So, what is the definition of ‘good’ architecture? How can it be summed up concisely and succinctly? At first, the thought of ‘good’ architecture may conjure up images of iconic buildings; perhaps the uniqueness of the Eiffel Tower or the skyline of the Sydney Opera House? Or could it be America’s famous Empire State Building, or our own-grown, historic Houses of Parliament and Big Ben?
There’s no question that these buildings are amongst the most iconic in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning as the best architecture in the world. There are so many different industries and categories of buildings, that ‘good’ architecture manifests itself in many ways; what’s deemed good within the retail sector is entirely different to that of a museum or theatre. Similarly, a food factory has a completely different ‘make-up’ compared to that of a school or university.
We may not be able to compare all of these buildings within the realms of attractiveness and beauty, but if you get down to the basics, they all need to provide the best possible functionality. The well-used architectural saying of ‘form follows function’ lends itself to any building in any industry, and should arguably be at the top of the list of ‘do’s’ when debating this subject.
Of course, that’s not the only factor to consider. Choosing the right materials is imperative, as is light, colour, running costs and a clear process flow (this is particularly pertinent in airports, warehouses, food plants and the like). How welcoming a building is and how well it works on a human scale certainly have their place in the process too – in fact, all of these are factors that ultimately lead to a building standing the test of time; and if it stands the test of time, surely you have yourself an illustration of good architecture.
What we must also consider here is a professional versus public argument. What is gushed about by the industry experts may not be viewed so positively by ‘everyman’, who wants to look at a ‘nice’ building that appears to do its job well.
Having said that, if you were to follow the professional route and assess what is favoured by the experts, you would have to be drawn to the RIBA Stirling Prize. The annual award is described as ‘the best European building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year’, and is THE title every architect dreams of.
One lady who is no stranger to the Riba Stirling Prize is Zaha Hadid, who won the coveted prize in both 2010 for the MAXXI Museum in Rome, and 2011, for the Evelyn Grace Academy, in Brixton, South London. The first time a school has won the prize, not only is it an imaginative building that looks great, it also makes excellent use of the limited space available and allows school to be fun and interesting.
And we can’t talk about Hadid without mentioning the rave reviews she’s currently enjoying, for the Olympic Aquatics Centre. Built to resemble a wave, the concept was inspired by the fluid geometry of water in motion, with the inside providing a number of architectural gems, as well as 17,500 spectator seats.
A major consideration within this debate that we haven’t yet touched on is, of course, sustainability. The ‘eco’ word is now put before almost everything when talking about buildings of the future and restorations of old buildings. We have eco homes, eco superstores and even eco schools, but does this approach allow the best architecture to emerge? Historically, many sustainable materials have almost been bordering on ugly, although in recent years, there have been more new products, materials and methods being introduced to combat this problem.
The carbon footprint of a building is now a major part of the design process, but use of materials, cost of installation and running costs all need to be carefully considered. The introduction of the BREEAM rating in 1990 revolutionised the way in which architects incorporate sustainable methods and materials, and has since become a major benchmark in assessing a building’s environmental performance (the crème de la crème being a rating of ‘outstanding’). However, the issue still remains with some sustainable projects that, whilst they are worthy of many a green credential, the payback and running costs are great, and have big financial implications once the building is in use.
On an everyday level, one of our own projects that certainly ticks all of the boxes is The Partis Building in Milton Keynes. The office building achieved the sought-after ‘excellent’ BREEAM rating for its high energy efficiency and sustainability, and clearly utilises the form follows function approach to its fullest. The building includes a light and spacious reception, adjacent to a structurally glazed atrium that accommodates office and café space; the open plan and cellular office spaces are also carefully arranged to maximise use of natural daylight and ventilation.
On a bigger scale, Hopkins’ Olympic Velodrome is a beautiful, elegant building that cleverly uses the roof to reflect its functionality; and with the 2012 Olympics now underway and images of the Velodrome being beamed into millions of homes worldwide, we could be on the verge of a new national iconic building.
Having taken a decent chunk of time to discuss the many facets of good architecture, where do we begin with the bad? Poor choice of materials and spatial relationships, high running costs and buildings in a poor state of repair are all major contenders for the list, but, in short, we could potentially just sum it up as the opposite of good architecture!
There are certain other considerations, such as poor proportions, different cultural views, and, as with anything, the benefit of hindsight and history, but ultimately, it does all result in bad architecture being everything good architecture is not.
Design time, design cost and build costs, should not, but may effect quality of design. Cutting corners to produce something more cheaply or within tight time and budget constraints may seem like the right thing to do at the time, but in the long-term, can only have a negative effect.
In the UK, we could use the high rise failures and social experiments of the 1960’s as a prime example of bad architecture, although that’s not to say that all of this type of housing is bad or cheap; there are many examples of cost effective high rise housing still being built today, but the way in which it’s built is different.
Returning to the subject of good architecture being able to stand the test of time, with the huge array of methods and materials available to us today, you could argue that anything that doesn’t stand the test of time, can be adapted to suit modern times. Although, there is always the option that a building is so bad, it’s actually cheaper and easier to demolish and start again.
So, what can we conclude from this? That there is no quick, easy definition of good architecture, but instead, a number of factors to consider, including time, money, the industry, form follows function approach, process flow, light, sustainability and so it goes on. And the bad? Turn the good list upside down!