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Volume 6.3  5/6/2013
What is good architecture?
The third of a series.

by William Albinson, AIA
Other Good Buildings and a Few Not So Good Buildings
Vitruvius’ updated 1stcentury criteria for good buildings are:
          Durability, an important and sometimes difficult quality to
          Clarity, meaning usefulness, so that a building allows
          the visitor to understand its organization, and 
          Appeal, applying mostly, but not totally, to appearance and
          visual qualities.

The previous examples that successfully fulfilled these criteria were all large public buildings on which a great deal of time and money has been spent.  These buildings were also built to last for generations. 

Here are some other less grand but very good buildings, all in St. Louis' Forest Park.

The World’s Fair Pavilion (1) is Durable because of the flexibility of its organization and use.  The construction materials are also durable and substantial.  Its site at the top of Government Hill contributes to its exceptional appeal.
The Probstein Golf Course Clubhouse (2) exhibits Clarity in its linear organization allowing exceptional views of the course and the park.  The building derives its Clarity in part from the openness and attractiveness of the site. 
The Jewel Box (3) has visual Appeal because the glazing allows light to filter through the building structure and plant materials, and is easily visible and accessible from the surrounding streets and sidewalks. (4) This multi use building occupies a significant hilltop location.

Good architecture is not easy to achieve for either the architect or the client, both of whom are needed for success. There may be inherent difficulties either with the program, budget or design which architects try to overcome with skillful manipulation and creative solutions. Sometimes the most well intentioned architects create buildings that are disappointing. With that in mind, there are a few examples that illustrate how we fall short and end up with qualities that are the opposite of firmness (durability), commodity (clarity) and delight (appeal).


If we turn around the criteria derived from Vitruvius, we might have flimsiness or Obsolescence, Disorganization or just Ordinary

Obsolescence was unfortunately illustrated by Mudd Hall (5), the previous Law School building at Washington University. It was built in 1971 and demolished only twenty seven years later in 1998 long before it should have reached obsolescence. It was designed by skillful architects with the best intentions to provide flexibility and growth for future needs. The building’s rigid concrete structure frustrated its users in many ways including limitations on their options for adaption to more modern technology and curriculum needs. Obsolescence seems to have been a result of the architect, the client and the architectural competition judges who selected it, misunderstanding the building’s users and how they would need to adapt the building. Other factors in the complex university environment, of course, entered into the decision to demolish Mudd Hall.



Obsolescence brings in the fourth dimension of time. With time comes physical deterioration, but more likely functional obsolescence due to rapid technological or cultural changes. The old Busch Stadium, designed by a nationally lauded architect, was not demolished because the game of baseball changed or because the building was physically deteriorated. What changed were customer preferences for amenities and franchise preferences for revenue generating boxes.

When possible, the most appropriate response to obsolescence is retrofitting, extensive renovation or repurposing of a building. This usually means removing most building components and systems except the structure and enclosure. In the past few decades repurposing is seen as an opportunity to use the embodied energy of the building, reduce new materials, generate less waste and reduce urban sprawl. This is good stewardship of the environment.
Obsolescence may result in the demolition of warehouse buildings, which can be seen in many locations in the city, rather than repurposing. However, many warehouse buildings in St. Louis have been converted to uses such as housing and office space. The University City Children’s Center (6) is such a conversion. The building was constructed in the 1960s as a pharmaceutical warehouse and repurposed a number of years ago as a unique child development center. (7) (8)
Disorganization is a characteristic that might be applied to the 1980 addition to the Saint Louis Art Museum. That addition created a secondary entry and circulation system, avoiding the main sculpture hall. Access to the sculpture hall is by an elevator from a lower level. An example of a much better connection is the new East Building. 

A good addition does not have to look like the main building even when that building is the St. Louis Art Museum. The museum’s new East Building by David Chipperfield appears to be an example of a successful union of two disparate styles of architecture. The East Building is clearly different and formally expresses its unique uses.

A similar situation occurs as architects try to adapt buildings from the 19th and the first half of the 20th century from pedestrian use to automobile use.  These adaptations are successful on many levels but very challenging on others.  The B’nai Amoona Synagogue in University City by Eric Mendelsohn (9), now the Center of Creative Arts – COCA, is a beautiful soaring building viewed from the front entry that leads the visitor under sheltering canopies and past expansive glass areas looking into the building’s lobby and courtyard.  

Space for a parking lot was not available at the front entry to the building.  COCA is a wonderful organization and an attractive addition was built on the back where parking was available. However, the original main front entrance was closed and the experience of entering the building from the front as originally intended in the design is not available to the public. Ironically, this is one of the few buildings of its era that allowed for disabled accessibility. 

This is a common problem for which no easy solution exists, but one which architects and building owners should try to solve in ways that allow existing buildings to function as much as possible as originally intended.



There are many ordinary buildings in the urban environment.  Some are just plain while others seem to have been assembled in a haphazard way that lacks grace.  However, an Ordinary building may also be one that does not express its function or role well. 

Ordinary buildings may be located on exceptional sites such as the Gateway One office building on the Gateway Mall in Downtown. This building was the end result of a long process to complete the eastern portion of the Gateway Mall. The 1980’s planning concept, a compromise at that, was for three lower (7 story) buildings to occupy the north sides of the blocks with a park or mall on the south half of the blocks. (10) Gateway One was the only building developed and it was built at a much greater height and different in appearance than those originally intended. 


Flanked by, and effectively separating City Garden on the west from the May Amphitheater and Kiener Plaza on the east, Gateway One is a tall suburban intruder with its own private plaza. As it stands (too costly in real estate value to remove), it is Ordinary in appearance. (11)


The three criteria of Durability, Clarity and Appeal are not sufficient to define good architecture in the contemporary built environment. There is another criterion that is of equal importance.

That is how well a building relates to its Context, which will be considered next.


Image Credits:

1    Postcard of World’s Fair Pavilion in Forest Park, courtesy of Landmarks Association of St. Louis.
2    Probstein Golf Club House, Bob Pettus, photographer, Powers Bowersox Associates, Architects.
3    Photo by Team Four/Saur Architects
4    Photo by Team Four/Saur Architects
5    Seeley Greenfield Mudd Hall, Washington University, Student Life photograph, Schnebli, Anselevicius and Montgomery, architects
6    Photo by Team Four/Saur Architects
7    University City Children’s Center, photo by Alise O’Brien
8    University City Children’s Center, photo by Alise O’Brien
9    B'nai Amoona Synagogue, TeamFour/Saur photograph, Eric Mendelsohn, Architect.
10   Gateway Mall Plan Cover Illustration by Bob Watel, Gateway Mall Redevelopment Corporation, 1982.
11   Photo by Team Four/Saur Architects

TeamFour/Saur provides architectural, planning, site and interior design services that support our client’s needs and contribute to the quality of the built environment.
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