Monday, July 7, 2014

Four Questions: Q1: What is architecture?

I subscribe to an email list that talks about traditional and classical architecture, often the talk of the philosophy of architecture, and the philosophy of aesthetics is a topic. A contributor who I respect posted recently a series of questions to the list, trying to ascertain if people had any sort of common principles from which we were approaching the subject of classical architecture.

1. What is architecture
2. What is classical and why?
3.  How is classical different from traditional?
4.  What are the orders?

In the next series of posts, I will try to give a brief, but more in depth answer to these questions than I was able to give in the midst of our online discussion. I will try to answer each in one post, but some may require further elucidation.

What is architecture?

The Parthenon
Architecture is commonly thought of as simply the profession which is concerned with the designing of buildings.  The architect draws up a design on paper, or more commonly these days, a computer, and hands off his vision to a builder.   Most simply he's the person who understands everything necessary to build a building which the client needs. The architect takes in consideration the place of the building, the building laws, the necessary activities taking place in the building and the technology necessary to keep the building dry and comfortable for its occupants. An architect also might take into consideration a number of other factors, such as the environmental impact of his building, and so work to reduce its power consumption or even prefer some materials over others that the production of which causes deleterious effects in his city or country.

Now for most people these simple utilitarian ends are more than sufficient for them to feel that an architect has done his job. Were an architect to be simply a technician, then this definition would be sufficient, indeed the word itself implies this. Coming from the Greek, arche, meaning master or highest, combined with tekton, builder; the architect is simply the orchestrator of technical skills to build something.  But today architects who are in the highest demand around the world are not desired for simply their technical knowhow, but because they build structures which in themselves we consider a work of art.

What makes architecture into an art, a "fine" art that is, is when it goes beyond simply the utilitarian needs of a building and becomes something in which we find pleasure or delight. That delight is there not simply because the building is put together well, but because the building has something more to add which all people are able to see, a layer of meaning, or if you will, poetry.

The addition of poetry to the practice of building is what makes architecture into an art, and indeed what makes a building truly architecture.  All other considerations can make a perfectly acceptable building, but one that is not architecture. Of course just like there are many poets and many styles of poetry, there are many different means of which an architect uses to add poetic meaning to a building and transform it into architecture.  Order and disorder, materials and arrangement, ornament and decoration, all are tools in the architects palette as an artist.  I believe in answering the next three questions we will see what poetic devices are best for an architect to transform simple building into architecture.


  1. My own working definition is "architecture is the fine art of making buildings for both the body and the soul".

  2. Ah, Mr. Bootsma, just so! Your choice of the word "poetry" to describe that ineffable, perceivable, felt, certain something that elevates a building to the level of fine art is excellent. And the philosopher agrees: My buddy Kierkegaard, in his book "Repetition" uses that same word to define the quality a man must possess in order to be truly whole.
    I would disagree on one small matter. You state that a perfectly acceptable building is not, by your definition, architecture. It seems to me that, by common definition, all buildings are architecture. Bad or insignificant architecture, perhaps, but, architecture, none-the-less. Mind you, this is semantics; but, you know, the proper semantics matter when word-smithing.
    Besides that, I reiterate, "Poetry" is spot on. This essay was long overdue, a delight to read and great food for thought. Plus, I find myself agreeing with you (!) Well done, Erik.