the view from stockton house

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The Commonspace

Oct 2002 / the view from stockton house :: email this story to a friend

What is Architecture?
By David Laslie and Frederick Medler

Most dictionaries define "architecture" as "the art and science of building." This definition suffices in most instances, yet it says nothing about how buildings make us feel, how they promote or prevent our interaction with fellow human beings, or what kind of effect they have on our health, our communities, and the surrounding natural and manmade environment.

Consider another definition if you will: architecture is the manifestation in space of the basic human needs for interaction, inspiration, and a healthy way of living.

Can architecture prevent us from getting to know other people? Most denizens of modern suburban dwellings rarely ever "hang out" with their neighbors. Can architecture prevent us from dreaming or living life in a perpetual state of awe and wonder? Most modern or contemporary buildings force us to accept nearly identical consumerist icons as symbols of true beauty, but in actuality, they warp our sense of aesthetics with a blandly overwhelming homogeny. Can architecture cause us to feel insignificant and worthless? Search for personal statements of independence, free thought, humanity, or diversity in our cookie cutter subdivisions and in our dark, cavernous downtowns, and quite soon you will realize that your goal is like the proverbial needle hidden in the haystack. Can architecture prevent us from living longer and healthier lives? Sit in a space with inoperable windows and fluorescent lighting and try not to fall asleep or contract influenza.

Mostly everyone wants to live a happier, healthier, more productive, and more loving life, but a majority of the buildings that we build work against these basic human desires. Daily, we lock ourselves up in buildings that act as protective bubbles, placating our fears and insecurities while providing us with a false sense of privacy and protection. In our efforts to avoid inclement weather, crime, noise, pollution, etc., we seal up our buildings, and by so doing, avoid interaction with Nature, disallow ourselves the right to inspiration, and perpetually make ourselves physically and mentally ill.

All of this points to the fact that the needs we have as humans are subject to the spaces in which we exist, and these spaces should be designed in such a way to allow us to live life more fully. Architecture should allow us opportunities for interaction: to speak with our neighbors and to commune with the world around us while sitting on our porches or terraces. It should allow us opportunities for inspiration: to dream, to laugh, and to let out a barbaric "yawp," should we feel compelled to do so. It should also allow opportunities for the improvement of health: to breathe fresh air and luxuriate in natural light and other stimuli.

In most populated areas in the Saint Louis region, the broad porches and sidewalks shaded by elm trees have disappeared, and with them, neighborhood interdependence. Instead we meet others online in chat rooms, forsaking the complex time-tested neighborhood relationships achieved by shaking hands on the sidewalk, playing stickball in the alley, or splitting a six pack of beer on the front lawn. Perhaps the pace and complexities of industrialization and a computerized society have forced us to neglect our ability to connect to the world around us. Regardless, our buildings do impede this process for those of us who wish to share of ourselves and participate in this sort of civic interaction, and indeed, prevent us from even attempting it.

Most of us naturally want privacy, but in an attempt to secure it at all costs, the elusive connection to the outside has been lost in most buildings. Buildings today instead take on the role of hermetically sealed and introverted "storage lockers" for our possessions, and our personal and professional lives. In many cases, these buildings were constructed not for our interaction, but rather for the maximum profit of developers. As much as architecture must serve our basic physical requirement for space, while not forsaking cherished privacy, we must also consider our social and cultural needs, and allow for this interaction without paying a premium. If we approach the design of our buildings with interaction in mind, even simply in the form of a front porch or terrace, we can find ways to save capital to offset the added cost, such as using local materials as available, and thus not incurring the immense costs of transportation that figures into prices of materials sold at corporate hardware superstores.

Besides allowing us to be a part of a community, our buildings must also serve to inspire us. In our neurotic and accelerated age, architecture should remind us that we are not only sentient but also sensual beings, able to deeply experience the beautiful possibilities life offers us. Our buildings should constantly satisfy and enrich us spiritually and emotionally. They should uplift us and allow us to feel liberated; they should soothe and console us. They should provide for us the sense of awe and wonder we as humans once found in Nature. Alas, very few of our virgin forests or rolling plains have not been tainted by sprawling development, and so it behooves us to somehow compensate for this loss.

The inhuman scale of our central business districts, where the towering excess of capitalistic dominance forces us to slouch and look down at our feet, coupled with the placeless qualities of our suburbs with their "plastic storage locker" houses sprawling over the landscape and assimilating us into the vast sameness of the exploited, degrade our spirits in ways we may not even perceive. Our barbaric "yawps" dwindle to murmurs, and we settle into a general state of malaise with no hope for escape. Yet at its most imaginative, architecture reflects the many needs each of us have for whimsical, romantic, and spiritual experiences. Thus it becomes an extension of ourselves — a medium through which we better understand existence itself.

Union Station's Whispering Arch At Chartres Cathedral, the lofty heights of the nave and the kaleidoscope of color painted by the stained glass windows instill reverence in us. In the Alhambra, courtyard fountains pacify our neuroses. In the playful work of Louis Sullivan, our eyes are allowed to look up from the pavement and shift around over the details, filling us with a delirious glee. Even in Saint Louis Union Station, though it no longer serves its intended function, the expansive space of the Grand Hall ennobles and emboldens us, while the entry vestibule, with its precise design allowing for echoes, persuades us to stand at one end and whisper a secret to a friend or complete stranger standing at the other end, readying him or herself to receive the message, and perhaps in turn, a reminder of childhood.

Alas, modernism and utility have persuaded us to abandon rich detail and active spaces under consideration of burdensome costs. But fine detailing and liberating spaces do not have to come at a premium, for their costs can be offset by means such orienting our buildings to receive or repel the rays of the sun, thereby lessening the need for constant climate control as well as the electricity required to power these systems.

Finally, architecture should provide for our health and general well being, as our workplaces are filled with germs circulated by our air handling systems, and as our far-reaching suburbs create the unfortunate results of air pollution and neglected children abandoned at home for hours on end while their parents sit in traffic jams. Operable windows and natural light have been proven to improve health and productivity, and the costs of these amenities are minimal when compared with medical and therapy bills. In Saint Louis, many abandoned buildings sit neglected near transit lines. If utilized, they would become the homes of people who would not have to worry about sitting in traffic on the way to the store to purchase a gallon of milk or a newspaper. They would become the homes of people who once again have the time to cook a meal or to directly involve themselves in the ethical instruction of their children.

Thus the form of architecture should follow the function of architecture. Or better still, form and function should be integral. If we want to promote interaction, inspiration, and health, our buildings must manifest these basic desires in their form, and we must insist of our architects that they consider these elements before they put pencil to paper. The initial cost of this sort of building may or may not be more than those of "plastic storage lockers," but the long-term returns will be significant and more beneficial.

In an era when life is so complex and accelerated, we tend to look to technology to quickly and easily address these issues. Certainly technology allows us to cool our buildings via air conditioning, but why not design buildings to also breathe naturally, saving the air conditioning for the hottest of days? Technology alone in architecture does not allow for interaction, inspiration, or the improvement of general health, and thus, the pattern of an architecture that is destructive to the human spirit and the basic desires for community, inspiration, health, and freedom will continue until:


For we humans are merely extensions of Nature, and as such our buildings must:

  1. Respect human life, inalienable rights, diversity of ethnicity, physiological differences (race, gender, sexual predisposition), spiritual inclination, socioeconomic status, and our ultimate desire for true freedom,
  2. Respect all other extensions of Nature, be they plant, animal, or mineral, for their protection and against their misuse,
  3. Respect the Nature of the Land, for she is our Mother, who provides for us and will teach us all we need to know and more,
  4. Respect the past as a source of education for our decisions, and
  5. Respect space, for who gives us the right to manipulate it in the first place?

Arguments and analysis aside, can we truly put a price on our happiness and well being or that of others? No, architecture cannot solve all of the problems of a confused and struggling world society, but if we learn from Nature and we build in respect of Nature, perhaps we can begin to interact again. Perhaps we can begin to dream again. Perhaps we can live healthier and happier lives, and perhaps in the process make our world a better place.

In the following eleven months, we will continue to explore the role of architecture in our daily lives. We will discover how detrimental its effects can be, and we will also demonstrate numerous solutions to correct the many pressing and often dangerous issues with which we have been confronted in our desire to shape our environment. We welcome reader feedback, as it is our fervent hope that a dialogue commence and a forum for sharing and discussion of the ideas set forth herein be established.

Urban Design Forum

David Laslie and Frederick Medler are designers and owners of Urban Design Forum, a small city-based design company specializing in fine architecture, master planning, and landscape design. For more information, call 314.533.7458 x3, or email us at

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