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Urban Scene : How to Be an Architecture Critic : Everyone can critique the buildings they experience and see how they affect our lives.

September 17, 1989|LEON WHITESON | Whiteson is a Los Angeles free-lance writer on architectural topics. and

You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces--that is construction, ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say, "This is beautiful." That is architecture.

--Le Corbusier

Architecture is the one art form no one can avoid.

You may choose never to view a painting, read a poem, see a play or movie, enjoy a ballet, concert or dance performance. But you cannot escape an encounter with a building of some kind almost every day.

Architecture is a social art, "society made visible," as the saying goes, and every type of architecture--from office towers to private homes to sports arenas, shopping centers, factories, movie theaters, city halls or public museums--must serve people's needs.

Everyone can be an architecture critic, to critique the buildings they experience every day, to understand how the architecture affects the way they live, feel and think about themselves.

The following seven questions will help anyone determine for themselves why a particular building is good or bad. They will help you make the same point-by-point review a professional critic does in evaluating the work of architects.

Caveat: Not all buildings designed by architects are architecture. And not all architecture is the work of architects.

Simon Rodia, who dreamed up the visionary architecture of the magic spires of Watts Towers--perhaps the single most imaginative structure in Los Angeles--was an unschooled Italian laborer.

How is this building organized as a functioning object?

How does the plan work? How do you find your way through the layout? How quickly can you grasp the organizational idea?

In a house, for instance, how do the rooms lead one into the other? Why, say, do you have to go through the kitchen to get from the living room to the master bedroom? Is there a reason for this curious arrangement or was is a poor piece of planning?

In a public building, such as a city hall, is it easy to find your way to the agency, department or official that you may be seeking? Is the front door clearly emphasized?

At Los Angeles City Hall, the elaborate forecourt and front door on Spring Street are rarely used by the public. The busy entry on Main Street is mean and muddled, and seems to lead nowhere. Standing in the lobby, there's no way you can tell where all the officials who run our daily lives are lurking.

How well do the room shapes serve the plan? If the master bedroom in a house is long and narrow with a low ceiling, is this a comfortable or intimate space? If the lobby of your new city hall is three times as high as it is wide, is this sensible in relation to the way people circulate through the building?

Anyone who has attended a play at the Mark Taper Forum has shuffled through the crush in the curving, narrow foyer, which seems to be shaped for maximum confusion and discomfort. On the other hand, the Taper's circular performance space is well proportioned to serve intimate theater-in-the-round.

What mood or atmosphere does the design evoke, intentionally or unintentionally

Designers can manipulate enclosures to make you experience a range of emotions, from awe to well-being, from terror to delight.

The ceiling of France's Chartres cathedral is exaggeratedly high in terms of its simple function as a house of prayer. The vast amount of empty space above the congregation's head is designed to lift its thoughts heavenward, to awe the mind with the infinity of divinity.

Augmenting space in this fashion is one of the simplest architectural devices for inducing a sense of amplitude. Oversizing a room, vertically or horizontally, implies that the person, religion or culture involved has material, social or spiritual resources to spare.

On the other hand, architecture can set out to more or less deliberately terrorize or dehumanize.

Hitler's Nuremberg arena was designed to strike terror in the hearts of both supporters and foes of Nazism. The enclosed stadium space was Olympian, the architecture was brutally authoritarian in character and scale. The collective national will expressed in concrete was clearly meant to be greater than the destiny of any individual.

Closer to home, in the downtown Citicorp Plaza or Wells Fargo Center, the sleek, straight-up-and-down design of a typical office tower is meant to exalt the cool collective efficiency of modern commerce over the individuality of anyone who may work inside.

How well or poorly does the style chosen by the architect fit a building's functional, emotional and symbolic purposes?

Beneath the shifting surface of architectural fashion lies the criterion of appropriateness, the measure of the way in which a style can enhance or diminish the effects an architect may seek.

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