“But I Still Think It’s Ugly”: Explaining Architecture to Non-Architects, Part III

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Part 3: Coming to Terms

The two previous installments in this series, “Divergent Mindsets” and “Reason and Effect,” looked at how architects are acculturated, in school and the profession, to think about buildings in ways that differ fundamentally from the ways non-architects think about them. The architect’s mindset favors reason over experience and conceptual and developmental coherence over effect. My suggestion is that, to explain to average folks the purpose and value of architecture as architects understand it, we should keep in mind these differences in mindset. And we must credit the average person’s value

With these thoughts in mind, it’s time to begin to build more concrete bridges between the terms of the architect’s value system and the terms of other people’s value systems. Among the terms that shape architects’ understanding of buildings is order. Where does architectural order meet the experience of the everyday user of buildings?

In one of the most enigmatic of his many enigmatic remarks, Louis Kahn declared, “Order is.” He relates that he had been trying to come up with a convincing definition of order, “Order is _______”; but he couldn’t settle on the predicate. He couldn’t fill in that blank. And then it occurred to him that the reason he couldn’t do so is that order simply is. On first blush, this sounds like the last proposition that might help build a connection between architectural thinking and everyday thinking. But there’s actually something to it.

Because we architects don’t typically stop with the is. We go on to the predicate; our decisions are predicated on order as an operational tool. It is a tool of great service. For the architect, systems of order help assure a consistency of thought regarding every other factor in the equation. We seek order of all sorts. Structural integrity demands perhaps the most rigorous consideration of order, in the economical and dependable distribution of loads. We depend on systems of order to keep track of the correspondences among the many components of our increasingly layered construction systems—the attachment points of shading elements to glazing, of rainscreen to thermal barrier. And we employ ordering patterns to interweave hierarchies of elements and spaces, the tessellation of tatami mats forming a room, the order of piers counting off the side chapels of a basilica.


Le Corbusier, regulating lines for the Villa Stein.

Le Corbusier, regulating lines for the Villa Stein.

The architect thus understands order as a matter of regulation and hierarchy: regulation of the geometry of parts, whether constructional or (as in Le Corbusier’s regulating lines) formal; and hierarchy of elements and spaces. The emphasis here is on coherence of thought in the creation and development of the building.

For the user of the building, however, how the building was thought out by the designer is secondary—distantly secondary—to how the building is experienced. The user couldn’t care less about the logical coherence of systems of order, which is not something one directly experiences; one must stop and think about it, and that’s not how people engage buildings. The user does experience hierarchy directly, but in somewhat different terms than we architects usually talk about. For the average person, the hierarchy of a building is about finding one’s place and finding one’s way. It’s a process of discovery through experience, and the result of it is not thinking, “Oh, dig this hierarchy,” but rather feeling, “This is where I ought to be.”

The easiest sort of order to understand in this way is symmetry, which in its simple, classical rendition draws us to the center of a composition, both inviting entrance and, often, giving pause: stand up straight! Square your shoulder! OK, now proceed. Simply and powerfully, symmetry leads us (any experience of an axis includes, always, a tug—a visceral recognition that we’re either on it or off it), through the great doors, say, of Ely Cathedral, down the central aisle to the crossing, where two symmetries intersect and so we pause and discover yet a third, upward to the lantern, upward to heaven.


Ely Cathedral, nave, photo by Wikimedia Editing User Maxgilead, reproduced under CC BY-SA 3.0; lantern photo by Wikipedia User Soloist, reproduced under GFDL.

Ely Cathedral, nave, photo by Wikimedia Editing User Maxgilead, reproduced under CC BY-SA 3.0; lantern photo by Wikipedia User Soloist, reproduced under GFDL.

That’s an experience of order in which the architect’s understanding—the intersecting axes, measured by a pattern of columns—corresponds visibly to the pilgrim’s experience, the column pattern pacing the rhythm of approach to the crossing, a still center in which to ponder faith (or its absence).

But not all architectural orders are so straightforwardly visible. The neo-Gothic residential colleges at Yale University, for example, are highly ordered, but it’s not the order you see that matters; it’s the order that’s inhabited. James Gamble Rogers designed them as a tool for building a social order within the community. Each college forms a perimeter enclosing two or three courtyards; onto each courtyard open a handful of entrances; each entrance leads to a stairway of two or three stories; each landing has two suites; each suite two bedrooms; often, each bedroom two bunks. Roommates, suitemates, entrymates, courtyard neighbors, and the college as a whole: a hierarchy of social relationships.


Trumbull College at Yale, by James Gamble Rogers.

Trumbull College at Yale, by James Gamble Rogers.

For the residents of the college themselves, the order is visible if not obvious—the picturesque treatment of the exterior somewhat obscures the regularity of the system—but it is something they deeply experience.


Trumbull College, central courtyard, looking west, photo by Tim Culvahouse.

Trumbull College, central courtyard, looking west, photo by Tim Culvahouse.

Not incidentally, the whole system is entirely opaque to the casual New Haven passerby.


Trumbull College, south entrance from Elm Street, photo by Tim Culvahouse.

Trumbull College, south entrance from Elm Street, photo by Tim Culvahouse.

The Yale example is perhaps more relevant than Ely today, given the popularity of fluid, irregular forms and the transfer of the logic of order to parametric processes. But, whether the architectural order is immediately visible to the attentive onlooker or not, the effects of that order on how we move and where we come to rest are among the qualities that the non-architect can readily understand and value.



Tim Culvahouse, FAIA

Tim Culvahouse, FAIA, is Editor-in-Chief of the AIA California Council and an architect specializing in the public communication of design ideas through his firm, Culvahouse Consulting.

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  1. avatar

    Hi Tim I have read your article and I must say it is helpful. We’ll I was hoping if I could get more info about building entrances from architecture point of view and everyday user at large…currently am doing dissertation about “hierarchy of public entrances in modern buildings”. Am studying my bachelor degree in architecture at Ardhi university Tanzania.

  2. avatar
    Tony Damiano

    Thank you for raising this mission critical issue for successful design. I wish Mr. Culvahouse had offered examples of order built in the last century or two. My experience as both a client and supplier to architecture is that the designer is all to eager to erase any hint of order and offer unfinished ceilings, Gehry-like globs and an uncomfortable mix of materials. F. L. Wright designed a strange building for 5th avenue but we all understand that the Guggenheim was not an esoteric attempt at order – it was eye popping decoration that looked different from the buildings next door. Ettore Sottsass was equally honest in saying the Memphis design was mere decoration. He said, ” I don’t think anyone should put only Memphis around: It’s like eating only cake.”

    The client will prefer (and pay for) unpretentious honesty over designspeak.

    Again, thank you – I really did enjoy your exploration of the issue.

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