The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

What Makes a Building Work?

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One of the shops down the street from me is getting a new façade. The place is boarded up right now, but every day I see construction workers hammering and sawing away inside, giving the building what promises to be a refurbished appearance in a few weeks. I don’t think about architecture very often, yet a project like this gives me pause. It’s the same feeling I get when I stumble across a particularly stunning structure in the middle of the city—a feeling of wonder and curiosity about that decisions that go into the creation of that building. It causes me to consider: what makes a building work?

With such a diversity of architecture in our cities—from hundred-year-old schoolhouses to drab apartment complexes to shiny, new stadiums—I’m struggling with how to best tackle this question, so I think I’ll approach it from the opposite angle first: What indicators can we find that a building isn’t working? Sometimes we recognize instinctually that we don’t like a particular building, from the outside. Perhaps it dominates the street in an overbearing, shadowy manner, or its architecture is so jarring as to be ugly. Or maybe we notice the opposite: It’s a building that seems aged—and not in the charming, historic sense but in the broken-down, outdated, dusty sense. From the interior, we can also perceive the dysfunctionality of a structure. Take, for example, the office buildings that I’m sure we’ve all spent too much time in—the ones located in office parks on the edge of town. As soon as you walk in, you’re met with dark wood or glass paneling, misplaced tropical plants and some strange, awkward piece of artwork. Besides the plants, everything is basically the same color and seems to be arranged in such a way as to make you more depressed with every step, never offering the eyes anything pleasant or attractive to land on. You ride the lonely, claustrophobic elevator up to the eleventh floor where you find bland, carpeted hallways and the ever-present hum of an HVAC system—perfectly mirroring the hallways on every other floor. This building is boring, dreary and monotone. It was built forty years ago for businessmen in maroon suits and it has little relevance now.

With this picture of what a building should not be, we can now outline the positive qualities that an ideal building might have. First, functionality—that is, whether the structure properly serves its purpose. At first glance, our office building seems to be doing its job because it has desks and telephones and meeting rooms wherein people work. However, does it function as a space conducive to new ideas, collaborative strategizing and a happy employee base? Probably not. The same goes for houses that don’t feel like home and schools that encourage dozing off rather than engaged learning. In order for a building to work, it must function for its designated purpose. The Air and Space Museum in Washington DC (pictured up top) models this with its soaring atriums that encourage the feeling of flight and allow sunbeams to reflect off hundreds of metallic space vessels.

A second criterion for a building that works is aesthetics. In short, a building should be nice to look at. Naturally, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and it would be impossible to create a building that appeals to everyone. However, in spite of the challenges that come with defining universal “attractiveness,” I mention it here because it is overlooked surprisingly often during the creation of structures. We think that because we are building a business whose main function is to sell tires that it does not need or deserve to be handsome, that its appearance will not matter to the neighborhood or the customers. This is a false presumption and it harms our cities. In the best scenario, a building serves its purpose while appealing to the eyes too. The New York City government building below presents classic, monumental architecture that invites respect for the proceedings that occur within it and awe among those who visit.


A third characteristic of a successful building is accessibility. I know I use this word a lot (definition here), but it’s important to me. Buildings should, at the very least, be accessible to those who use them on a daily basis, but ideally they should also facilitate a wide range of visitors if that is relevant to their purpose. A museum ought to keep in mind that non-English speakers might pay them a visit and consider signage in multiple languages. Similarly, a factory should be aware that inspectors and families of employees will also come through their doors. By prioritizing accessibility, we broaden the boundaries of our buildings, encouraging holistic cities. This delightful cafe in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for instance, invites children, teenagers and adults alike with warm colors, cozy seating, free board games and a variety of affordable drinks.


Environmental impact is another significant consideration for those wishing to design buildings that work on the long term. Solar panels, dual flush toilets and other environmentally-friendly building features are often viewed as a costly option during the creation of a structure. However, I think it’s fair to say that due to heightened public awareness of environmental issues, these options are becoming both cheaper and more expected in new buildings today. Take a look at the solar panels on this average-size house in an affordable, residential neighborhood in Milwaukee (yes I love this city).


I’ll throw in one last characteristic that I think makes a building work: unique flavor. This is not to say that every building should draw attention to itself through a wild color scheme or outlandish materials, but simply that a building ought to contribute something new to the cityscape of which it is becoming part. There’s nothing wrong with blending in, however, a building shouldn’t be so bland that you’d miss it if you were looking for it. Feel free to debate me on this point… For your consideration, the building below is a nonprofit organization and hostel for social justice activists in Cuba. Its geographic design, blue accents and sweeping staircase are at once characteristic of Cuban architecture, yet distinct to this place, especially with the addition of a inspired rendering of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. painted on the opposite wall (not pictured).


These are my preliminary thoughts on how to determine whether buildings contribute positively to the make-up of our cities. I don’t have any formal training in architecture, so these ideas come from conversations I’ve had with urban designers, as well as my own experience in dozens of cities. I’ll confess: in the context of cities, individual structures aren’t the first thing I consider. I usually jump to strategizing about small business solutions and accessible transportation and public housing, but lately I’m realizing I should probably spend more time taking in the buildings in our cities on their own too. To that end, you can be sure that I’ll have more posts about the intersection between architecture and urban development soon. In the meantime, please share you expertise in architecture in the comment section. Any recommendations for books or websites that could provide a crash course in architecture? Any insights about what you think makes a building work?


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