A Science Of Shelter: Principles of Architecture

I’ll be commenting repeatedly here on matters of architecture (primarily on local building but with reference to structures and builders elsewhere if relevant to any point) and although I’ve never studied the subject professionally, I have read a bit in esthetics, the philosophy of art.  Esthetics in general, though, can be as turgid as statements from the builders themselves, and I’ve found very few quotations of clarity among architecture’s practitioners; here are a few of the best:

  • “Form follows function.” – Louis Sullivan
  • “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature.  It will never fail you.” – Frank Lloyd Wright
  • “I would throw out everything that is not reasonable.” – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Those three statements contain close to the sum total of what I believe is the clearest path to good architectural practice.  What follows are more specific principles from me which relate to at least one of the above, together with at least a sketch of validation:

  1. A good structure must further the purpose of the user. The activity giving rise to the building should direct its creation.
  2. A good structure must harbor no false structural elements. One should apprehend truth in order to pursue life, so one should not engage in pretense in any aspect of life, hence one should eliminate falsehood in the practice of building.  Purposes of advertising can be served by plastic elements but these are nonstructural and therefore secondary concerns; structural fidelity is the primary concern.
  3. A good structure must harbor no contradictory elements. One should not work counter to one’s purpose in any aspect of life.
  4. A good structure must work with, not against nature. To avoid issues such as material rot, structural stress or foundational failure, follow the lead of the environment of the structure.
  5. Historical reference, while rarely needed, is correctly executed in context by a good structure if functional; truthful anachronism is not a lie. For example, if a bracket appears to support a roof eave, it must actually do so.  If a shutter is present next to a window, it must operate in order to provide the protection originally  intended.  Any ornamental effect must not override or contradict the functional benefit of the feature.
  6. A good structure contains no more technical complexity than needed.  Complexity can work against reliability and can introduce points of potential failure. Visually and stylistically, complexity can lead to fatigue, confusion, boredom and the obscuring of the purpose of the structure.
  7. A good structure will use local and nearby materials when possible and practical. Such materials should be used not only for economy and relation to the land and surroundings, but due to the physical
    appropriateness effect: the most resilient materials for an area will probably be found traditionally in use in that area.

Here’s a list of resources I’ve consulted or found helpful. With varying levels of clarity, some builders and commentators have raised issues and proposed answers to those issues in these works.

  • The Living City – Frank Lloyd Wright
  • The Glass House – Philip Johnson
  • The Painted Word – Tom Wolfe
  • From Bauhaus To Our House – Tom Wolfe
  • Architects Of Fortune – Elaine Hochman
  • The Architecture of Mackie And Kamrath – Scott Reagan Miller, Rice University Press

Therefore, for use in future articles, this post lays out my principles and starting points within the larger scope of ObjectivelyHouston’s direction.  As I observe, critique and learn more, I may add to or alter this post as an aid to both myself and the reader.

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