Defining Architecture and Design

Exploring Construction of the Built Environment

orange gates flutter in an urban park with tall, masonry city buildings in the background outside the park
Art or Architecture? The Gates in Central Park, 2005, by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What is architecture? The word architecture can have many meanings. Architecture can be both an art and a science, a process and a result, and both an idea and a reality. People often use the words "architecture" and "design" interchangeably, which naturally broadens the definition of architecture. If you can "design" your own career goals, aren't you the architect of your own life? It seems there are no easy answers, so we explore and debate the many definitions of architecture, design, and what architects and social scientists call "the built environment."

Definitions of Architecture

Some people think architecture is like pornography — you know it when you see it. Everyone may have an opinion and an elegant (or self-serving) definition for architecture. From the Latin word architectura, the word we use describes the job of an architect. The ancient Greek arkhitekton was the chief builder or master technician of all craftsmen and artisans. So, what comes first, the architect or the architecture? 

"architecture 1. The art and science of designing and building structures, or large groups of structures, in keeping with aesthetic and functional criteria. 2. Structures built in accordance with such principles."— Dictionary of Architecture and Construction
"Architecture is the scientific art of making structure express ideas. Architecture is the triumph of human imagination over materials, methods, and men to put man into possession of his own earth. Architecture is man's great sense of himself embodied in a world of his own making. It may rise as high in quality only as its source because great art is great life." — Frank Lloyd Wright, from the Architectural Forum, May 1930
"It is about creating buildings and spaces that inspire us, that help us do our jobs, that bring us together, and that become, at their best, works of art that we can move through and live in. And in the end, that is why architecture can be considered the most democratic of art forms." — 2011, President Barack Obama, Pritzker Architecture Prize Ceremony Speech

Depending on the context, the word "architecture" can refer to any man-made building or structure, like a tower or monument; a man-made building or structure that is important, large, or highly creative; a carefully designed object, such as a chair, a spoon, or a tea kettle; a design for a large area such as a city, town, park, or landscaped gardens; the art or science of designing and building buildings, structures, objects, and outdoor spaces; a building style, method, or process; a plan for organizing space; elegant engineering; the planned design of any kind of system; a systematic arrangement of information or ideas; and the flow of information on a web page.

The unusual fabric-covered tent (or teepee) construction of the main airport terminal, designed to be reflective of the nearby snow-capped Rocky Mountains
Tensil Architecture at Denver International Airport. George Rose/Getty Images (cropped)

Art, Architecture, and Design

In 2005, the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude implemented an idea, an art installation in New York City called The Gates in Central Park. Thousands of bright orange gates were placed throughout Central Park, the great landscape architecture of Frederick Law Olmsted, erected as designed by the artistic team. "Of course, 'The Gates' is art, because what else would it be?" wrote art critic Peter Schjeldahl at the time. "Art used to mean paintings and statues. Now it means practically anything human-made that is unclassifiable otherwise." The New York Times was more pragmatic in their review called "Enough About 'Gates' as Art; Let's Talk About That Price Tag." So, if a man-made design can't be classified, it must be art. But if it's very, very expensive to create, how can it be simply art?

Depending on your perspective, you might use the word architecture to describe any number of things. Which of these items might be called architecture — a circus tent; a sports stadium; an egg carton; a roller coaster; a log cabin; a skyscraper; a computer program; a temporary summer pavilion; a political campaign; a bonfire; a parking garage; an airport, bridge, train station, or your house? The list could go on forever.

night view of multi-level parking garage, lit with purple lights on the top floor
The Architecture of the Car Park, 2010, by Herzog & de Meuron, 1111 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach, Florida. Roger Kisby/Getty Images

What Does Architectural Mean?

The adjective architectural can describe anything related to architecture and building design. Examples are abundant, including architectural drawings; architectural design; architectural styles; architectural modeling; architectural details; architectural engineering; architectural software; architectural historian or architectural history; architectural research; architectural evolution; architectural studies; architectural heritage; architectural traditions; architectural antiquities and architectural salvage; architectural lighting; architectural products; architectural investigation.

Also, the word architectural can describe objects that have a strong shape or beautiful lines — an architectural vase; an architectural sculpture; an architectural rock formation; architectural drapery. Perhaps it is this use of the word architectural that has muddied the waters of defining architecture.

When Does a Building Become Architecture?

"The land is the simplest form of architecture," wrote American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), implying that the built environment is not exclusively man-made. If true, are the birds and the bees and all builders of natural habitats considered architects — and are their structures architecture?

Architect and journalist Roger K. Lewis (b. 1941) writes that societies tend to value most a structure that "transcends service or functional performance" and that are more than mere buildings. "Great architecture," writes Lewis, "has always represented more than responsible construction or durable shelter. Artfulness of form and artistry of building have long been the dominant standards for measuring the extent to which human made artifacts are transformed from the profane to the sacred."

Frank Lloyd Wright claims that this artistry and beauty can only come from the human spirit. "Mere building may not know 'spirit' at all," Wright wrote in 1937. "And it is well to say that the spirit of the thing is the essential life of that thing because it is truth." To Wright's thinking, a beaver dam, a beehive, and a bird's nest may be beautiful, lower forms of architecture, but the "great fact" is this — "architecture is simply a higher type and expression of nature by way of human nature where human beings are concerned. The spirit of man enters into all, making of the whole a godlike reflection of himself as creator."

aerial view of flat land to mountains, circular building in foreground
Apple Headquarters Designed by Norman Foster in Cupertino, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

So, What Is Architecture?

"Architecture is an art bridging the humanities and the sciences," says American architect Steven Holl (b. 1947). "We work bone-deep in Art — drawing lines between sculpture, poetry, music and science that coalesce in Architecture."

Since the licensing of architects, these professionals have defined themselves and what they do. This hasn't stopped anyone and everyone else from having an opinion with no one architecture definition.

Sources

  • Gutheim, Frederick ed. "Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940)." Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, p. 141
  • Harris, Cyril M. ed. "Dictionary of Architecture and Construction." McGraw- Hill, 1975, p. 24
  • Holl, Steven. "Five Minute Manifesto." AIA Gold Medal Ceremony, Washington, D.C. May 18, 2012
  • Lewis, Roger K. "Introduction." Master Builders, Diane Maddex ed., National Trust for Historic Preservation, Wiley Preservation Press, 1985, p. 8
  • McIntire, Mike. "Enough About 'Gates' as Art; Let's Talk About That Price Tag." The New York Times, March 5, 2005, www.nytimes.com/2005/03/05/nyregion/enough-about-gates-as-art-lets-talk-about-that-price-tag.html
  • Schjeldahl, Peter. "Gated." The New Yorker, February 28, 2005, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/02/28/gated
  • Wright, Frank Lloyd. "The Future of Architecture." New American Library, Horizon Press, 1953, pp. 41, 58-59