What to look out for in architecture

Here are just a few tips – not a deep lesson – on what to look out for to form an opinion about your surroundings. (Deep lessons are available, but you don’t need them to enjoy architecture: we can all enjoy it, without training, because we’re all in or around buildings nearly all the time, so we get opinions about them quite naturally).

© Nigel Corrie - Walk around North Lane area, Brighton

Tip 1: Judge by appearances. Be a critic. Develop your own eye.

Whenever you walk down any street, look around, and ask yourself: which is the best-looking building in this street? There are rules about proportion, scale and general aesthetics, but you don’t need any of that to form a view – your view. Which is the best-looking building in this street? (I’ve carefully said ‘best-looking’ – not ‘beautiful’, or ‘finest’ or ‘best-preserved’, or any precise adjective – simply ‘best-looking’. That is, which building in the street do you think looks better than all the others?)

Don’t just look at eye-level. If it’s a shop, look up, above the window displays which are shouting for your attention, and look at the upper floors, the roof if you can see it, the decorative bits, the colour, the windows, the sides, the overall effect.

Tip 2: Get more information. Be a detective. Snoop around.

This building you’ve decided for you is the best-looking in the street, what is it? A house, a church, a shop, a school, an office? Do you know just by looking at it what it’s for? (This is not as daft as it first sounds: many buildings which look like churches aren’t any more, but have been converted into other uses. Doesn’t matter, necessarily, if it’s still the best-looking building. But maybe the changes of use have damaged it, so that it’s not as good-looking as it was. You’re a critic, don’t forget).

Try and get inside. Places can look very different on the inside compared with the exterior. Ask yourself why this might be so. Heritage Open Days provides a great opportunity to see the insides of places you’ve walked past for years but never got through the door.

Tip 3:  What sort of condition is your building in? Be a surveyor. 

Look at the stone or brickwork – is it crumbling or neat-looking? Is the paint in good condition or flaking or faded? If it’s not looking so good, whose fault is it, the present owner, or the people who use it every day, or people who pass by in the street and spray it perhaps? (If the condition is poor, but even so you think it’s the best-looking building in the street, there’s an issue here. Why isn’t it being looked after properly? This is where the whole conservation idea starts. If we are conscious that our best-looking buildings are being neglected, we have to address the situation by making their owners responsible for looking after them, or if they’re publicly-owned, take the responsibility ourselves, through supporting English Heritage and similar bodies. Is your building old enough to be eligible for listing?)

Tip 4: Why do you like this building so much? Be emotional. Be passionate.

Ask yourself why some buildings attract so much love and respect that we never want to see our towns without them. And why others leave us cold – even if they’re said to be ‘great architecture’. (In the town where I live – a medium-sized place with a good share of handsome buildings – we recently held a public meeting where five of our citizens showed slides and spoke about their five favourite buildings. None of them chose any of the town’s best-known buildings, but obscurer, less obvious places, which spoke in some way to each of them personally. It was fascinating to hear why they had chosen the places they did. But no choice was without feeling.)

Tip 5: What has your building been through, since it first went up? Be a historian. 

Think of its whole life so far. Give it a date if you can, even roughly. And be careful about architects setting you traps by putting up a brand new building but making it look as if it’s old straightaway. (Where I live we have quite a lot of buildings from the Regency period, i.e. early 19th century, and we’ve also many examples from the 1980s and 1990s of architects putting up new buildings which look exactly like Regency buildings. Today, you have to look carefully to spot that they’re fake.  Plenty of Victorian churches were built to look as if they were medieval. If buildings look good, does it matter if they’re fake? The historian would say 'yes, it does matter, even if we like them').

Architectural history helps us to know (or come close to) the truth. If you look at the history, there have been several distinct styles, of which the best-known are classical, gothic and modern, and it’s interesting to see how and why those styles were developed and changed, or rejected, in different periods of time. You don’t need to know about styles when you first look around for your ‘best-looking’ building, but you may well want to know more.

Tip 6: Think about your favourite types of building. Be choosy, be a connoisseur. 

You might like churches best, or pubs, or great houses, or cottages, or airports. Once you get to know them, you may develop favourite architects, past or present. You may become like people who follow sport avidly, or music, or whatever, and develop a regard, even a passion to see and know more of the performers you’ve grown to like best. After that it’s a pleasure to discuss your favourites with others, swap opinions and stories. It all becomes a joy!

So let’s summarize the tips, for what to look for in architecture:

  • Be a critic – look for what you like best
  • Be a detective – find out all about it
  • Be a surveyor – look at its condition
  • Be passionate – love it or hate it
  • Be a historian – look at what it’s been through
  • Have your own favourites.