and through the process of design creates a unique and interesting experience for the users of that building – something that is not just purely functional but also is a piece of art and sculpture in it’s own right.
    And, just like good art, good Architecture must elicit an emotional response, either positive or negative, that excites the user in some way apart from the functional requirements. Otherwise it is just a building.

    1. I am not sure I have a definition. My Philip Johnson quote was not intended to be my definition, but merely a means to elicit conversation. I would agree with the portion of your definition about “an emotional response, either positive or negative…”

    1. This dialog is not about whether I would like your defintion or not. It’s merely a forum to discuss and share viewpoints and discover how others look at architecture. Your viewpoints could stimulate good conversation as long as we do it professionally with respect for one another. Other readers may not like your definition, but you may not like theirs either. Thank you for reading and I hope you continue.

  2. Lee, I knew almost nothing about architecture before I married an architect. I had a house full of Victorian antiques to boot, so surely I had no design sense whatsoever.

    Architecture, in my experience, makes us see the world differently. I spend much of my time when walking through a city looking up – at the rooflines and details that go into creating the various structures I see around me. I think my husband’s greatest moment in our marriage was when I walked around a corner in Manhattan and said, “Oh, look. There’s a Mies building.” And, I was right.

    That probably doesn’t give you an answer to your question, but it is my answer. Knowing and loving an architect has caused me to see and experience the world around me with wonder and with joy where before I just saw bricks, mortar, steel and concrete.

    1. Andra, I have no expectations on a definition. I believe the greatest voices for architects and architecture can be people like you connected somehow to an architect but retaining your own identity. You carry personal appreciation and experience, but you are not biased in the same way we as architects are. Thanks for sharing.

    2. Preston says:

      Oh man, Andra; if my wife could identify a building designed by a specific architect (other than me) I’d be a proud man.

      1. My husband is a good teacher, I suppose. Or, I’m a good student.

        Or, I’ve spent entirely too many dinners in the company of architects and figured I needed to learn how to speak the language to participate in the conversation. I knew I’d done this when an architect couple from Germany asked me what brand of architecture I practiced.

        I told them I am a CPA and a management consultant. It was a glorious moment. 🙂

        Perhaps your wives are not as weird as me. But, maybe flowers and dinner (along with a not-so-obvious photo of your favorite building tucked in there somewhere) would burn the architecture part onto their memories.

  3. ironic that the taco bell, we all can agree, is not architecture, yet it required an architect to sign and seal the drawings for permit and construction. i think that is very telling of what our roll in the grand scheme of things has become, no?

  4. Lisa says:

    really enjoyed this post. Going off of Jeremiah’s reply, it does bring up the question of why isn’t the Taco Bell considered to be architecture? It is “designed” by an architect to a building code for safety and health of its inhabitants. Is it because it doesn’t stimulate or exalt us, as Johnson noted?

    Damn you! Now I’m going to be thinking about this all day!

    1. we aims to please…hey someone can call it architecture and expound on its spatial merits and eloquent composition…or just order a taco and split. thank for reading.

  5. Richard Kraly says:

    After reading the post and comments I began to think more about the Taco Bell example. Maybe the question should be is it good architecture? Or another question could be is it architecture you like? I think the Taco Bell building is architecture. Architecture is partially pragmatic (satisfy various codes and other requirements to actually build something), but more so an art. Art in architecture being the thoughtful process of arriving at a solution to a design problem. Taco Bell can surely construct a plain building with the sole purpose of satisfying codes and functional requirements. Essentially assembly pieces and the building results as an afterthought or “accident” (if an elephant paints a picture is it art?). Instead, an architect purposely arranged elements of the building to establish or reinforce Taco Bell’s corporate brand for their restaurants. There was intent/ purpose behind the design and color of the entrance, the base material, decorated parapet wall, interior finishes and so on. Their goal, I’m sure, is for us to recognize a Taco Bell even if the signage is missing. It’s been a while since reading “Learning from Las Vegas” but I do recall something about decorated sheds. Taco Bell may not be architecture you or I like but in my opinion it is architecture.

      1. This is why this is so hard to define, hence my post title. It lies in the same ambiguity as “when is a man unshaven and when does he have a beard”? There is something about architecture that sets it apart from mere construction or shelter. Thus we typically would not give such credit to an unimportant structure such as a Taco Bell. I suppose it is easy to define the extremes. What happens in the middle is troubling. Maybe if we could define it, people would have us design it…hey that rhymes. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  6. Vicky says:

    I also think the Taco Bell outlet is architecture. I don’t understand why architects praise box shaped houses so highly but would disregard a box shaped shop. Maybe because they have seen this architecture repeated as a template instead of a unique piece. Do architects revile the common just because it is common? I think that is what a lot of non-architects think of the profession.

    I have never seen a Taco Bell like that (my country doesn’t have them), so I can see it with fresh eyes.

    1. Well, the beauty of this is we can all chime in and agree or disagree but the dialogue is most important. I made a reference in a comment above that stated an opinion, but perhaps it was hasty.

      If I apply some of my definitions to it, it passes on some levels. However, the argument changes from is or isn’t to one of a qualitative degree.

      Maybe TB will come to New Zealand and then you can decide for yourself. If it does, I recommend sticking with the simple items first, tacos, nachos, etc.

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