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(CC) Photo: Franz Dejon
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France.

Architecture is the art and technique of designing and constructing buildings to fulfill both practical and aesthetic purposes.

It should be distinguished from both construction and civil engineering. Although there are certain building types like houses and public buildings that clearly fall inside the domain of architecture there are many other buildings and structures (for example factories, monuments, bridges, and many others) that can be seen as limit cases between architecture and engineering or architecture and art.

The plurality of architecture

Almost every culture has its architecture.[1] Even the most isolated nomadic people have their particular kind of tents or huts, their own decorative patterns and specific ways of arranging their buildings in groups.

The specificity of the architecture of each culture and civilization is a result of environmental factors (climate, terrain, available materials), technological sophistication, availability of labor force but also of social organization (that can be manifest in the organization of the building environment) and religious beliefs or scientific theories that determine what each culture perceives as an ordered environment. However, there are also factors that are invariable in most societies and usually they have to do with the specific needs of the human body.

Protection from extreme weather, a specific scale of architectural elements in relation to the human body, a source of heat for warming and cooking, adequate place for the storage of food, sanitation, are all needs that appear in the most distinct cultures but each culture provides for these needs according to its priorities and its understanding of the environment and the functioning of the human body.

Architecture and art

(CC) Photo: Kristjan Kasikov
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain was designed by Frank Gehry.

Architecture is a social art.[2] It may be possible for an architect to design (and even to build) a building that is highly personal and idiosyncratic but in most cases a building is not planned according to the ideas of only one person.

Normally an architect is called on to design a specific type of building in a site already decided. The construction of most buildings involves a great number of people, substantial amounts of money and resources and the input of many other specialists beyond the architect. Building laws and safety regulations pose limits to what may be constructed.

The basic organization of a building’s functions is something that can be decided by the architect but many times it is prescribed by social customs and regulations or by the demands of a specific client. The same can be said in many cases about the appearance of a building. Even today that formal experimentation is widely accepted there are many historical sites where new buildings are expected to “fit” harmoniously and to follow a specific formal language.

Although this determination by external factors is a reality for most architects there have been many important architects that have done most of their work on paper unrestricted by social needs or even physical laws. Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Étienne-Louis Boullée and Antonio Sant’Elia are three historical examples of very important architects that worked mostly on paper.

However, it is not necessary to see social demands as obstacles to the artistic aspirations of architects. There are many architects who see these demands as the natural condition of architecture and their fulfillment as an artistic goal.

Architecture and engineering

Architecture is distinct from the fine arts but it is also distinct from building engineering. Of course the architect may play the role of the engineer and it should not be forgotten that the two professions have been distinguished relatively recently. Most of the great historical monuments that we admire today were designed by people who were both engineers and architects. Every building has certain technical requirements that can be met by the work of an engineer. A work of architecture, while it should usually meet these requirements, should also go beyond that and convey meanings, emotions and ideas. Religious buildings, for example, should make manifest a certain cosmic order, create the appropriate feelings of devotion and even teach the doctrines of the particular faith through their ornamentation and form. Government buildings should have a particular character and suggest a kind of behavior to visitors. Even houses should not only be practical and safe but they must also be somehow "homely". The answer to the how and why of all these requirements is culturally determined or even personal and does not belong to the domain of engineering but to that of architecture.

It has been suggested many times by architects that a structurally and functionally sound building would also be beautiful and that architecture could be seen as a branch of engineering and nothing more. Although there have been many theoretical arguments in favor of this view there are very few buildings that are generally acknowledged as real applications of the theory.

Firmness, Utility and Beauty

At around 20 BCE the Roman Vitruvius[3] wrote what is now the earliest surviving treatise on architecture. Being the only written testament about ancient Greek and Roman architecture the book has enjoyed a special status among architects and for many centuries it had an authority that determined most architectural theory.
Vitruvius determined the three basic requirements of architecture as Firmness (firmitas), Utility (utilitas) and Beauty (venustas). This classification has been widely accepted for many centuries. The terms have been translated in many ways, their meaning has shifted and their relative importance has been questioned to the point that it has been suggested that one of the three can simply emerge as result of the other two. However, they have defined western architectural writing for centuries and still serve as a valid loose framework for examining architecture.


(CC) Photo: Marc Shandro
The Inca are famous for having built their temples and fortresses with stones that fit together so closely that after centuries of earthquakes and other forces, one can often not fit the blade of a knife between the stones.

Firmness is the most straightforward of the three terms.

Every building is supposed to be firm, to be able to withstand its own weight, the loads of use, the forces of earthquake and wind and any other destructing force. It is expected that a good building would achieve firmness through a proper use of materials and forms without excessive waste of resources.

In its original sense, firmness implied permanence; works of architecture were expected to last long (centuries in many occasions). This is a side of firmness that today has been reevaluated. Temporary or movable buildings are considered today proper works of architecture. It is understood that dismountable and transportable constructions have their own requirements and ways of achieving firmness. Even a temporary construction that is to be used once and then destroyed may need to be recyclable and therefore has special constraints.

Firmness depends on materials and forms of construction. A basic differentiation can be made between construction by assembling blocks (either of stone, clay or other material) to create solid walls and construction of a frame or skeleton that can later be covered by non load-bearing elements. Most of European architecture belongs to the first category while most of Japanese, Chinese and nomadic architecture belongs to the second. A more detailed classification distinguishes at least five basic building materials and four basic techniques of building.


Many different materials have been used throughout the history of architecture. The basic materials that can be found in almost any kind of architecture are stone, brick, wood, concrete and iron. Many other materials like animal hides and bones, thatch, textiles, glass, plastic and many types of metal have been used in various occasions.

(CC) Photo: Nick Leonard
The Classic Maya used stone to build their temples. Temple 1 at Tikal is one of the most famous examples.

Stone is one of the most ancient building materials. In many cultures it has been the preferred material for important civil and religious buildings. It provides great strength and resistance to fire and therefore is suitable to buildings that aspire to permanence.

Stone construction is also time-consuming and requires substantial labor force. In that sense, stone buildings usually imply wealth and power.

In many cases the use of stone is limited by its availability. Stone is a very heavy material and transporting it over great distances can be done only for the most important buildings. The pyramids of Giza[4] in Egypt are a typical example. The stone blocks for the pyramids were transported on the Nile for hundreds of miles and then manipulated by a great number of people.

From a technical point of view, stone has great strength when subjected to compression but very limited strength when subject totension and that makes it suitable only for certain kinds of construction. Stone can be used as found or it can be treated to varying degrees to form relatively smooth surfaces or completely regular blocks and special pieces with any required shape. In most cultures the degree of treatment is considered directly proportional to quality and wealth.

Like stone, brick is an ancient material used in many different cultures. Its static characteristics are also similar to stone; it can withstand great compressive forces but limited tension. There is a wide variety of types but the most important distinction is between baked and unbaked bricks. Unbaked (sun-dried) bricks are the oldest. They are easy to make with little more than earth and water. Although they are of limited strength they have served well many societies and are still used in many places.

Baked bricks require fire and therefore wood for their making. They can be of various qualities both in terms of strength and appearance. In ancient Babylon glazed colored bricks of superior quality were used. The famous Ishtar Gate (one of the city gates of Babylon) was made by blue glazed bricks.

(CC) Photo: Carlos Romero
Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan is the largest wooden building in the world.

Wood has very different properties from both stone and brick.

It can withstand tensile forces and that makes it very suitable for frames and skeletons, but it is also very vulnerable to fire. Its most important peculiarity as a material is anisotropy; it is composed of fibers, more or less parallel, and its strength depends greatly on whether it receives loads parallel or perpendicular to the fibers.

Wood was a basic material in Europe for the construction of houses and utilitarian structures but it became unsuitable because of the risk of fire as cities grew larger. In China and Japan it has been used extensively even in monumental buildings.

Although wood is probably the most ancient building material, the technology of wood construction is still evolving and wood can be used in technologically advanced structures. Today, wood that comes from specially cultivated trees (and not from wild forests or jungles) is considered one of the best materials from an ecological point of view.

Iron is known and used from very early but it became a major building material not before the mid 18th century. Before that, iron was used for some secondary building elements or sporadically as reinforcement in stone and brick constructions. The extensive use of iron is directly related to industrialization. It was first used in mills and bridges and only later became accepted to buildings with artistic aspirations. The use of iron in order to achieve aesthetic goals was one of the basic characteristic of Modern architecture.

Technically, iron is a versatile material. Relatively thin iron members are able to withstand very big forces both in tension and compression. It can be formed to create almost any specific member needed but can also be found in standardized forms. Contrary to other materials discussed so far, iron is a product of heavy industry and its processing requires great amounts of energy. Today iron is used in many different alloys with different characteristics.

{{Image|Pantheon.jpg|right|350px|The [[Pantheon, Rome|Pantheon in Rome.}} Concrete is actually a very old material. The Romans developed an advanced concrete technology and the Pantheon[5] is one example of an ancient concrete building. However, after the fall of the Roman Empire the use of concrete was gradually forgotten and it was rediscovered in the 19th century.[6] It also an industrial material and it followed the same route as iron in order to be accepted as an architectural material. Today concrete is one of the most common building materials used for diverse purposes.

Concrete is an aggregate material composed mainly of cement, sand, gravel and water. Different mixtures can have very different properties and densities and additional substances can be used for further variations. Concrete by itself is strong to compression but relatively weak to tension. However, its tensile strength can be greatly enhanced by the use of iron reinforcement. Today concrete is used in most cases with such reinforcement and only rarely without.

Concrete is also a very expressive material, it can be covered with plaster but it can also be left bare and receive various surface treatments.




Utility includes both the function of a building and its role as a protective shelter. The function of a building may determine to some point the arrangement of different spaces and rooms as well as their dimensions and form. The protective function of a building may determine its orientation and form but is most evident in the building envelope, the surface that separates the building from the outside, and also in the various mechanical systems that regulate the building’s internal environment.

The notion of function is much more contested and negotiated than many people would assume.[7] The debate around functionalism (the theory that architectural form can be created with reference only to function) has been central for 20th century architecture. In some instances, postmodern criticism equaled Modern architecture with Functionalism and denied both. Today most people consider Functionalism an issue of the past and even an untenable position arguing that there has never been an architecture that was defined only by function. However, functionalist architectural manuals like Ernst Neufert's Architect’s Data are still in widespread use in everyday architectural practice.

The two kinds of buildings where Functionalism originated are factories and mass housing. In factories the issue was to organize the space around the production process so as to minimize movement of people and things and achieve maximum efficiency. In the case of housing the issue was to create affordable mass housing of good quality. By organizing functionally the space of the house the minimal necessary dimensions could be established for each room and therefore the minimum house unit could be designed. That would lead to minimizing the costs of building and open the possibility for the construction of more houses. The issue was central in Europe (especially in Germany) during the 1920s where the problem of house shortage was acute. It became once again very important after the end of World War II. During the 1950s and 1960s when mass housing had stop being such an urgency functionalist buildings were criticized for their detrimental psychological effects (and social effects where whole neighborhoods were involved) and their poor aesthetic qualities.

Taking a broader historical perspective we can say that such a narrow definition of function has a quite small role in architecture. It is possible to classify buildings in relation to function and establish categories like dwellings, religious buildings, government buildings, spaces of production, educational and entertainment facilities and many others. It would be much more difficult to establish that the form and internal arrangement of these buildings is a result of the activities and bodily movements taking place inside them. A house may be defined by the necessities of sleeping, cooking, storing food and sometimes working but it is also defined by family structures and relations between the sexes. Today it is generally accepted that in most cultures we can find male and female domestic spaces and that their relation is a basic factor in determining the organization of the house. Religious buildings may have to provide the necessary space for some functions but symbolism and meaning are more important in establishing their form. It has also been observed that many buildings with long histories have been able to shelter very different functions successfully and it has been suggested that such adaptability is a desirable characteristic.

The protective role of buildings is more clearly defined. Human needs in terms of temperature, humidity and hygiene are fairly standard although they may be loosely defined. What can vary greatly is the way these demands are met. In that issue there has been an important change of orientation during the last decades.

One result of the urbanization and industrialization of Europe that started in the late 18th century was the creation of buildings where great numbers of people would be together in an enclosed space like theaters, hospitals, prisons and factories. The heating and ventilation of these buildings could not be achieved with traditional means. The demand caused a lot of scientific research that led finally to the heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems that we use today. During the first half of the 20th century, the goal of engineers and architects was to seal off the internal spaces of the building and create an artificial environment through technical means. However, this is an energy consuming way of achieving desirable living conditions and contemporary ecological awareness has led designers to develop a different way of addressing the issue. Designers try to use external factors such as solar radiation and wind in order to modify internal conditions in the building. Instead of sealing the building, the contemporary approach is to regulate its permeability and plan its thermal behavior so that it will be as autonomous as possible and it will require the minimum energy for heating, cooling and ventilation.

This new awareness has led to a reevaluation of traditional architecture. Recent research has shown that in most cases traditional dwellings are designed in ways that make maximum use of natural resources such as solar radiation, wind and rainwater and achieve pleasant interior environments with minimum spending of energy.[8] This is accomplished through adequate orientation of the building and placement of openings so as to receive solar radiation in winter but not in summer while at the same time air currents are regulated by the building’s internal arrangement to serve ventilation and cooling during the hot months.


Of the three basic requirements defined by Vitruvius beauty is certainly the most problematic. Many societies have established relatively clear views about what should be considered beautiful in architecture; these rules vary extensively among societies and epochs. There have also been epochs where no clear definition of architectural beauty existed. We should say from the beginning that contemporary architecture does not possess any criteria for beauty that are generally accepted.

Vitruvius divided beauty to six basic concepts. These referred to the proportions of the building and its parts, to the use of the orders, to the inventiveness of the design and to the appropriateness of the building to the user according to his social status. These notions and their explanations are culturally specific and could hardly be used to explain the issue of architectural beauty in every culture and era. However, they point to some issues of more general importance. Proportion and geometry have been understood as sources of beauty in many different cases. The use of ornament, of which the orders can be considered an instant, is also a constant in most cultures. Inventiveness is more specific and it is not clear whether it was an important issue in many past cultures but it is certainly an important notion in contemporary architecture. As for appropriateness if it is understood in a broader sense that includes not only appropriateness to social class but also appropriateness of form in relation to environment and use it can be a useful notion. Another important issue that is not mentioned by Vitruvius but appears in many cultures is the quality of materials and construction. Finally, the expressive potential of architectural forms is also a major factor in architectural aesthetics.

Material and refinement

Most cultures value and classify materials not only through their technical properties but also through their aesthetic qualities. It is to be expected that this evaluation will not be totally independent of technical considerations. Hard and durable materials that imply permanence and strength are considered in most cases superior and they are sources of beauty by themselves. Other characteristics such as smoothness and color may also be important.

The provenance of the material is also a factor; rare and exotic materials usually provoke admiration and become sources of beauty. In ancient and biblical descriptions of important buildings it is common to encounter long lists of materials and their places of origin as indications of a building's beauty. The fact that such rare resources imply wealth and power is also important. Apart from that, in many cultures materials may possess other kinds of properties that give them value. It is not uncommon for materials to be classified as male or female or to be thought as having magical properties.
In the western world, it was during the Renaissance that for the first time the aesthetic value of materials was denied and refinement and design were proposed instead as sources of beauty.

The refinement of construction may also be a source of beauty. Dressed smooth stone or wood is in most cases preferable to rough and untreated and an exceptional degree of refinement is a source of admiration. In many cases refinement may be a way of enhancing the proprties and powers of an already valuable material. Such refinement for aesthetic reasons is not identical with technical refinement. It may be an excess from technical necessity or may even contradict it.[9]


Gothic cathedral window detail, il Duomo, Milan

The preference for ornament[10] and its admiration are almost universal constants. From a broad historical perspective, the 20th century anti-ornamental architecture is a very special case. Most cultures develop their own forms and systems of ornament but it is possible to see the reappearance of certain patterns in different civilizations.

It is possible to see ornament as an extension of refinement, a further manipulation of material in order to bring it to a more elegant state. However, ornament is in many cases figurative or symbolic and therefore contains some meaning. In cases where materials are thought as having any kind of supernatural properties, ornament may be a way to enhance and express them.

It is common for ornament to be geometric or even when figurative to be arranged according to geometric patterns. This may be seen as a practical way of arranging similar elements on a surface but most probably is a source of meaning and beauty as it will be discussed below.

The division between structure and ornament and the notion that ornament is something additional that may be taken away leaving behind a “naked” structure is a very culturally specific notion of western modernism. In most other cultures such division is unknown and ornament is understood as an organic part of the building.

Proportion and geometry

Greek temple at Agrigento, Sicily

In all cultures where geometry was developed it became an integral part of architecture. Geometry is thought in most cases as a manifestation of cosmic order and the use of geometric forms and proportions in a building allow it to partake of that order.

Symmetry, the use of certain proportions like the golden section and the shaping of volumes to the form of geometric solids are all applications of geometry that have aesthetic qualities.

The use of geometry as a source of beauty has led to two distinct ways of understanding its value and of designing. In one case the beautiful is identified with the rational and building masses are formed to exact geometrical shapes. In that case the fact that the building is geometrically structured is in itself a source of beauty and the sensual appreciation of the fact is secondary or irrelevant. In the other case (the most common example is ancient Greek architecture) it is important that the geometric order be sensually perceived and understood and importance was laid to whether the sensual impression was one of harmony and order. That led to the creation of forms that were not clear geometric shapes but appeared as such to the human eye.

Today geometry remains still important. Of course it has practical benefits since it allows rationalization of construction and easier calculation of static loads but it is still understood by many as a source of beauty. Much of what is termed organic architecture is also geometrical although using a geometry of curves rather than lines. For example the work of the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava may seem natural and unconstrained but is based on geometric curves.


All factors discussed above achieve their effect when used appropriately. The definition of appropriateness may be different from culture to culture or even a matter of personal opinion but in most cases it is clear that different buildings require a different handling. Materials and ornaments appropriate to temples may not be right in a house or a secular building and so fail to achieve their effect. For example the use of the classical orders was for most of the time an issue of appropriateness. Vitruvius prescribed different orders to the temples of different gods and in later times when the orders were used in many public buildings many prescriptive rules were developed to define the right order for the right kind of building (Doric in courthouses, Corinthian in entertainment spaces etc).

Appropriateness may refer to many different factors, the use of the building, the status of the owner or the building’s location. Today some of these factors have little importance while others still remain fundamental for the appreciation of buildings. Few people would subscribe to the opinion that people of lower social status or income should have more modest houses but more people may see an excess of refinement as “too much” for buildings with certain uses. As for appropriateness to the surroundings it remains a central issue. Whether in a historic urban environment or in a natural landscape, a building is supposed to “fit” in its place. A very successful urban building may look completely out of place in a natural surrounding or the reverse. How such fitting may be achieved is a controversial issue in many cases; modest blending or highlighted contrast may both be accepted but failure to address the issue is in most cases unacceptable.


It has been suggested that architectural forms should be devoid of meaning, mute, and that this may be part of their beauty or value. However, most people tend to see meaning in architectural form even contrary to the intention of the designer. Different cultures emphasize different meanings but some issues are rather common. In many cases it is expected that a building’s form should be indicative of its function, of the type of activity taking place inside. The issue of form in relation to construction is also important. Many architects have thought that the form of the building should manifest its constructional principles. Columns with no static function or materials who appear to be other than they are have been considered in many cases ugly. However, manipulations of meaning, a masquerade of function, structure or materials so that they appear other than they are, has been used purposefully many times in order to achieve aesthetic effect. Postmodernist architecture made great use of such ambiguities with aesthetic and critical intentions.

The meaning of architectural forms does not have to rely only to its own structure and use, symbolic meaning with external reference is also possible. Anthropomorphism is common in many cultures. In western architecture it was established by Vitruvius and remained constant until after the Renaissance. It was considered proper to use the idealized proportions of the human body to organize a building’s plan or elevation. It is also common to see a building’s façade as a human face with doors as mouths and windows as eyes. References to animal and plant forms are also common in many societies and they are usually reference to animals and plans with great social significance or symbolic value. Geometry and orientation have also symbolic meaning in many cultures.

Design and inventiveness

The evaluation of inventiveness is a basic, but not exclusive, characteristic of western aesthetics. It is also a controversial characteristic and is many times contrasted to tradition. In order for inventiveness to be appreciated and considered a source of beauty, the designer should be understood as a person of special talent whose insights are relevant to society. In medieval architecture where the difference between architect and craftsman was small or even non-existent inventiveness and idiosyncratic forms would rarely be considered beautiful. After the Renaissance, when artists were distinguished from manual laborers, inventiveness and originality became appreciated. However, in architecture the issue remains still subject to debate. Since architecture defines our everyday environment and is an not only a form of art but also an object of common use it is considered by many that it should not be subjected to individual opinions or ideas but that it should rely only on commonly accepted notions. Many architects of the early 20th century, like Adolf Loos and Hermann Muthesius, insisted that architecture should not aspire to individuality but should tend towards typical and undistinguished forms in most cases and that only few exceptional buildings should be allowed to be different. Today inventiveness and originality in form are a common aspiration (Frank Gehry is an example of an successful architect that creates highly individualistic forms) to the point that many critics speak of futility and meaningless formalism.

Building and drawing


Some definitions of architecture

"There are three departments of architecture: the art of building, the making of time-pieces, and the construction of machinery. Building is in its turn divided into two parts, of which the first is the construction of fortified towns and of works for general use in public places, and the second is the putting up of structures for private individuals. (…) All these must be built with due reference to durability, convenience, and beauty." Vitruvius, 20 bce aprox.

"What is architecture? The crystalline expression of man’s noblest thoughts, his ardour, his humanity, his faith, his religion! That is what it once was! But who of those living in our age that is cursed with practicality still comprehends its all-embracing, soul-giving nature?" Walter Gropius, 1919 [11]

"The business of Architecture is to establish emotional relationships by means of raw materials.

Architecture goes beyond utilitarian needs.

Architecture is a plastic thing.

The spirit of order, a unity of intention.

The sense of relationships; architecture deals with quantities.

Passion can create drama out of inert stone."

Le Corbusier 1920, [12]

"Architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms" Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 1923 [13]


  1. On the plurality of architecture see: Crouch & Johnson (2001)pages 1-3, Ching, Jarzombek & Prakash "Preface".
  2. On architecture as social art see Kostof (1995) pages 7-8, Crouch& Johnson (2001) pages 1-3 and Ching, Jarzombek & Prakash "Preface"
  3. Kruft (1994) pages 21-29
  4. Kostof (1995) pages 74-79, Summers (2003) pages 214-220
  5. Addis (2007) pages 51-55
  6. Addis (2007) pages 418-438
  7. Forty (2000) pages 174-195
  8. Crouch & Johnson (2001) pages 89-105
  9. On materials and refinement as sources of beauty see Summers (2003) pages 77-98
  10. On ornament see Summers (2003) pages 98-101, 395-403
  11. Conrads (1970) p. 46
  12. Conrads (1970) p. 61
  13. Conrads (1970) p. 74


  • Addis, Bill (2007) Building: 3000 Years of Design Engineering and Construction, London, Phaidon. 978-0-7148-4146-5
  • Ching, Francis D. K., Mark M. Jarzombek & Vikramaditya Prakash (2007) A Global History of Architecture, New Jersey, Wiley. 0-471-26892-5
  • Conrads, Ulrich (ed) (1970) Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-century Architecture, Cambridge, MIT Press. 0-262-53030-9
  • Crouch, Dora P. & June G. Johnson (2001) Traditions in Architecture: Africa, America, Asia and Oceania, New York, Oxford University Press. 0-19-508891-3
  • Deplazes, Andrea (2006) Constructing Architecture: Materials, Processes, Structures, A Handbook, Basel, Birkhäuser. 978-3764371906
  • Forty, Adrian (2000) Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture, London, Thames & Hudson. 0-500-28470-9
  • Kostof, Spiro (1995) A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals, New York, Oxford University Press. 0-19-508379-2
  • Kruft, Hanno-Walter (1994) A History of Architectural Theory from Vitruvius to the Present, New York, Princeton Architectural Press. 1-56898-010-8
  • Summers, David (2003) Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism, London, Phaidon. 0-7148-4244-3