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What Makes Good Architecture Good? Three Ways To Spot A Great Building

A lot of people have written about architecture over the course of human history, but the earliest surviving text we have on the subject is called De architectura. It was written by a man named Vitruvius, an Ancient Roman architect and civil engineer whose work founded what is a thriving field to this day. Perhaps his most famous quote is one cited in architectural study the world over:

A well building hath three conditions: firmness, commodity and delight.

At first glance, this seems self-evident: a good example of architecture needs to be strong and sturdy, be fit for its purpose and be nice to look at. Once you start unpacking those three concerns, however, it quickly becomes clear that they're complex subjects--beauty is subjective, "fit for purpose" has a lot to unpack behind it, and strength will vary massively depending on environment. So what makes good architecture good? How can you tell if a building you're looking at is a pinnacle of the field or just a white elephant? That's a subjective matter, but you can begin just by asking yourself these three questions:

  1. Can this building stand the test of time, or will it date quickly? Architects have a unique responsibility to time. They often find themselves needing to work sympathetically with the buildings of the past to create something that does a valuable job in the present and will also enrich the future--and that's no small ask. Good architectural design is timeless; it shows the hallmarks of its own era, of course, but it will be enjoyed for generations to come. It's very clear to the casual observer that the Houses of Parliament are the product of one era while the Empire State Building is the product of another--but both are beautiful and relevant to the modern eye despite that. Many of the towers dominating the skylines of Australian cities, on the other hand, have been widely criticised and are unlikely to stand for more than a generation or two--they're failing to pass the time test.  
  2. Has much thought been given to how this building works alongside the built environment it's in? No building stands entirely alone, and a good architect will think about the way their work fits with its surroundings. The iconic skyline of New York is so well-known that adding something new to it is a major decision; any architect good enough to take such a task on will give serious thought to the impact their work will have on that view. Working with older buildings is a hot topic right now, too: forced facade preservation often leads to truly terrible architecture, but someone who is sympathetic to their materials and genuinely good at what they do can take that same principle and do something amazing with it. Over in Melbourne, facadism is even becoming popular in domestic homes
  3. What about the natural environment? Of course, other buildings aren't the only thing sharing space with a new structure: they also need to fit in with the natural world around them. Edinburgh is a city in which the bustle of metropolitan life, the rugged naturalness of the Scottish landscape and the demands of long-standing history need to live side by side, making the design of its new parliament buildings no mean feat. The building sits almost at the crux of this issue: it needs to be a modern, green building from which a country can be run, but it's also right at the foot of the Royal Mile (which is cobbled, packed with Tudor and medieval architecture, and almost universally very old indeed) and flanked on its other side by Arthur's Seat (which is kept in the heart of the city as a totally natural bit of rocky, cliff-filled landscape, and looks just like you're in the middle of the countryside). The building itself has become deeply controversial: some love it and others hate it, but it's pretty widely regarded as not working at all well with the landscape it is a part of.

Architecture is an art form, and like all art forms the appreciation of it is subjective. Nevertheless, there are a few tests that can help a layperson decide how they feel about a building's architectural merit--and these are three of the most important.