What is good architecture?

Sunday 19 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Conservatory, Barbican Creative Conundrums

Frank Lloyd Wright once said: ‘When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. But when I’m finished, if the solution is not beautiful I know it’s wrong.’ But does this mean that he is describing an objective reality or merely a subjective fantasy? And what is the relationship between beautiful architecture and ‘good’ architecture? It is widely recognised that we need to build infrastructure, hospitals, houses, schools and even cities, but does it matter what they look like? In fact, designer Thomas Heatherwick recently told Building Design that we should be ‘less judgemental of “bad architecture” (because) it is an achievement just to get something built’. So given that we need universities, airports and commercial buildings, it’s worth asking whether they need to be architect-designed? In China, for example, one of the most dynamic economic regions of the world, the need to develop rapidly has not necessarily included the provision of good architecture. Does it matter?

Actually, the search for good architecture has long been the driving ambition of architects. Just over 2,000 years ago, the Roman architect Vitruvius suggested that ‘well building’ must include the three functions of ‘Commodity, Firmness and Delight’ and, ever since then, architects have tried to work out what he meant. Twenty years ago, the Royal Fine Arts commission staked its claim for being the elite arbiter of taste, saying: ‘What makes good building is, quite simply, a good client and good architects – in other words, enlightened patronage.’ And last year, Ed Vaizey, minister for culture, communications and creativity, instrumentally advocated that ‘good design builds communities, creates quality of life, and makes places better for people to live, work and play in’. What do these three ages of architectural ambition reflect?

A few years ago, Ruth Reed, the then president of the RIBA, claimed that ‘good architecture has its price but bad architecture – or no architecture at all – will cost you more’. But in the midst of a global economic recession, is architecture - good or bad - really necessary? This debate will ask the panel to try to answer these questions and to give its considered opinion about what constitutes ‘good’ architecture, yesterday, today and forever.

Speakers
Rachel Armstrong
professor of experimental architecture, Newcastle University

Fred Manson
associate director, Heatherwick studio

Dr Patrik Schumacher
partner, Zaha Hadid Architects

Austin Williams
associate professor in architecture, XJTLU University, Suzhou, China; director, Future Cities Project; convenor, Bookshop Barnies

Chair
Alastair Donald
associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council

Produced by
Alastair Donald associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council
Austin Williams associate professor in architecture, XJTLU University, Suzhou, China; director, Future Cities Project; convenor, Bookshop Barnies
Recommended readings
What counts as ‘bad’ architecture? The problem with the Carbuncle Cup

From the Carbuncle Cup to the Dead Prize and Zaha in Qatar, architectural journalists resort to moral outrage to shore-up dwindling readerships

Austin Williams, Architectural Review, 6 September 2014

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