Architecture in the Real World



Architecture in the real world…is the only ‘architecture’.


With the title of this entry a reader might make the assumption that I’d write on the nuts and bolts aspects of the profession, what an office is like, how the process really works, and maybe even a litany of advice for the emerging professional.  It’s not.  Architecture in the real world, professionally speaking, is more like any other office experience than not.  Now on to something more fun, and probably more controversial.  Strap in.

If it ain’t built, it ain’t architecture.

This is a matter of some debate in the architectural community, as there is such a great and prolific body of work from architects of every level that has never, and will never be built.  And we architects, all of us, have been immeasurably influenced by it.  Personally the Plan Voisin urban re-design for the city of Paris by Le Corbusier, the Open House by Coop Himme(l)blau, and the brilliant works of Antonio Sant’elia who left us far too early, have all been fundamental to my design, and there are hundreds, if not thousands more just as dear to other architects.

But they are not architecture.

No, they are designs, philosophies, concepts, experiments…whatever you like, whichever moniker you prefer, but they are not architecture.  Fundamental to architecture is the comprehensive process.  The architect designs it, that design must be sold to a client, that client must find the means to pay for it, the architect must document it, the design must receive a permit, the contractor must build it. and finally, the building must be occupied successfully in the use it was designed for.  Each step in this process is incredible, complex and rife with obstacles.  And unbuilt works often don’t get past the first step.

I’ll use one of my own designs to personify this.  Our firm is contributing to a local mixed-use project centered around multiple corporate headquarters and seeks to successfully integrate urban residential within a very retail-centric commercial fabric.  Early in the design process we identified several elements that the clients (there is a partnership of entities involved) sought and devised what we though was a very considerate and effective solution.  I won’t go into all the details, but here are a few salient points.

1. Stucco is getting as expensive as brick, crews are hard to find, and when installed poorly looks cheap.  Find a alternate material that is less expensive, easy to access and install, and looks more commercial.

2. Residential buildings tend to have a ‘residential’ look, how can we make them look more commercial knowing it isn’t in the budget to just use curtain wall.  The design must consist of residential windows and doors, with some sort of operable glazing in each room.

3. Structurally this is wood framed, and as such works better if structural loads carry straight down through the building.

To try and solve this program, we came up with a design that used cementitious panels in an irregular pattern on a modular facade consisting of one door type and one window type.  That irregular pattern shifted with the door & window placement (in which we used doors in all the rooms so that would be the operable piece, helping eliminate the horizontal mullion so characteristic of residential dwellings) in a way that always kept the amount of material waste below 3%, with 3 different facade configurations per unit.


This allowed us to generate an iterative facade that breaks down the typical window/door/window/door rhythm you see on most residential structures and implement a more organic facade treatment with a minimum of waste and cost.


Finally, we implemented the iterations to fit within a 6 foot structural grid (shown in red) so the bearing points could carry down through the whole facade uninterrupted.

unit diagram1

Frankly we thought this was a very elegant solution that addressed all of these programmatic concerns.  In the end, however, the clients didn’t embrace this design.  There were several reasons why it did not, ultimately, become the end product, but in any event, it died after that first step.  That’s not to say any of this design is a bad idea, in fact, I personally, possibly arrogantly, feel it was an excellent design.  I’m very proud of it, but it’s not architecture.

Not unless it gets built.

If it doesn’t get built, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea.  If it does get built, that doesn’t mean it was.

Is my design a good design that just didn’t get realized?  Who knows.  It’s may be a good design that couldn’t be realized for a lot of good reasons.  My point here is not to disparage those designs that haven’t been fully realized, rather it’s to laud those that do.  It is so incredibly, impossibly harder to get it not just designed and accepted by a client but to find, at the end of the construction process, it fulfills everyone’s vision.



This post is part of a coalition of architects posting on a single topic, each interpreting it in their own way.  If you’d like to explore their thoughts on the same topic, I encourage you to follow this links below:

“Bob Borson – Life of An Architect
Architecture in the Real Wolrd … sorta

“Matthew Stanfield – FiELD9: architecture
Welcome to the Architecture of the Real

“Marica McKeel – Studio MM
Architecture in the Real World

“Jeff Echols – Architect Of The Internet
What is the Real World: Architecture in the Real World

“Lee Calisti, AIA – Think Architect
Architecture in the Real World

“Mark R. LePage – Entrepreneur Architect
The HGTV Affect

“Lora Teagarden – L² Design, LLC
Architecture: It’s a human thing

“Nicholas Renard – dig Architecture
Keep on Architect’n in the Real World

“Andrew Hawkins, AIA – Hawkins Architecture, Inc.
Here in the Real World

“Jeremiah Russell, AIA – ROGUE Architecture
architecture in the real world: #architalks

“Michele Grace Hottel – Michele Grace Hottel, Architect
Architecture in the Real World

“Meghana Joshi – IRA Consultants, LLC
Architecture in the Real World

“Michael Riscica – Young Architect
Architecture in the Real World

Architecture in the Real World

“Brian Paletz – The Emerging Architect
Architecture in the Real World

“Tara Imani – Tara Imani Designs, LLC
Architecture in the Real World

“Jonathan Brown – Proto-Architecture
Architecture in the Real World


02 2015
  • Jagi Nomoto

    Hey JB – I understand what you mean and think of it more as Degrees of Architecture: 5, 10 or 360 degrees, pick your maxim to exemplify the level of depth you have completed. Thanks for the read.

  • Jonathan Brown

    That’s fair, but for me, 100% = “architecture”. Maybe I’m just in a jaded place because until one sees several of one’s projects fall short of their vision simply in construction, you know, no matter how good the design, if it doesn’t get built with the same care, it just isn’t the vision.

  • Bob Borson

    You had me with “If it ain’t built, it ain’t architecture.”

    I took some heat a back in September 2012 for writing a post titled “It doesn’t count if it doesn’t get built.” There are a lot of moving parts (as you identified) that go into creating architecture and the short and sweet of it is this: If all the work I put in was never actually seen through the entire process and actually built, I wouldn’t want be an architect.

    As architects, we strive to create buildings and spaces that shape and impact the lives and experiences of the people who use and interact with them. Anything less is a disappointment.

  • Jonathan Brown

    Agreed, and very eloquently said. It doesn’t mean an unbuilt idea isn’t good, important, and something to learn from, it just hasn’t fulfilled the promise that makes architecture so magical.

  • Lee Calisti, AIA

    I can’t say I disagree with the premise or your position. I am like Bob, disappointed if it doesn’t get built. If we take the position that it “ain’t” architecture if it doesn’t get built, then we have a presupposition that it must be real or more importantly usable by people – the reason we do what we do right? I lean heavily in that court too. But I’m not done discussing this as I feel its too deep to dismiss as quickly as your opening statement.

    BTW, I really appreciate the breakdown of thought to why something “looks” the way it does and how the iterations and client input shape and guide solutions. We are so quick to criticize buildings we visit or see in the media (perhaps fair game) but we often are excluded from the story. Thanks for showing us behind the curtain.

  • Jonathan Brown

    Thanks for the comment. I agree that it’s dismissive of me, and that’s why I then go on to qualify it by noting the bit on “…designs, philosophies, concepts, experiments…” because design ideas, even if unbuilt, are incredibly important. They educate, inspire and transform our own ideas, and help architects throughout their career. When I was in college, deconstruction was all the rage, and a professor of mine at the time resoundingly criticized Peter Eisenman for being a “liar” and a “cheat”. He said (and this is a nearly 2 decade old paraphrase, mind) “If Eisenman was truthful about his deconstructive transformations, the resulting morphologies would not be architecture as we understand it. They would comprise a different vocabulary entirely that is distinct from our current one. More than slanting walls and shifting grids on grids, there would be surfaces impossible for humans to walk on, roofs that wouldn’t keep the rain out, etc.” I agree with much of this, and also agree that the resulting buildings stemming from these philosophies that did come to be, lost something of the purity of their idea when they were ultimately built. And that, right there, is the point. I would argue you can’t make a purely deconstructivist philosophy manifest as a building that needs to house people and keep the rain out. That doesn’t mean a design process like deconstruciton can’t be illuminating and revealing, and trigger certain incredible outcomes which add invaluably to the design of a building. However, as a result, the final building will have certain compromises that take place in it’s creation (silly things, like obeying the laws of gravity, etc.) and it’s this process, to a penultimate built form, that is then, and only then, Architecture.

  • Matthew Stanfield

    While i agree to some extent with your position, i cannot fully embrace it. It would seem to take this to it’s logical conclusion, if i do not build it, then i am not an architect? Further, there could only be said to be a handful of examples of Architecture schools in the world. The rest are just design schools? Does this also mean that if it is built, it automagically becomes Architecture?

    Maybe yes to all of these. But i struggle with that as the end all and be all definition of Architecture.

    On the other hand, ultimately we do design for people. And people should be able use and experience the space.

    The one point i flat out cannot agree with is “the building must be occupied successfully in the use it was designed for.” Does this mean that once a building gets used as something other than it’s original intent, it ceases to be Architecture?

    I appreciate your point of view, just not sure i can get fully on board with it.

  • Jonathan Brown

    An architect is a title, registered and certified. Just as I wouldn’t say someone who designed a building and worked to get it built (say a single family house which doesn’t require a registered professional) is an architect, I wouldn’t say one isn’t an architect if they never have a building built. A good friend of mine works in the oil and gas industry designing equipment for dislodging pipelines. He’s a registered architect, he doesn’t practice as such, but he is registered and is by title. There could clearly be an existential debate over the meaning of the title, but I’m happy to fall in that one who is registered is, and one who is not registered isn’t.

    I apologize for the wording concerning “occupied”. I struggled with that, and couldn’t come up with better. Of course that isn’t my intention with it. What I was trying to suggest is that architecture doesn’t just stop at the building either, it must actually work for it’s intended purpose. Certainly is can be re-purposed, renovated, etc. The example I’ll use is Zaha Hadid’s Vitra fire station. It’s design was conceived and built, but doesn’t actually work as a fire station, and was barely used as such. In effect, it’s an architectural art piece at the Vitra headquarters. Sure, it’s architecture, but truly successful architecture can’t just be for it’s own sake, but must work for the programming it was intended.