Monday 23 December 2013

Does architecture lift the spirits?


It is said that all buildings must achieve three things: rigidity, capacity, and delight. In current times rigidity is no problem: steel girders bolted together and anchored on a concrete base can be quickly constructed to almost any height. For the same reason, it is easy to provide capacity: put cladding and glass on the outside of the girders and plasterboard inside for partitions, and you have plenty of useable space.

Achieving delight is harder. Some contemporary architects eschew such objectives. For them, the worst sin is decoration. Such superficialities, they say, are a concession to the foibles of the common folk, and a waste of resources. If the building is to give any pleasure it must arise from the honest and sparse use of materials. Above all, it must not be a pastiche of former styles. Perhaps “pastiche” is the worst insult an architect can level at a building. In their view pure new architecture must be new, though that often means it is a pastiche of 1930 designs rather than 19th Century designs.

So, what is it which makes the passer-by smile at a building? Someone who regularly walked past the Royal Hospital Chelsea, said that he would always raise his hat in salutation, “assuming from its proportions that it had been designed by a gentleman”.

It was with this in mind that I took a break from psychological publications and went on an architectural tour of the City of London, led by an architect friend, and consisting of myself and two other friends with an interest in buildings.

We began at Liverpool Street, with a distant view of the Gherkin


where there is a poignant memorial to the Kindertransport


The Broadgate development (Phase I by Arup Associates and II by SOM);

Exchequer Court (by Raul Curiel)

The Gherkin (by Foster); pictured here with a reflected Exchequer Court in lower foreground



the Bishopsgate tower cluster including Cheesegrater (Richard Rogers),



Lloyds (ditto)




The Walkie-Talkie (Rafael Viñoli) which scorches hapless pedestrians; Leadenhall Market; The Royal Exchange (Fitzroy Robinson);

At this point we had lunch in the cafe on the floor of the Royal Exchange, thus being able to admire the extra story with Corinthian columns which Fitzroy Robinson put in during the restoration, detectable only because the stonework was fractionally lighter in tone.

After lunch we looked at 1 Poultry (James Stirling) and the recently-completed One New Change by  Jean Nouvel; (with the Shard in the distance).








Then a critical evaluation of the banal neo-classicism of Prince Charles’s inspired Paternoster Square; a walk along the Millenium Bridge (Foster/Arup/Caro) to Tate Modern (Herzog and DeMeuron); and then made our way back to Blackfriars.

Although we do not know precisely how, something about the facade, texture and general shape of a building stirs the soul. Some buildings we want to preserve for ever, others we’d like to see demolished immediately. It is a test of aesthetic preferences of the sort that were investigated experimentally decades ago, on irregular polygons, of all things. The idea was to avoid stimuli which were liable to have been conditioned by cultural requirements, and simply to see if any random shapes were preferred over others, regardless of cultural background. The findings seemed to support a general factor of aesthetic sensibility, at the very least between Britain and Japan. A classic paper, which launched a whole field of research.

Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1971, 32, 817-818. @ Perceptual and Motor Skills 1971

These are matters we shall take up on the next outing. Next time we are including a film director/photographer to record it properly, a Professor of Printing to help us with the aesthetics, and a property specialist to give us more insight into commercial intrigues and pressures.

If you would like to join us (probably in March next year) please indicate your own particular interest so as to ensure lively conversation at all times. A background in any of the following is desirable: Architecture, construction, roofing, building conservation, modern materials and construction methods, psychology of building use, office design, aesthetics, history of the City or of cities generally, streetscapes, and the needs of businesses. Failing those, a capacity to recount anecdotes will suffice. The only cost is to chip in to buy the architect his lunch. Applications please.


  1. I know the desiderata as "commodity, firmness and delight".

  2. probably right. Recalled it from memory, an error prone procedure.

  3. It's a hundred years since Adolf Loos published "Ornament and Crime" and for forty years post-modern architects have indulged guiltlessly in decoration and pastiche, (though they're more likely to call it "resonance".) Perhaps your March tour could take in something like that.

  4. that you appreciate architecture reveals you have very high spatial ability!
    as someone who's verbal > 2D nonverbal > 3D spatial, i have no appreciation of architecture. & i'm bad at fixing things! spatial ability got selected for b/c it kept humans alive, so there are more spatial > verbal than there are verbal > spatial (we didn't need as many of the latter - rather humbling for me:)