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Good architecture, now

On good architecture, and the role of comfort in the making of it
Text by
Ravenna Westerhout

What is good architecture? The answer is as complex as the question is simple. With pluriformity in opinions steadily growing, the relative nature of viewpoints increased. This issue presents itself in countless discourses, and notably when the subject of the quality of architecture comes up. Although there certainly are shared truths and clichés about partial aspects of architecture, a dialogue about the absolute worth and appraisal of it appears impossible. The answers, after all, belong to the domain of subjectivity. 

Perhaps we should therefore conclude that to talk about good architecture as if it were an absolute value, is simply impossible. But although it is impossible to describe good architecture in terms of its identity, it is possible to define good architecture in terms of making it. How is good architecture created? And, maybe even more importantly, whom is it created for?

Architecture is the art of making space. To fully understand what space is, and architecture accordingly, one has to be aware of the fact that space is a quality immersed in perception. Buildings and spaces are experienced through the senses. Someone is affected by what they see and feel, by the atmosphere of the place, its structure. They find themselves surrounded in space by objects and surfaces, each with their own size, colour, texture, material and meaning. Jointly, these components define the spaces we dwell in, the transitions between them, and therefore the spatial experience. The surfaces are like skins, each requiring a particular treatment, each reflecting light in a particular way; in combination with light, they determine the atmosphere; light and darkness determine the space.

While the emotional power of other arts, such as cinema, painting and music, is evident, only architecture can simultaneously arouse all the senses, all the levels of perception. An example of this is the cinematic experience of a large, stone cathedral. Although this might draw the spectator through and above it, only the actual building allows the eye to roam freely among specific features. Only the architecture itself offers the tactile sensation of the cold stone, its smooth surface, the experience of light changing with movement, the sounds of the space, its smell, the bodily relations of scale and proportion. As in direct perceptual experience, architecture is at first understood as a sequence of partial experiences, rather than a totality. In essence, it is a cinematic, collage-like approach. It portrays a collage of images that is constantly altered by the movement of users and spectators. Our perception develops from an accumulation of experiences, animated by use, by light, sounds, smells, and by a series of overlapping perspectives, which unfold according to angle and speed of movement.

We see that the question of what people may expect of a building cannot be answered once and for all, if only because the relation between the two is ever changing. This is a consequence of the fact that space is used; it is the space in which we dwell, through which we move, the space we all inhabit. This space is full of meaning: it mirrors who we are, how we look at the world, and reflects how our society is constructed.

So, what is ‘good’ architecture? It appears that good architecture, regardless of its function or its appearance, is architecture that is close to its users, its inhabitants, stimulating their senses. The quality of architecture can thus be found in the way it can be appropriated by the people who inhabit it, letting them perceive it in a way they deem appropriate. In this sense good architecture has to be modest and yet inevitably powerful.  Successful buildings are ones that create an intrinsically poetic environment that provides room for personal expression and interpretation, a flexibility and a sense of abundance, that lend the user the freedom to use and perceive the space according to their own needs and insights. The interplay between these factors can be dubbed by the term comfort.

Comfort, it can be argued, is the very initial and immediate experience of space, and hence can be understood as a notion that addresses architectural quality. The concept of comfort is firstly introduced by Palladio, in his ‘I Quattro libri dell’architettura’, where he complements the three Vitruvian qualities of venustas, utilitas and firmitas (beauty, usefulness, and strength) with commodita, which today we might translate as ‘comfort’. Palladio uses this concept time and again when describing his own buildings; we can safely assume that it was very important to him. The comfort a house should provide is manifest in the structure of Palladio’s classic works such as Villa Emo. It instructs the dimensions of the rooms to be large enough to offer a cool refuge from the stifling summer heat, and of the smaller rooms for Veneto’s cold winters. 

The discourse on comfort in architecture leads to a certain ambiguity, as it is something vague, personal and difficult to seize, a dynamic interaction among objective architectonic aspects and their subjective perception. Juhani Pallasmaa, a Finnish architect and theorist, argues that this experience can be related to the concept of spatial quality: “The quality of a space or place is not merely a visual perceptual quality as is usually assumed. The judgement of environmental character is a complex multi-sensory fusion of countless factors, which are immediately and synthetically grasped as an overall atmosphere, feeling, mood, or ambiance” (Pallasmaa, 2013).  Comfort is first and foremost a total experience, in which all senses are simultaneously at work. The experience of architectural quality, then, is by definition an embodied experience. To create good architecture, it is therefore crucial for architects to empathise with users, inhabitants, clients and other perceivers of architecture.

Buildings form a background in which people find a place for their everyday lives, and architecture possesses the power to excite and transform our day-to-day reality. The concept of comfort, or commodita, captures the essence of ‘good architecture’, and shows what an architect can contribute to the making process. It delivers a conscious experience of a room, a place, a space; an experience that lasts. Comfort has many layers, and the search for it is like a great adventure. It is about a subtle interplay of light, materials, sounds, smells and space, which together are perceived as pleasant, bringing enjoyment and wellbeing. It is a spatial language that everyone understands, but of which few people are truly conscious.

A good architect is aware of these law like regularities that guide architectural space. A good building pleases us – its clear organization, the comfortable feel of its spaces. It may also surprise and astonish us with its dazzling play of architectural lines or sensational use of natural light. Regularities like these are the tools of the architect’s work: regularities of scale, measure and proportion, of the size of the space, of the rhythm of the elements that constitute the building, and of the interplay of light with the spatial sculpture, its materials, its colours.

If architecture speaks a spatial language, then the architect is a composer of spatial prose, and some of them can even use that language to write a poem. 

Sources:

Dam, C. (2017). On architecture, visions and dreams. Rotterdam: nai010 publishers. 

Havik, K., & Tielens, G. (2013). Atmosphere, Compassion and Embodied Experience. A conversation about Atmosphere with Juhani Pallasmaa. Building atmosphere, OASE, (91), 33–53. Retrieved from https://www.oasejournal.nl/en/Issues/91/AtmosphereCompassionAndEmbodiedExperience

Holl, S. (2013). Speaking Through the Silence of Perceptual Phenomena . What is Good Architecture?, OASE, (90), 23–26. Retrieved from https://www.oasejournal.nl/en/Issues/90/SpeakingThroughTheSilenceOfPerceptualPhenomena

Palladio, A. (1570). I Quattro libri dell’architettura. Venice.

Vittorio Aureli, P. (2013). A Spectacle of Deepest Harmony. What is Good Architecture?, OASE, (90), 7–12. Retrieved from https://www.oasejournal.nl/en/Issues/90/ASpectacleOfDeepestHarmony

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