Evaluating Architecture: Objective or Subjective

Roger Lewis in the Washington Post asks: “how can one reliably evaluate architecture to distinguish between excellent design and mediocre or poor design?”

Lewis laments that American officialdom tends to avoid this question. “Consequently, design standards and evaluation criteria focus on building characteristics that can be assessed objectively: functional performance, structural stability and durability, public health and safety, energy conservation, environmental impact and financial feasibility. Zoning and building codes do not address architectural style, contextual fit, visual composition or aesthetic creativity. Laws and policies do not talk about building scale, shape and proportion, symmetry and asymmetry, texture and color, or details and ornamentation. Yet these fundamentally determine the aesthetic quality of architecture, whether a house or a museum.”

“Not surprisingly, lack of public discourse about design quality has produced urban and suburban environments full of unattractive, unlovable architecture. Our utilitarian culture has enabled government and the private sector to develop millions of utilitarian structures — houses, apartments, offices, shopping centers, schools, warehouses, hotels — that are architecturally banal and sometimes downright ugly.”

“[Good] design requires judgment calls that reflect personal tastes and shifting preferences. Indeed, a frequently heard maxim sums it up: ‘Put three architects in a room, and you’ll get five opinions’.” That’s not a bad thing, I say.



2 Responses to “Evaluating Architecture: Objective or Subjective”

  1. 1 Liza
    2009/05/19 at 11:45 pm

    What a coincidence! I just saw a great documentary today called “OBJECTIFIED”.

    The documentary asked the question: what makes good design. To which about a dozen designers replied. Each talked about how to make their mark while still be responsible citizens, changing an old design to help alleviate discomfort in the world.


    (As a few side notes, I saw this documentary with my friend Casey Gollan who is going Cooper Union for Art in the fall. He has considered architecture and is actively reading our blog.

    I have finished my second day of my internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yesterday a Francis Bacon exhibit opened (excellent) and Michelle Obama “stopped by” (we had a lock down because we were not allowed to move around the building in certain areas…) (It would be interesting to diagram that particular Monday at the Met by means of loose sketches on an exploded axonometric hard line representation to the Museum.)

    Today I helped movers relocate display cases for the newest exhibit “Afganastan”.)

  2. 2 cmuarch2013student
    2009/05/20 at 12:13 am

    It’s basically the same argument as there being a universal art form. What one person may see as art, may be trash in the eyes of another. But I think the thing that sets architecture, and I suppose design as well, would be those characteristics that are objective, rather than subjective….

    I’m actually torn on this whole debate though. I’ve been sitting here trying to argue for looking at something on an objective level of performance, and then separately with an aesthetic view. But that could only happen in an ideal world, where one would actually pick up an object and explore something without first being drawn in by an interesting appearance. Both play such an immense role in both design and architecture, and I guess that’s what is making this whole debate to begin with.

    Nevertheless, I strongly feel that the subjective natures of creative fields is what gives the final products their success. This type of atmosphere can benefit in a number of ways:

    1. Because designers have the opportunity to create mundane or ugly things, it allows those with a “better” view to create something stunning and artful, I suppose.
    2. It also gives designers the chance to take a risk, and maybe stumble across something they never would have seen before (which is why we have seen so many periods of art and architecture).
    3. As far as architecture is concerned, it may prove zestful to have a geometry based on certain parameters or rules or formulas. After it is derived, may be a tremendously attractive and functional space. The same can happen with something completely arbitrary or “random” at first, that is then manipulated by the author of the work.

    I would love to see this documentary to see what views are brought up, but I’m not sure I could make it into New York to see it before the last screening. I just find it extremely interesting (same goes for the art debate), because there are so many points that can be brought up, and I love to hear viewpoints for a seemingly unresolvable debate…as long as people don’t bring up the same points over and over *cough*people in crit hist*cough*


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