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Volume 6.1  02/01/2013
What is good architecture?
by William Albinson, AIA

Is there a straightforward definition of good architecture? 

What should one look for in a good building? 

Good architecture is to some extent subjective, but it is possible to provide a definition or at least some objective criteria.


The term we will be looking at is good architecture, not great architecture. That designation can be left to the experts and critics, and more importantly to history. But before we leave the topic of great architecture...


Great architecture is recognized by most as including the Parthenon in Athens (1) with its beautiful classic proportions.


Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris (2) is not only beautiful but also a structural advancement in the use of flying buttresses. 
The Wainwright Building (3) here in Downtown St. Louis is recognized as the first skyscraper to express its verticality. 

Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York (4) combines beauty, structural achievement and unique form as well as function in its spiral gallery. 

All of these are wonderful buildings and are generally recognized as great architecture


Recognizing and obtaining a consensus about which buildings around us are good architecture and which are not, however, may be a challenge.

Disagreements among the public and even among architects can be expected. However, a basic and generally agreed upon definition of good architecture is needed to understand our built environment and to make decisions about what we want it to be like.

AIA Guidelines

The St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects has adopted guidelines for what makes good design. Bill Albinson of TeamFour/Saur had a hand in preparing these guidelines. Some of them relate to our geographic area and others are universal. They will not be repeated in detail here but they are the basis for this discussion. The Guidelines for the St. Louis AIA’s Support of Design and Development Projects can be seen on the chapter’s web site: Portions of the AIA’s Guidelines text state that:

“Good design can and should be the norm, not the exception. Architecture, design and the quality of the built environment matters, and the citizens of St. Louis should have the best.

The Chapter wishes to support good design in projects that reinforce the region’s focus on the core City of St. Louis and other established centers; that invest in our existing infrastructure and building stock; and that use a sound design process leading to buildings that fit into their context, function well for their users, have an image appropriate to their function and role, and whose organization is understandable to the public.”



Some important criteria for good architecture come to us from Marcus Vitruvius, a 1st century BC, Roman architect and engineer working in the time of Caesar Augustus. Vitruvius was the author of what we now call The Ten Books on Architecture. His criteria for a good building were expressed in an early English translation as firmness, commodity and delight.


Firmness, Commodity and Delight

The three criteria from Vitruvius remain important to successful architectural design but they have to be adjusted to the contemporary situation. 

Firmness in ancient times included structural stability. That is now taken for granted due to sophisticated building codes, at least in urban areas, in the United States. Its contemporary meaning is more in the line of durability. How well does a building minimize obsolescence from deterioration over time? That should be relative to the building’s importance in society. We don’t build every building for a 100 year life span.

Commodity is usefulness or a building’s organization. It is the ability of the building to fulfill the functional or social need from which it sprung. Is it useful as intended? Since functions evolve fairly rapidly these days, including some flexibility could be considered useful as well.

Delight is attractiveness or beauty and it should be applied to the exterior and in the spaces of the building. For Vitruvius that meant the correct use of classical forms. Its contemporary interpretation is wider and might be characterized as appeal. It is one of the reasons for the variety in appearance of our buildings. We apply different criteria for appeal depending on the role of the building. A place of worship is expected to be beautiful but a simple barn or cabin can be as well.

Two Examples
The Eagleton U. S. Courthouse (5) in St. Louis by HOK is an example of a building that fulfills these three criteria. 

Firmness or durability is achieved with a reinforced concrete frame, stainless steel roof domes, terrazzo floors and high quality mechanical systems that will serve it well into the future. Commodity is achieved through well organized floor layouts and courtrooms so that both the needs of the public and the federal courts are well served. (6) Delight or attractiveness is in this case achieved by the appropriately monumental appearance of the federal courthouse, the views from the upper level courtroom lobbies and the open, clean lines and beautiful materials of the courtrooms themselves.(7)





Another example meeting these criteria is the Robie House (8) by Frank Lloyd Wright, now part of the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park.
Durable materials and sound structural design (the latter not always synonymous with Wright’s houses), make it functionally easy to understand and use, and certainly delightful to look at and experience.(9,10)
In applying the three criteria from Vitruvius of firmness, commodity and delight, both of these buildings are good architecture, with the Robie House perhaps being great architecture.






Next time as part of a continuing series, the newsletter will explore the modernization of these criteria and include some other examples of good architecture. There will be a few examples of firmness, commodity and delight that you will recognize. There may also be a few examples of flimsiness, uselessness and unattractiveness just to be fair to the other end of the spectrum. We will consider the importance of context and even consider style.
Image Credits:

1-4 Team Four/Saur Architects
5 SkyPix-St. Louis, Helicopter Aerial Photo & Video Services,
6 U.S. General Services Administration
7 Beaubois,
8 Simon Glynn /
9 Glenn Switzer : Switzer's Nursery & Landscaping,
10 Simon Glynn /

TeamFour/Saur provides architectural, planning, site and interior design services that support our client’s needs and contribute to the quality of the built environment.
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