There is so much rolled up in a building—form, function, historical reference, materials, craftsmanship—that developing a comprehensive opinion on its design can be daunting. If you want to decode what exactly separates inspired buildings from insipid ones, realize that you’ve got to get past your initial gut response.
Context: Some buildings shout out like an AM radio talk-show host, and some buildings seem afraid to make a peep. Good buildings know when to sing and when to shut up.
Proportion: There are some general rules of thumb in architectural composition, but a lot has to do with the con-text of the building site. When you’re in an inte-rior or exterior space that feels right, take note of the proportions of the volume. Over time, you’ll see recurring patterns to support your intuition.
Style: To understand style you’ve got to pay close attention to both the overall form and the details. Does the building say “Hello! I am inspired by the traditional forms of yesteryear!” or does it say “Hello! I am wearing a funny hat and have lost my way!”?
Materials: Cheaper materials are often…cheaper. Which means they’re…cheaper. Some materials might look great on day one, but if they have to be replaced in ten years, then they’re not really…cheaper.
Craftsmanship: A building’s secrets are revealed in its details. Were the materials carefully fitted together by loving hands, or were they stuck together with goo and cloaked in trim? The manner in which materials come together in a building directly impacts the cost.
Ingenuity: The client sets the budget, not the architect. Give her some credit if she has made ingenious use of inexpensive durable materials in her design.
Flexibility: Try to broaden your experience of the building beyond the present moment. Imagine how it might perform when the season changes, for instance—a good building must be flexible enough to constantly adapt to changing environmental conditions.
Sustainability: Raise your awareness of sustainable architectural features and be on the lookout for them. Pay attention to how daylight and stormwater are managed and what measures are in place to reduce power usage, for starters.
Efficiency: We notice when a building doesn’t function well. Efficient buildings sometimes slip by without much fan-fare, precisely because they work so well. Learn to recognize these silent, hard-working gems and give them a round of applause.
Daylight: Think of daylight as a building material, like wood or stone. Its properties must be understood and then carefully managed to achieve functional and experiential goals. Conversely, in the wrong hands daylight can transform into a low-grade death ray and cook you like a wienie.
Acoustics: Designing spaces that perform acousti—what? I was just saying, that acoustics must be carefully—couch stick what? ACOUSTICS! What? ACOUSTICS ARE IMPORTANT IN ARCHITECTURE. Oh.
Color: Buildings tell a story, if you let them—and color sets the tone. Color perception is highly individual and is tied to personal associations you’ve developed over the years. You say you feel funny in that banana-yellow waiting room? Why? (Work that out on your own time.)