Good Design Appreciates Itself

  • Building Design Expert
  • 5 years ago

London's Gherkin

30 St Mary's Axe - London's iconic landmark nicknamed 'The Gherkin'

If we take out of the equation architecture with the ‘Wow’ factor arguably London’s Gherkin, Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, and the Burj Al Arab in Dubai – just for starters. Then what about the rest? The rest being the houses offices shops and factories that make up our village, town and city-scapes in which we live and breath on a daily basis. Of course there are the select few who interact every day with these buildings, if only because they work there, or nearby.

Although there will be some that wouldn’t put these landmarks together in the same folder, there is no doubt they were commissioned and constructed as Icons. A tribute to the current development of design technology. After all, if you have enough money you can actually build anything. But do these ‘icons’ constitute ‘good design’? Iconic landmark status is one thing. Total functionality as an office or hotel is quite something else.

How can you define good design? – One answer: You can’t. Many have tried. I tried Googling the phrase, and mostly found references to product design. It’s different things to different people. But then that’s only My opinion.

Petronas Twin Towers

The Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpa, Malaysia - The world's tallest building until 2004

There may often be a concensus. You may get a group of apparently like minded architects who all nod in agreement that Le Corbusier excelled himself in his use of stark concrete in his Massachusetts Carpenter Centre. To the lay-person (my wife for example) it’s a fairly grim looking building by today’s standards. So who did he build it for? If the people that live and breath within it have no appreciation of it’s rare and extraordinary architectural qualities, and they think it is indeed ‘grim’. Did he fail?

What is the point of creating priceless proportion, and supremely configured flowing space, if the only ones to appreciate it are your peers. This has got a touch of the kings new clothes about it? – Maybe.

Le Corbusier’s training was extruded through a Fine Art school and he allegedly looked at building through a sculptors lens. So one might argue his architecture was a more for himself than the masses. But I do not profess to be any sort of architectural historian, and Le Corbusier’s specific reason-d’etre is immaterial to this blog, save to say of course, that when we stir up a cauldron such as this, myriad views and comments will bubble to the surface. No one is right. No one is wrong. It’s all just opinion. It may be professional and learned opinion, but opinion just the same.

The Burj Al Arab in Dubai built on a man made island off Jumeirah Beach - Known as 'the world's only seven star hotel'

So what about the ‘people’? The great architectural unwashed. The man riding on the top deck of the Clapham omnibus – “He knows what he likes, and he don’t like Le Corbusier”. But he likes Frank Lloyd Wright. Why does he like FLW? He doesn’t know, but he feels that he should like at least one famous architect, and he knows that building: ‘Falling Water’ “…wasn’t it? You know in America. Lots of strong horizontal and vertical lines on it”. The man next to him says he saw the same programme on the tele. and he didn’t like it because it didn’t have a proper roof on it. “I don’t like flat roofs”.

The same two guys walking through the city centre will routinely interact with any number of buildings. They may have an opinion that “this street is just ugly” or “this street is very nice”. Ask them why they think that, and the chances are they won’t know. If pressed they may reveal that most of the walls are too dark, or too light. The footpaths are in concrete paving, where the next street has stone flags. Or indeed some of the buildings may not have ‘proper roofs’. But does that matter? Not really, no.

'Falling Water' - Built partially over a waterfall in south-west Pensylvania - Hailed by Time magazine as Frank Lloyd Wright's "most beautiful job"

A client commented recently that he “didn’t like flat roofs”. When I asked him why – he didn’t know. My guess is like me he grew up in a house with a nice pitched roof, and the only flat roofs were on garages and sheds, and they leaked. They were cheap and cheerful solutions to purely functional buildings that were not meant to look nice. There’s the stigma that would indicate ‘bad design’ is an associative thing. A pre-conception. A hang-over from formative years, and these views are hard to shift. Tell them that flat roofs can really be a very good solution given modern materials and construction methods, and you might just get a quizzical, or sceptical look.

So back to ‘Design’. Could ‘good design’ and ‘bad design’ have a fundamental core? I think so. For all the stunning good looks and kerb appeal of the Burj Al Arab, if it doesn’t offer the fundamental solution to it’s visitors and guests that they expect of a world class hotel then I suggest ‘Bad Design’ must be the prevailing descriptor. One critic wrote that the building, and indeed the city of Dubai “are triumphs of money over practicality”. Somehow though I don’t believe this is a direct comment on the architecture, or layout. It is just a personal comment. Critics are paid to have personal comments, but it doesn’t mean they are right. Just more opinion.

There have been books written on this discussion topic, and this is  just a short blog. – It strikes me there are two avenues of critique:

Architectural Designers will always criticise, or praise the work of their peers based upon professional perspective. They will include comment on perhaps the dynamics of the architectural presentation, the materials used, and the internal / external spaces shapes and colours that have resulted. They will also understand how well the building performs it’s prerequisite functions, as a shop, an office or hotel. This may well be the critique of someone who will probably never set foot in the building; working from photographs and published drawings.

Arguably the more important comment comes from the consumer who shops, works, and, or uses the facilities provided by our buildings generally. The theory being that some will stay in an iconic landmark because it is just that. But for the most part the best commentator of shop design is possibly it’s sales figures. For the office – the working environment created, perhaps the ease of circulation and staff facilities. The hotel – well just the whole customer experience from check-in to the lie down.

What ever the building and it’s use, I table the motion that the consumer will tend not to notice ‘good design’. Good design allows the user to get on with their purpose for being there. Bad design gets in the way of that. How often have you heard how badly a shop or office is laid out? Compared to “What a great layout”. People do like to complain!

Visually too: The elevation that is completely in proportion, uses complimentary materials, and is exquisitely detailed is just a glorious whole to those guys on the street. It is the misjudged proportion. The badly chosen material, and poor detailing – only one of which may make that building stand out, but not in a good way. Those guys on the street may not even be able to put their finger on the problem. But it’s simple, the problem is just poor design.

“I don’t know what it is about that building, but I don’t like it” – Good design appreciates itself.