What makes a great building?

I am always intrigued that, as a profession, architects are quite suspicious of evidence-based research when assessing whether a building is successful, and I often wonder why this is the case.

Although it’s a simplistic comparison, medics would be amazed at our decision-making process given that nearly all of their decisions are based on proven outcomes. One of the advantages that doctors have is that the outcome, or desired outcome, is reasonably clear in that it should benefit the health of the patient. So who should architecture benefit, and can we measure it?

Speaking to a developer the other day, I was struck by how they described a solidly successful residential architect they worked with: “They’re never going to win the Stirling, but they just get it, you know?” When I pressed them about what “it” is, “it” turned out to be something as simple as understanding what the developer’s customers wanted. Essentially, the architect in question knew what residential buyers wanted in a certain part of London and knew how to deliver it.

So a commercial benefit is actually a customer benefit to this sector of market housing. You can measure this, and it is called sales, but I wonder how many architects genuinely worry about whether their designs will sell? Perhaps this is too unseemly?

There is a more obvious measure of a building that is of wider benefit: the environmental impact of our designs. With smart meters connected to the internet, we can easily gather real data from our buildings to see what has worked and what has not. If you go to the AECB conference, for example, you can hear a series of talks by consultants and architects bearing their souls about successes and failures. Given the time and emotional investment we put into our buildings, it can be incredibly difficult to discuss this honestly; I am always impressed when established practitioners like Justin Bere are willing to share their experiences, good and bad.

However, the gathering of post-occupancy data for a building’s operation still seems to happen mainly at a larger scale, and the information is then kept within the preserve of the services consultants. There is also an inherent problem in that nobody is really interested in delivering bad news, and this can prevent the data, good and bad, from making it into the public domain. The introduction of EPCs and DECs is a great start, but what we need is an honest assessment of which design strategies worked as predicted.

Commercial or sustainable success is only part of the story. Arguably the most important contribution architects make is cultural — but not only is this hard to measure, it is even harder to pin down exactly where the “culture” of a building resides. Is it in the behaviour of people within the built environment and the kind of societal interaction it promotes? Is it how a design promotes other cultural practices? Is it the symbolism of a design, how it acts as either a sign or a signifier, that defines it?

When Greg Lynn proposed his Stranded Sears Tower project in 1992 he remodelled the monumental form in sinuous curves on the ground, to allow more interaction with the people and urban fabric of the city. In other words, the new form of the building would promote new types of cultural and social interaction. I think this transformational effect, a kind of spatial liberation, is something that drives many architects, from the systems architects of the seventies to the parametricists of today. But I think we would struggle to work out how to measure it, and consequently often fail to communicate to the wider public what we hope to achieve culturally, and why.

So the benefit of architecture, which many in the profession feel most keenly, is also the one that is hardest to define and communicate in the abstract. And this is the key point: you do not have to measure how awe-inspiring a great building is — you feel it. In the end, a building that uses more than its fair share of resources, or does not cater properly for its occupants, will not survive the Darwinian race for survival. As a profession, we should embrace this and seek to gather as much data as we can. Although it is hard to provide evidence for the need for great architecture, without getting the basics right we will never get a chance to demonstrate this greatness through our buildings.

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