How to Spot Good (and Great) Architecture

With help from architecture interpreter Frances Anderton, who hosts KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture.


Think of a great hotel room. It’s spacious, brightly lit, and filled with thoughtful details. Maybe it has a great view, and a big, fluffy bed. I once stayed in a castle in northern Scotland that had incredible 20-foot ceilings in every room. I felt, quite literally, like a king.

Now think of a terrible hotel room — dark, claustrophobic, festooned with generic “art,” and loaded up with hideous drapes and a flat, lifeless comforter on the bed. I’ve been in more of those than I care to admit (usually in the vicinity of airports) and hated every one. They feel dystopian, absent any mechanism of interest or inspiration.

Great architecture, then, is holistic and unified — meant to both convey something and generate a feeling to those who inhabit it.

This is, at base, how architecture works. It influences actions and emotions, for better or worse. The same effect happens whether you’re talking about individual rooms or buildings as a whole, and in homes, offices, or public spaces. They can make you feel like a contented hobbit, a captain of industry, or a citizen of the world. Alternatively, you can feel like a mere drone, passing through — well, what, precisely? And that’s the thing: the worst architecture defies description and lacks any sort of meaningful, deliberate goal. Thoughtful, deliberate design, on the other hand, generates a real impact on the observer or occupant. Here’s how to tell the difference:

Embrace the totality of architecture. Appreciating architecture really begins with understanding what it is and what it isn’t. When people think of the term, they usually conjure up cathedrals, historic governmental buildings, or quaint old-timey towns. The truth, however, is that architecture is woven into all parts of our lives — in great ways through boldly designed office spaces and cutting-edge modernist residences, but mostly in mundane, half-assed, contractor-designed suburban homes, lazy retail spaces and budget-driven, functional corporate islands. When you look at a building you should be able to tell (or innately feel) in a moment whether it’s a thoughtful piece of design or a straight-up hack job.

Grasp the building’s purpose — and ambition. The key to understanding how architecture functions is simple: awareness. How is the building working? What’s it doing? How well does it do its primary job, and what is the extra je ne sais quoi that it brings to the table? You can spend hours reading up on architectural symbolism and design styles with any significant building, but nothing replaces simply going there and divining for yourself what the building actually does.

“So many factors contribute to this — light, materials, proportions, tactile qualities, and most important, scale,” said architecture interpreter Frances Anderton, who hosts KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture show in Los Angeles. “If you walk into Chartres Cathedral, you’re in this marvelous space, and it’s almost a physiological experience. When you go in a museum, it tries to be somehow elevating for the person wandering in the space.”

So when you walk up to a building, assess whether it’s inviting or intimidating, rich in details or spartan in design, functionally intuitive or a baffling mystery. All of those will impact the ultimate effect of a piece of architecture.


Tune in to your emotions. Grasping how you feel and what you like or dislike about a building will help you understand the architecture better, and help imprint the impact in your psyche. Of course, buildings have different impacts on different people. Anderton points out that someone admiring the newly redesigned Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, by architects Kohn Pederson Fox, will smile at its metal-ribbon façade and enjoy the playfulness, while another will geek out on its high-tech construction and the building’s place in a modern Los Angeles movement initiated by Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, which opened in 2003.

The Getty Center, also in L.A., is another example of an emotionally polarizing work of architecture. It’s a gleaming white hilltop campus of museums, conference spaces, and offices designed by Ricard Meier and opened in 1997, and famous for its crisp edges, spectacular views and alternating open and closed configuration. “You go in there and you wonder, is it a building, or a landscape, or an open space?” Anderton noted. “It’s all of those, and many people find that it’s not the buildings themselves that impact them the most, but the spaces between the buildings — the little passageways, the viewing platforms, the different vantage points, of both the city below and the buildings themselves.”

Look for transcendence. Great architecture, then, is holistic and unified — meant to both convey something and generate a feeling in those who inhabit it. Nowhere is this more profoundly encapsulated than at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, outside Pittsburgh. The 1935 structure is a masterpiece, and unlike virtually any style of contemporary residence you could name. Instead of high ceilings, they’re low. The rooms, wide. The feeling is intimate, almost cave-like, and open to the rushing waterfall right outside. A boulder protrudes into the living room, and throughout the building the materials and designs echo the natural environment. The furniture is integrated into the design, not an afterthought. The result is a slew of tangible, concrete impacts — coziness, connection, yet with enough space to not feel claustrophobic or oppressive. It’s a work of functional art, pure and simple.

Look for complete designs. Compare the Getty Center or Fallingwater to most other offices or residential structures — the drab cubes in office parks, or the builder-designed houses that have brick façades and vinyl siding. It’s like the designer coughed up a market-approved street-facing façade, and then just stopped. Any truly well-designed building is complete, with as much attention paid to the back and sides as the street view, and as much paid to the back rooms as the main foyers. That’s Getty, and that’s Fallingwater. Go to Getty and stand in any random spot, and the views in every direction will be interesting and satisfying. Then go to Fallingwater and admire the simultaneously camouflaged and grand exterior. Then stand in the living room and rue the fact that it’s not the official blueprint for every home in America.

Additional Illustrations by Silvana Volio

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