What makes great architecture?

House of Mukesh Ambani, richest person in India

I’ve written the odd bit about architecture and design before (see here) but I always intended to write more. I’d especially like to review buildings, but it’s hard to get any hard information on how buildings perform for their owners and users – that’s one reason why so much architectural writing is either self-serving or vacuous.

So this interesting piece by Indian economist, Ajay Shah, offers another way to approach the subject of architecture. He poses the question: “when and where do great feats of architecture come about?…… Why do some places achieve great feats of architecture, while others routinely opt for merely functional structures?”.

He says that he is instinctively unsatisfied with the claim that the USA lacks great architecture because Americans have poor taste. Instead, he offers the following five explanations for “great feats of architecture”:

Surplus — To go beyond merely functional structures requires resources to spare. At low levels of income, people are likely to merely try to get some land and brick and stone together. In these things, we have nonlinear Engel curves. Pratapgarh looks picayune because Shivaji lacked surplus

The desire to make a statement and to impress — Ozymandius wanted to make a point: He wanted ye Mighty to look at his works and despair. I have often felt this was one of the motivations for the structures on Raisina Hill or the Taj Mahal

Arms races — There may also be an element of an arms race in these things. Perhaps the chaps who built the Qutub Minar (1193-1368) in Delhi set off an arms race, where each new potentate who came along was keen to outdo the achievement of the predecessor. I used to think that the Taj Mahal (1632-1648) was so perfect, that it could not be matched, and thus it put an end to this arms race. But then I saw the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore (1671-1673), and I had to revise my opinion……

Transparency — You only need to impress someone when there is asymmetric information, where that someone does not know how great you are. Shah Jahan needed to build big because the targets of his attention did not know the GDP of his dominion and his tax/GDP ratio. In this age of Forbes league tables, Mukesh Ambani does not need to build a fabulous structure for you to know he’s the richest guy in India. A merely functional house suffices; a great feat of architecture is not undertaken

Accountability — The incremental expense of going from a merely functional structure to a great feat of architecture is generally hard to justify. Hence, one might expect to see more interesting architecture from autocratic places+periods, where decision makers wield discretionary power with weak checks and balances. As an example, I think that Britain had the greatest empire, but the architecture of the European continent is superior: this may have to do with the early flowering of democracy in the UK.

He applies these criteria to China and India. China hosts some amazing “feats of architecture”, funded by its booming economy. It’s also undemocratic, so it’s anxious to impress in order to bolster its legitimacy. On the other hand, he says, India’s greater political transparency and accountability result in fewer “feats”.

I think he uses the phrase ‘great architecture’ a bit loosely. He’s really talking about showpiece architecture, not good architecture. Grandiose buildings are probably over-represented in the ranks of good buildings, but extravagance and flamboyance are neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for good architecture. I agree Mukesh Ambani’s house isn’t “fabulous” but I wouldn’t describe it as “a merely functional house”. It looks like it was meant to impress by its size rather than its architecture.

It’s interesting to contemplate how something like Southern Cross Station fits with Ajay’s schema. Why was a considerable sum of public money spent on creating an interesting and arresting roofscape when functionally something more utilitarian and conventional would’ve sufficed? I think Ajay’s explanations all work to some extent here, but I think there are at least two others worth considering. One is the view that grandiose and spectacular buildings – qualities which are often seen as synonymous with ‘good design’ – make good economic sense. For example, they are thought to market cities better. I think there might also be a taste explanation – the elite group who make these sorts of decisions are increasingly the sort of people who really do value good design.

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4 Comments on “What makes great architecture?”

  1. RED says:

    Maybe interest in and knowledge of design is also a factor. After all, Southern Cross was built during a period when we had an architect in a senior position in government.

  2. The Sydney Opera House (a retrieved design from the discard basket – and classic Australian story) is one of the quintessential examples of the genuinely enormous hidden ‘value add’ to an economy that a great building can generate.

    Thus demanding a total rethink on the issues of affordability, accountability, functionality and utility, let alone wider considerations in relation to factoring cost/benefit and return on investment. Even issues of value to national and city psyche including optimism could legitimately come into play and be seriously considered … with all of THEIR hidden flow on benefits in attitude, outlook, perceptions and results.

    The Sydney Opera House has singlehandedly (but the siting helps!) created a multidimensional and highly positive & beneficial brand for Sydney. Its tourism marketing value alone has paid back it costs many times over.

    Ditto for the new iconic buildings redefining the new Berlin and Spain’s reputation around the world (beyond food). China’s major cities too are definitely succeeding in impressing with their new architecture … going by the highly positive and quite excited comments I constantly hear from sometimes totally surprised returning visitors.

    Similarly, to reinforce this issue in a smaller way, but still in keeping with these more intangible considerations, what is the true value to a city of using up additional, ‘unnecessary’ energy for floodlighting purposes … to highlight its architectural and civic qualities and add some evening magic?

    Beyond all this, my real concern (it has been a very longstanding one), stems from this portion of Ajay Shah’s statement – “To go beyond merely functional structures requires resources to spare. At low levels of income, people are likely to merely try to get some land and brick and stone together.”

    The real truth here is that the failure of what you have called GOOD architecture is the failure to impact sufficiently and ‘generically’ on the most common of human structures – our homes. It is also these that truly define the urban landscape for better or for worse.

    You too have essentially raised this point as a key issue Alan, when you say – “Grandiose buildings are probably over-represented in the ranks of good buildings, but extravagance and flamboyance are neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for good architecture.”

    Good design and specifically good architectural design – including even that potentially spread via more ‘template’ based approaches or INFLUENCES (but featuring fundamentally good ideas & outcomes) – has not yet been sufficiently or systematically applied, in truly far reaching ways, to proving that even a basic utilitarian budget and ‘resourcing’ can and should produce something of simple beauty, pleasure, functionality and ‘value’ (something definable in so many different, but authentic ways). Perceptions of value and pleasure are of course also subjective and usually best judged by those most affected on a daily basis … a key issue you also touch on in your opening sentence by introducing the important criteria of ‘how buildings perform for their owners and users’.

    A possible example of successfully applying design to achieve wider residential and city impacts may have recently been seen with Brad Pitt’s (architectural design-based) efforts to design & build green – and I might add highly desirable looking and diversely styled – houses for the ‘ordinary’ (more like extraordinary!) people of New Orleans.

    However I am not aware of the underlying ‘functionality’ and portability of their final costs (vis a vis their green-ness and wider affordability), so this may not prove to be the best example of what I feel should be possible in terms of your average home building budget.

    What is certain is that superior results using superior design concepts and solutions should be able to be made to fit almost any prevailing budget circumstance in just about any given city.

    Which is why, given this ‘bottom line’ culture of ours, there is still a need – in relation to our built environments and architecture in particular – to pay heed to these fine words from Frank Lloyd Wright (particularly his final sentence):

    “Beauty dissolves conflicts, quiets us within, inspires us, creates a sense of happiness and serenity, refreshes us, and consoles us in times of depression. Beauty is not unnecessary or impractical.”

  3. tanya says:

    Perhaps because I’m not an architect or builder, but I find it odd that it seems to be so difficult to have both great design AND functionality – surely great design should also be functional- although not “follow function”, as in be subordinate to it. I think perhaps architects who design cutting-edge, ground-breaking buildings see them as pure art rather than design means that their role as buildings that people work and/or live receives a low priority.
    When I was studying at Monash, I started a subject called Architecture- but the fact that it was within the Visual Arts Department should have given me a clue as to how it was going to be taught- as art objects with complete disregard for function. Note, I said started- much as I love architecture, I couldn’t cope with this approach & dropped it.
    I hope it’s not too obvious to mention the word ego in this discussion- I would attribute the grand design but woeful functionality of Southern Cross to the ego of the person who commissioned it and the name change to Southern Cross a compromise because it would have been a little too obvious to name it after himself.


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