The Basic Qualities of Buildings

Let’s start with the basics. What are the three key principles of every building?

Basic Qualities: Durability


In De architectura, Vitruvius lays out 3 key principles that any good building should satisfy: _firmitas_ (firmness), _utilitas_ (commodity), and _venustas_ (delight). In modern architecture, the terms have been slightly updated to **durability, functionality/utility, and beauty**; these ideals continue to play an important role in architectural design and construction.

According to Vitruvius, when it comes to good architecture, **a building must first and foremost be durable**. That is, it should work as a building. A durable structure should be able to stand against the elements and should remain in good condition for a long time. As such, it should have a **strong foundation** and be **well-designed to hold together** without shifting or cracking.

While this seems simple enough, large structures require a great deal of engineering to be safe and durable. A good architect must be knowledgeable not only in aesthetics but must also understand how to design a ‘firm’ structure.

Basic Qualities: Functionality


The 2nd key principle for good architecture is **functionality.** In other words, **a building should be suitable for the purpose for which it is created**.

On one level, functionality is practical: **it deals with layout and usability**. A school needs classrooms, while a theater needs a stage. However, architects also have to consider more detailed needs like what happens in a school when all the classes are let out simultaneously, are the hallways large enough? Are there intersections that may cause congestion? For a theater, one may need to address how sound carries or how actors are able to move behind the scenes.

There are also more abstract functionalities that a building may need to meet. For example, a cathedral may need to not only house its parishioners but also inspire them. Or a government building may need to communicate solidity and longevity.

Basic Qualities: Beauty


The **3rd key principle is beauty**, in other words, a well-built building should be aesthetically pleasing. However, **beauty is subjective**: what one person considers beautiful may be an eyesore to someone else.

Architectural movements are often based largely on the aesthetics of buildings. While other factors come into play, such as materials and available technology and engineering knowledge, how buildings look often has a large impact on a given architectural movement and its place in history.

**Shifting priorities and ideas of beauty are key factors in the transitions between movements**. For example, the simplicity of Neoclassicism was a direct response to the overly decorative Renaissance and Baroque styles. Later, **Postmodernism, with its bright campy style, arose to counter the minimalism of Modernism**. While beauty should be a consideration for any good architectural project, just what beauty is will continue to be under debate.

Basic Qualities: Harmony


Ultimately, an important aspect of good architecture is how the 3 key principles of **durability, functionality, and beauty** work together. Architectural projects fail when functionality or longevity are sacrificed for beauty, or vice versa. It is the careful balance and harmony of these various qualities that will make an architectural project a success. **The necessity for harmony means that a good architect must also be knowledgeable about all 3 aspects of architecture** and needs to be able to envision how these qualities will work together in a finished building. This requires a great deal of knowledge and skill.

In addition to the key principles, **a structure should also be constructed in harmony with the surrounding geography**. Geography has an effect on durability, functionality, and beauty. As such, an architect must consider climate, humidity, and even the type of ground. For reasons of both functionality and aesthetics, how a building fits into its surroundings is vitally important.

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