I assume that if you are reading this, you too have survived a high-school English class. There, you no doubt faced the “Poetry Unit” – often the most vexing three weeks of the course where the basic rules of sentence construction, punctuation, and even spelling seemed to be cast aside with reckless abandon. Initial encounters with poems, at least for me, led to questions like: What makes this a work of genius versus an accidental conglomeration of words? Why does the title have nothing to do with the contents of the poem? Was e.e. cummings’s shift-key broken? But as soon as the teacher gave us a framework to understand and “read” the decisions made in this new genre, you could sense the classroom actually brighten from the turning on of so many metaphorical light-bulbs.
Unlike poetry, most of humanity interacts with buildings so much that their presence fades into the background of our awareness. But I bet there is a level of “initial poetry-encounter” confusion that besets the typical non-architect, when they approach a new building with an old architect-friend, or a familiar building with a new architect-friend. There might be a long pause and then suddenly a list of reasons this building is or isn’t “good.” These reasons are usually full of vocabulary that doesn’t seem to mean what you thought it meant—words like scale, massing, honest materials—and somehow they imbue door jambs and flooring patterns with a ne’er-before-realized philosophical importance.
The truth is, the way an architect “reads” a building is less foreign than it sounds. In many ways, it involves honing basic human instinct about function and aesthetics, and then marrying that instinct to a common vocabulary. Our purpose, beyond impressing our non-architect companion, is equal parts appreciation (or dis-appreciation) and dissection of successful (or unsuccessful) building elements so we can “reverse engineer” this success when it’s our turn behind the drafting board. Not to be too honest, but the long pauses we take upon first entering a space are usually less the stormclouds of theoretical analysis forming in our minds, and more our attempt to determine if the cool light fixtures came from Room and Board or IKEA, and whether we can afford them on the current project we’re designing.
Beyond light fixtures, how do you start “reading” buildings like a pro? It’s hard to find a better basic framework than the three principals that 1st century BC Roman architect Vitruvius noted in his treatise on architecture: Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas. Old-school, yes, but so is the Socratic method—some kernels of truth transcend cliche. Firmitas roughly translates to strength or solidity, Utilitas to usefulness or function, and Venustas to beauty or attractiveness. Good buildings should provide all three.
The Firmitas category is perhaps the most practical: does the building stand up and hold things? After a natural disaster, is the building still standing up and holding things? Most architects let the engineers take care of this and other (read: okay, most) practical questions, so we usually avoid thinking about this in our free time. There is, however, a perception question: does the building appear as though it is strong enough to support itself? If not, even if the math works out on paper, it can still cause some anxiety for occupants and passers-by.
Things become more interesting with Utilitas; in fact I might wager it is the element that the non-architects considers most frequently. Does the building’s form actually follow (and support) its function? And does it support human habitation comfortably in terms of natural daylight and ventilation control, temperature, accessibility, and acoustic concerns. This category can fast become a list of gripes by inhabitants about how the elevators are hard to find or why there’s not more closet space. Although both very legitimate concerns, there are two larger lenses that architects evaluating a building will often consider first. The first is the parti, or “the big, organizational plan idea.” To extend the English metaphor, a parti is rather like a sentence diagram; if you squinted your eyes at a building plan, the parti illustrates how the major functional categories relate to each other.
A building’s parti will significantly affect both its physical form and our spatial journey through that form—do you enter immediately into the most important space (as in a train station waiting hall), or are there a series of transitional spaces between the outside and inside (as in a movie theater)? Certain building types have traditional partis that can be re-thought either as a way to fit all of the building contents on a tight site or to re-frame the user’s experience of the building. Consider the impact of the parti for the new National Museum of African American History, beginning underground and slowly drawing visitors through a narrative history that leads upwards towards daylight above.
The second lense of Utilitas is how a building defines Public and Private space within its plan. The location of, and interaction between, each type of space determines how an inhabitant feels within the building, and what kind of face a building puts forth to the city around it. As an oversimplified example, an inviting lobby (public space) in a retail building located on a downtown street will encourage pedestrians to enter the building and engage the stores inside. If instead the first thing pedestrians encountered was a bathroom or administrative office, they would feel much greater trepidation about entering the building without a formal invitation. Creating logical boundaries and transitions between public and private provides clear directions for the users about how to navigate a series of spaces.
Last we arrive at Venustas: the building may stand up and function, but does it stir our emotions—does it make us fall in love? In this regard, our profession can march out an army of terms to define all the minutiae of elements involved in an architectural endeavor. This is most logically done by starting with the overall, 500-feet-away view and working in towards the fine-grain, 5-feet away details.
I present a rapid-fire demonstration. While these are focused on a building’s exterior form, all of these principles can be applied to a read of the interior spaces as well:
Form: What is the general shape or outline of the building? Square? Octahedron?
Scale: How does the size of the building relate to the things around it, does it appear like a full-grown Sequoia tree in a forest of saplings or like Mama Bear’s chair to Goldilocks’ (just right)?
Massing: How are the major building forms arranged together in relation to one another? Is it boxy or broken up?
Material: Are the materials authentic (plastic that looks like wood or actual wood)? Are its color, texture, and application appropriate to the building type and climate?
Proportion: Are the size of elements relative to each other and to the entire composition? Does that window or door or column look like it fits?
Hierarchy: Are the elements scaled and arranged in a way that clearly communicates what the most important elements are? For example, is it clear which door is the main door?
Balance/Symmetry: If the building were an Olympic gymnast, would it fall over on the balance beam? What is the journey that your eyes take when experiencing a building? Does one side of feel like it has too much detail compared to the other?
Solid/Void: Do the voids (the windows & doors) create a pattern or a visual rhythm? Is there too much solid or too much void?
Detail: Details really are what separate the proverbial wheat from the proverbial chaff. And as the California architect Julia Morgan put it, “buildings should charm by their detail rather than overwhelm by clumsy exuberance.” Do the details reflect careful thought and design, or were they just phoned-in?
Precedent: Is this building’s aesthetic a poor facsimile of an existing building or does it correctly reference its aesthetic ancestors? Every building is part of a lineage of forms going back to humanity’s first attempt at architecture, and it’s worth knowing which forms are being referenced.
The real achievement of Venustas is to take all of these pieces and, as a former professor used to say, “make the building sing.” That song happens when the observer can say with confidence that there is nothing to add, and nothing to take away, that would make the building any better.
If I could add an additional dimension to the Vitruvian framework of “reading” a building, it would be whatever Latin word means “recognition of when a building captures the intangible.” This is the almost subconscious awareness of how a holistic creation arrives at more than the sum of its parts and pieces. Louis Kahn noted this concept in his now-famous quote: “A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable.”
This unmeasurable end state is necessarily hard to quantify, which risks its description becoming nothing more than meaningless fodder for the “About Us” section of an architecture firm’s website. It is the drama that experiencing a building creates within the inhabitant, tied to both individual and collective nostalgia and memory, not unlike favorite books or poems. Does the building appeal to our emotions and if it does, does it do so with decorum or panache?
This intangible spirit also relates to the “content” of a building: through both its function and its aesthetic, what does a building intend to symbolically say about itself, its inhabitants, or its place in the world? Does it succeed in transmitting this content across the many people who interact with it? Many buildings today conflate “novelty” for “significance” when it comes to content; sometimes a house needs to simply and harmoniously say “I am a house, I am recognizable as a house, and you can take comfort in me.” Buildings, at least the ones that are most universally revered, are timeless not only for their aesthetic values but because they continue to reveal clear truths to those that experience them.
If the conversation above has become bogged-down in didactic detail, you can instead rely on what I call the 3-question, “shoes-hat-manners” method: how does the building meet the ground (its shoes), how does the building meet the sky (its hat), and how does the building relate to its neighbors (its manners)? The way in which it meets the ground tells us how a human will first engage with the building. Where it meets the sky reveals a great deal about its form and massing. How it relates to its neighbors tells us whether it is celebrating (or actively rebelling against) the context of its place, particularly through a comparison of details, materials, and proportion.
The data points of both the Vitruvian-framework and the 3-question methods may be scientific in a way, but the subjective result of the evaluation (eg. is this a “good” building?) ultimately lies in the mind and heart of the beholder. Just like evaluating poetry, fashion, or Presidential candidates, it’s up to an individual to decide which of the common criteria to emphasize in making those calls. I suppose this is part of what keeps the architecture profession culturally vital (or at least interesting on Twitter).
So now that you, dear non-architect, are armed with a new framework and some fancy terms, go ahead and impress your architect-friend (or -spouse if you should be so unlucky) with a newfound ability to “read” the built-environment. Or better yet, when a new development project is proposed down the street from your house, go to the public meeting and engage in a meaningful discussion about massing and scale. We architects may be loathe to admit it, but most non-architects have better instincts about the built-environment than you realize. And please tell your friends; an architecturally-informed public will only make our jobs that much easier.