What Is Architecture?

A profound architectural experience can invoke a memorable response. Admired for its figure, architecture is space. A structure is solid material and architectural space is void for experience and use. Architectural space is formed by a building’s physical body (e.g. structure and materials). While built form is a sign for architectural identity, architecture is identified by characteristics of style or design.

A style is characteristic of a group or movement. A building with an architectural style is similar in appearance to other buildings. Architecture with style is grouped with buildings that have similar features. When recognized by its style, architecture makes a method apparent. Architecture with style shows a clear manner. Style has an appearance that is recognizably associated with expressions from an historical period, a person, a brand-name, or a fashion trend.

man leaning on post
Architecture is strong enough to support human reflection. Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

When recognized by its design, architecture conveys a spatial concept. Architecture begins with design, an abstract arrangement of space, influenced by physical characteristics (e.g. function, appearance, material, site). A completed design for architecture is a set of documents that serve as prescribed direction for the act of construction. The abstract nature of design is that it is not the culmination itself. In architecture the outcome physically stands as a functional built form with aesthetic virtue. The design concept is imprinted into its manifestation, which is a valid architectural construction. The spatial consequence for users is an operation of experience, filtered by perception.

Architectural idea-making is meant to hypothesize an eventual real artefact, a tangible evidence of culture. Design is proposed to become and “… architects must work from the abstract to the real.” writes Steven Holl in his online essay titled ‘What is Architecture? (Art?)’ which appeared in the September 2013 issue of the Brooklyn Rail. The generative design process is an abstract precursor of constructed architectural form.

Design requires knowledge of the essential truth of each material, to imagine a workable way to intelligently construct the envisioned object. It is influenced by great thought or belief. The abstract process of architectural design is affected by prevailing intangible cultural influences. In the abstract design phase, an architectural work begins to precipitate a holistic spatial arrangement with structural sensibility.

person hand standing
The human body is a dynamic structure. Photo by Yogendra Singh on Pexels.com

To further clarify the architectural design process: the organizing idea of any architectural design process may not be integral to its publicity unless it has an intelligible ‘parti’ (in architectural usage). The organizing idea can be compared to an original intellectual system applied to the programme, a necessary precursor to the design activity . An abstract idea is chosen and developed for each project, and it may permit aesthetic treatment such as ornamentation. An architectural design is a compositional idea for the differentiation of spaces and their tangible construction. In these times, a strong parti will likely imply a position towards aesthetic treatment and application of crafted enhancement that are in kind with ornamentation. Such aesthetic augmentations have been associated with craft guilds or applied arts.

Construction is a cumulative assembly that produces a real, tangible thing; its outcome is a construction. Creation is an act that brings something into existence; its outcome is a creation. The word forms “construction” and “creation” are used to denote either act or outcome. The narratives of both are thoughtful processes of expertly developed detail.

An architectural construction is tangible (like a building), and in its making has employed available methods suitable to known materials and technology. The construction methods used for architectural work are influenced by the conceptual development of the design. Inventive detail expected from an architectural structure is drawn throughout the design process.

man and woman walking up stairs
Architected space proportioned for purpose. Photo by Immortal Snapshots on Pexels.com

The creation of a design is an architectural deed, whereas the construction of design is an architectural imprint. The story of an architectural work is the transmutation of something from intangibly abstract to tangibly material. When construction commences, the architectural design begins to become. The abstract architectural idea becomes a real space that is possible to experience with the human senses. The architectural idea continues to become real during construction. At a pivotal time, usually at completion, the architectural idea is finally materially imprinted as a cultural artefact.

Although the generative concept of a design permeates its construction, the most noticeable attributes of built architecture are those of perception. The perceptible physical experience of being in architected space is most memorable, or most understandable to architecturally untrained users, who are in the majority. The spatial idea is an abstract formulation, and the sensory experience is noticeable. Steven Holl suggests a similar importance of what is palpable about built architecture in his 2013 essay by writing, “The phenomena of space, light, material/detail ‒ as understood by others ‒ convey the art, whether or not the organizing idea is fully grasped.” Holl refers to a work of architecture as “the art,” whereas in this essay architecture stands on its own.

Architecture is an experiential space, effected by nature and the elements, that serves purpose and users. A reciprocity between time and architecture involves yielding to or resisting light, air, water, substrate, and human activity. The question, “What is architecture?” sublimely addresses a process of becoming. So first ask, “How is architecture made?” Architecture is the empty space that is bound by corporeal structure, which is constructed from a fully documented abstract design. Architecture is the space that still remains after the functions of construction, assembly, and installation. An architectural experience occurs only in empty, available space which is delineated by constructed material. There are qualities imbued to the architectural experience by means of the constructed components, their detail, and enhancement.

The construction of architecture follows the directions, specifications, and instructions of carefully organized documents drawn together for all the spaces of an abstract architectural concept. The architectural drawings and documents are possibly the weightiest part of a contract for making an architectural work. The expertise required to imagine and realize architectural work is comprehensive, technical, and synthesized with cultural scope. An architectural designer does more than imagine a detailed possibility. A work of architecture comes into being throughout a process of coordinating absolutes and notions about structure, surfaces, and treatments necessary to realize architectural space.

The void and the solid are popularly used to describe exterior massing of architectural style, and its surface treatment. The void and solid are facts of architectural design and visible in orthographic drawings, particularly in section and plan. An architectural concept in the abstract (not yet built) is efficiently buildable with an inclusive schema evident in both plan- and section- drawings that indicate structure, services, function, and non-superficial spatial aesthetics that serve a clear purpose.

woman wearing yellow jacket and blue denim jeans
Architecture has paved the way. Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Space with purpose is the subject of architecture, and it can be multi-purpose. Space surrounding and permeating buildings is continuous. Constructions and structures are coded to connect voids or spaces for free mobility and convenience. Buildings by style and design are classifiable as discrete figures and they interconnect to shape an urban environment, a greater built form.

Style is strongly associated with art, especially painting, and the impact of identifiable visual attributes. To distinguish between art and architecture, S. Holl writes that, “… architecture dissolves into a blur of buildings.” The “blur” Holl mentions could easily be construed as architectural work en masse. Constructed in an urban setting, small or large, architecture is part of the plurality in an existing built environment.

The abstract origin of architecture is work of gravity, yielding to properties of matter, and in accord with physical law. Design is a process of ideation for a purposeful construction. Architecture is expected to be sturdy, have capacity, and be evidence of and nurturing of culture.



Written by CPG


Holl, Steven. “What is Architecture? (Art?)” Brooklyn Rail, September 2013, https://brooklynrail.org/2013/09/criticspage/what-is-architecture-art. Accessed 12 July 2020.


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