The Purpose of Architecture

Published on 05/25/2011

Architects have their competing theories of architecture, and they have poured out rivers of ink trying to justify this or that as the purpose of their endeavors. But the ordinary citizen, without thinking about it, knows what the purpose of architecture is, and probably knows it better than an architect who has spent his life filling his head with arcane theories.

The purpose of architecture is to create useful spaces that people want to be in.

It’s not enough to make the space useful if people hate being in it. And it’s not enough to make people want to be in it if they can’t use it for its intended purpose.

But being attractive without being useful is probably better than being useful without being attractive. If people like a space, they’ll find a way to make it work. If people don’t like a space, they’ll stay away, even if it  seems to meet all their practical needs.

Architecture creates more than one kind of space. Interior spaces are the ones we usually think about. But architecture creates exterior spaces as well. A new building on a street makes it a different kind of street. Is it a street where people want to be, or is it a street they hurry through? The architect is as much responsible for the street his building sits on as he is for the space inside the building. If a new construction creates a long, blank wall that people instinctively avoid, the architect has effectively destroyed the street. Businesses on the other side of it will wither, and the street will exist only as a passage from one more desirable place to another.

Style is less important than scale in creating spaces people like. Architecture on a human scale is inherently more friendly than architecture on a titanic scale. Monumental architecture needs smaller subdivisions to make itself relatable: the arches in a Roman basilica, or the stilts in a Mies van der Rohe office building. Great slabs of concrete or stone put us off instead of welcoming us; remembering the human scale is the thing that makes architecture work.

These are all obvious ideas, but the enthusiasm of an all-encompassing theory of architecture can make an architect forget them. An architect needs to look at his plans and ask, “Will people want to be here?” Perhaps he should point to different spots on the blueprint at random: Will people want to be here, or here, or here? If he can always answer yes to that question, he’s done his job well.