“What makes great architecture?” is a presumptive question to ask. It suggests that the author knows the answer. If you search on google most entries are less bold such as: “What makes architecture successful?”, or “What makes a good building?” Richard Meier answers the question on YouTube “What is good design?” Peter Eisenman, one of the most self absorbed architects alive was more bold and asked: “What makes great architecture?” His book; Ten Canonical Buildings: 1950-2000, answers this question by analyzing ten “great” buildings from the last century based on theory and innovation. As much as I dislike Peter Eisenman, I admire his courage, conviction, and dedication to great architecture.
Sometime around 30 B.C., Vitruvius, the author of a Roman treatise on architecture, wrote a famous statement that is still quoted by architects today. He said that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of: “firmness, commodity and delight.”
- Firmness refers to the quality of construction. In todays conditions this would address the construction as well as the environmental impact of the building.
- Commodity relates to how the building is used or how it functions.
- Delight is often translated into ‘beauty’. It is the poetic attributes of the building that separate ‘architecture’ from ‘utility’.
When Apple invented the iPhone they created something great. The iPhone, while not a building, met Vitruvius’s three principles of ‘design’. The phone was well built, very functional and beautiful to look at. The iPhone also gave the public more than they asked for, even more than they knew was possible.
Notre Dame de Paris is unequivocally great architecture. It advanced technology necessary to build such a structure, it was a monument to the Catholic Church that was central to the people’s lives in Paris and it is eternally beautiful. Great architecture requires great clients with vision and drive. It also helps if the clients are autocratic.
Is it possible to have great architecture in Colorado?
In the public sector I think that it is possible but not likely. It would require the perfect storm of vision, money and public backing. In the private sector it is more likely, particularly, in the residential single family housing. This is one of the main reasons HMH specializes in single family residences. We are always striving to design the next great piece of architecture even though it may not be very large.