Pertains to the physical appearance and image of building elements and spaces as well as the integrated design process.
The broad obligations and opportunities of architecture were summarized by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in the prescription that buildings should provide Commodity, Firmness and Delight. Commodity addresses the spatial and functional utility of a building. Firmness addresses the building’s ability to resist natural forces, starting with gravity. Delight relates to the sensory and associative pleasures buildings can provide—their meaning.
When the forms of architecture were limited by materials and construction methods, aesthetic principles were narrowly defined by the successors to Vitruvius. In the modern era, many more forms are possible, and the selection or invention of those forms can give a much wider range of meaning.
Choosing traditional forms is possible and can follow, or violate the principles of the many styles of architecture which followed Roman classicism. Selection of such a style shows an intention of continuity with the life and buildings of the period selected, and misinterpretation of principles can be seen as exercising bad taste.
Modern architecture proposed a break with stylistic traditions, and invented what have become new ones—some derived from precedent movements like the Bauhaus, others from the work of influential architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Others found possibilities in vernacular architecture, construction methods, or abstract, new forms.
The selection of specific forms conveys meaning to us, whatever choice is made. A glass building can, for example, mean transparency and honesty, while an opaque building means privacy and concealment. Tall buildings have always been expressions of power; colorful buildings can mean levity and whimsy. The building’s activities can be shown or concealed, as can the means by which the building operates, like structure and mechanical systems.
New developments in architectural tools including sustainable design, the emergence of building science, and building information modeling (BIM) all lead to new insights in the design and construction processes with aesthetics often revisited. As necessity is the origin of invention, scarcity can also inspire. With a lack of quality large timbers for framing, coupled with rising costs for steel and concrete, new production techniques developed around laminating timbers together in large plates. The cross-laminated timber (CLT) framing system as it is known increased in both popularity and acceptance as an alternative to traditional methods of construction. The impact on aesthetics can be seen in the large expanse and planes of wood layers that convey strength and delight.
Contemporary culture advocates diversity of styles, even in cases of historic preservation. It also encourages the development of new architectural languages. In response to this openness, designers agree that aesthetically successful architecture comes from an integrated approach. By correctly formulating a project’s purpose, and engaging in team-wide design reviews, an architect most effectively arrives at a solution that is as delightful as it is cost-effective, secure/safe, sustainable, accessible, and functional/operational. In much of contemporary architecture, the notion of expressive exteriors becomes tempered by new materials such as: high performing glass that conveys literal openness in an age of digital communication via the Internet or alternative roofing technologies that can extend the livable areas to the top of buildings proving a green space that can hold storm water and offer new amenities.
Returning to Vitruvius, his three standards of architecture reinforce one another. Good architecture achieves useful, humane, and economical results, and a building expresses those qualities regardless of style.
A fully integrated building promises to be durable in way that Vitruvius may not have envisioned: It will inspire a community to find ways to use it even when the original program is no longer relevant.
With an eye to integration, an architect makes aesthetic decisions in full collaboration with the client, building users, other consultants, and the public. Therefore it is important for the client and building users to be well informed about the possibilities of architecture. They can assist the design team in conceiving a building that meets the most needs.
To become acquainted with the possibilities of an architectural commission is to study a number of buildings of the same type. In addition, this will help those not familiar with architectural design terminology to understand the basic process, techniques, and language by which architectural concepts become reality.
Understanding the Language and Elements of Design
Architects use specific terminology to describe fundamental elements of a building, and to assess its design quality. A client’s fluency with this vocabulary improves the architect’s application of the elements it represents.
Engage the Integrated Design Process
An integrated design process interlaces the multiple disciplines that inform a building. A series of steps can provide an orderly flow to this dialogue, and the full and constructive participation of all members of the design and delivery team will ensure the best results.
In the late 19th century, Chicago architect Louis Sullivan wrote, “Form follows function.” This became integrated into modern design, and it remains one of the best-known architecture aphorisms today.
What Sullivan implied was that a building’s form is a natural consequence of functional requirements. For many, the statement seemed to advocate for pure utilitarianism in style.
But even a cursory look at Sullivan’s own architecture reveals some of the greatest ornamentation in American architecture. That observation lends weight to a counterargument:(*) that there are multiple ways of meeting the same function (getting people from the first floor to the second; bringing light into a room; making a hinge). Once one of those pathways has been selected, aesthetic considerations come into play. The architect is responsible for resolving all these elements into a singular building design.
From pre-Colombian civilizations and medieval times through today, people have constructed public monuments and private structures to provide shelter, ease daily survival, or expedite governance. Every period these functional buildings have also embodied their cultures’ principles of beauty—and, perhaps less explicitly, their underlying beliefs concerning spirituality, power structures, or civic engagement. Simply put, they have fulfilled roles and engaged aesthetics simultaneously. One should also keep in mind that architectural expression is constrained or, in some cases, shaped by by technical, economic, and social conditions.
Conceiving buildings in the present day, then, would seem especially difficult. Shifting cultural values provide only tentative benchmarks for assessment, and visual manifestations of those values—in other words, styles—are even less concrete. However, there have been attempts to codify standards of contemporary aesthetic achievement. Visual composition is taught in schools, for example. In addition, attempts at conceptual standards include the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, which President Kennedy signed in 1962. Among other things, the guiding principles advocate that public buildings reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the federal government, while embodying the finest contemporary architectural thought; avoid an official style and express the spirit of the locality; ensure physical accessibility to all people; and incorporate the work of living American artists. In other words, the document advises architects to embrace democratic values, seek out innovation and individuality, and provide outlet for multiple expressions of creativity.
The Language of Aesthetics
It is relatively easy to determine whether a given design contains the necessary square footage or the correct number of rooms. Yet the complex nature of aesthetics makes for a more difficult conversation. To assist in this process, architects and designers share a vocabulary that helps them reduce complex ideas into short phrases. This terminology allows a project team’s members to understand and communicate well visually and verbally to produce successful solutions. Moreover, terminology helps clients and building users to better understand aesthetics as architectural language: The way in which an individual architect or whole culture expresses values is in the way individual words become forms, and in the way those tangible parts are put together are sentence structure and grammar.