Words and Buildings

The previous post in this series described how this framework interpreted some words like Change, Transience, Uncertainty and Disquiet as far as architectural aesthetics is concerned. The aesthetic heyday of any building designed in the fashion of the moment will be fleeting but no building is aesthetically timeless. At the outset, I made it clear this framework would regard architectural aesthetics as simply a figure-ground relationship between a building as a MASS – as in something solid – set in surroundings of some kind. It never claimed to say anything about SPACE which I expect is a separate dimension but let’s just deal with MASS for now. TIME is a third separate dimension in which buildings have an existence but how figure and ground change (or don’t change) over time is another subject for another framework and another dimension. For now, while we’re still dealing with MASS, the only thing to remember is that the aesthetic signature of a building will not stay constant over time.

It decays, not in the negative sense of tooth decay or the decay of social or societal norms but in the neutral sense of radioactive decay in which complex and unstable elements can have multiple and competing paths to decay into less unstable elements. Uranium-238 is neither better nor worse than Thorium 234. They’re just different and betterness or worseness is not a useful frame of reference.

Uncertainty and Disquiet were framed in terms of the fundamental premises of the framework remaining unestablished. Both were exceptions proving the rule. If this framework is to be worthy of the name The Architecture of Architectures, then it must be possible to frame other elements of architects’ vocabulary in terms of it. These are the words we use when we talk about architecture, teach it, and frame and communicate our responses to it. This vocabulary of terms and meanings is far from stable, or even defined. Words such as form, space, organic and minimal are continually redefined and become the content of discourse rather than tools that are supposed to facilitate it. As an architect, Ludwig Wittgenstein was notoriously difficult to work with but, as a philosopher, his dictum “if something can’t be said simply then it’s not worth saying” is worth remembering. This framework fixes the meaning of words commonly used in architecture. These are the words we have and I only provide the beginnings of a glossary here so we can get on with talking sensibly about architectural aesthetics and not mistake quibbling over meanings for meaningful discussion or, worse, discourse. The real arguments are to be had in the relative relevance and importance of aesthetic Ideas of Separate, Unite and Negate, not the words we use to talk about them.


This word is commonly used to denote a first look at the volume of a building once the various area components of the program have been assembled but, as an instructor, this may just be my wishful thinking. For me, massing is a link between the inner program and the outer appearance but this is the application of knowledge (of a probable inside) to the volume seen externally. “Expressing” these inner workings in terms of volumes is only understandable if one already knows what they are. In the terms of this framework, massing is an Idea of Unite, that links (inner) Space with (outer) Mass. It is therefore outside the scope of this framework that deals only with buildings as a single mass seen from outside. This is not a limitation. It’s just that this is only as far as I’ve got. I’ve mentioned TIME as a separate dimension in which buildings exist but I’m not so sure about SPACE. Sure, buildings exist in space, but only as objects in it. People existing inside architectural space and that’s not the same thing. We’ll leave talk of inside space and outside space for another day. In short, ‘massing’ means Shape and whether that shape evokes associations of what’s inside is irrelevant for now as the only associations admitted are those evoked by the (attributes of the) building when seen with respect to its surroundings. In this next image, Colour in this next image also carries associations of the internal program. It has meaning (for those who can interpret it).


Architecture’s relationship with Nature is a troubled one. I’ve said it before but buildings are not self-replicating and never will be. Nevertheless, the word organic continues to be used to imply many things such as

  • that a building is a natural consequence or extension of its landscape
  • that a building is natural because it has curves (unlike “unnatural” buildings that don’t)
  • that it consists of organic products and components, organically produced and assembled

The general gist seems to be that organic buildings have some sort of affinity with Nature, or at least plants because animals, rocks, trees, clouds and the water cycle don’t figure much in these notions of Nature. Basically, it’s the new Art Nouveau. Organic is an Idea of Unite and one of the more popular ones.


Size is one of the six elemental building attributes. All buildings have it but when we talk about scale we’re talking about the size of a building relative to the size of something else that is usually another building nearby or otherwise seen together, or the size of a human being. Buildings are bigger than people because they accommodate them and their activities. Large buildings like apartment and office buildings are often created by vertically repeating typical floors of the same height and, because we know how high these floors typically are, we can estimate the size of the building. Sydney Opera House has no conventional windows, balconies or other indicators of how large it is relative to a person and so as a result it had this monumental quality (i.e. like a monument). The construction of this building nearby allows us to better the size of Sydney Opera House and we’re surprised when it is not as big as we had thought.

Much the same can be said for this building where nearby automobiles are the indicators of human size and tell us exactly how big the building is. Again, it’s not as big as we thought.

We can only tell this because we know how large a person is and this is why scale is an Idea about Size that can either work aesthetically to make the building unite with or separate from its surroundings. Whether a building actually is big or small relative to what it is seen against is tangible fact and either Size to SEPARATE or Size to UNITE.


The title of this post comes from Adrian Forty’s 2000 book Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture. The only thing I remember is that he wrote “whenever you hear the word ‘form’ you can be certain you’re in for a modernist discourse”. [Whenever you hear the word ‘discourse’ you can be certain you’re listening to an architecture critic or, worse, an academic.] The word ‘Form’ does mean Shape’ but, if it’s associated with Modernist discourse, it’s because it already contains associations for how you’re meant to understand that shape. Form is form+⍺ and that alpha is associations of modernity and progress that would make construction traditions dependent on materials, climate and handcraft seem dated and provincial. These are all Ideas of Separate in Time, but they also produced. buildings that stood in stark contrast to their surroundings. The word ‘form’ then it not neutral. It is more than difference – it is Detachment and is no accident that the Colour, Pattern and Shape of many Modernist buildings have this quality I call 2: Detach about them, and that their set of surface attributes can be summarized as 222.


Rhythm is a manifestation of the surface characteristic of Pattern. Everyone’s noticed how, over the past twenty years, patterns of window openings have generally become more irregular but not necessarily less rhythmical. The shuffly windows trope came into its own in the 1990s and is still with us as shorthand to indicate that some degree of design effort has been made, even though it’s only marginally more trouble to make windows shuffle than it is to not. It’s not clear who invented it. It’s a toss-up between Gio Ponti and the Politecnico Milanese and Asnago & Vender who were unaligned. I’ll side with A&V because a rhythm is only a rhythm if it’s broken.


This is another of those loaded terms. Architecture instructors are known to say things such as “there’s something wrong with the proportions” to dutifully nodding students but what they usually mean is that the proportions aren’t those conventionally sanctions – i.e. The Golden Mean, The Golden Proportion, The Divine Proportion, A:B = B:A+B. It remains to be proven if, like plants and other biological forms, the human eye has a physiological preference for this ratio because it confers an evolutionary advantage of some kind but we do know that the identification and appreciation of this particular ratio is learned. It is a cultural artifact. Stripped of all this baggage, proportion is just a set of Size relationships between components of a Pattern or Shape.

Even this brief look at some of the words in common usage in architectural schools and offices is sufficient to make us look closely at the words we use and ask what notions of Separate, Unite and Negate come already embedded in them. The word scale, for example, usually comes loaded with the notion of human scale and its indicators, with the absence of such indicators usually called monumental if on purpose and out of scale if not. If architects disagree on what words mean it’s because these embedded notions are not explicit. Despite all the problems and misunderstandings this causes, I suspect this language must have evolved to solve the problem of architecture being too simple and easily understood by non-practitioners.

The next post in this series will show how the architectural concepts of consistency, importance, strength and emphasis are defined in terms of this framework, and the one after will bring the sixteen types of architectural beauty together in one post.


The 2007 Draft: Introduction
The 2007 Draft: Derivation
The Architecture of Architectures (2007 ~ )

Notes & Exceptions
Words & Buildings
Some Qualities

3 thoughts on “Words and Buildings

    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Hello Doug – yes, please do! I liked your rooftops. Would it be okay for me to share it, perhaps as an addendum to that post? Cheers, Graham.

    2. Graham McKay Post author

      Hello Doug – yes, please do! I liked your rooftops. Would it be okay for me to share it, perhaps as an addendum to that post? Cheers, Graham.

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