Building Exterior – Architects’ and Users’ Ideas of Beauty

Since we are free to shape our built environment almost as we like (within our budget, known building materials and the laws of physics and state), why not make it beautiful? It seems like a rather blunt question, but if you look around, you will probably notice quite a few aesthetically unpleasing buildings. Surely their architects didn’t intend to insult your taste, so what actually happened there? Some of those buildings  may be old and poorly maintained, but it is not uncommon for a newly built project to be called ugly by the public while considered a masterpiece by professionals. Similarly, some houses that were built exactly to suit their owners’ taste, are proclaimed to be a poor architecture by the professionals.  Clearly, what we perceive as a good-looking building is very subjective; beauty is in the eye of beholder, as someone wisely put it. And building users often look at it differently than architects.


Caixa Forum art exibition, Madrid, Spain; photo by dirk huijssoon

As it often happens when we identify any differences,  we instantly try to figure out who is right and who is wrong, or at least, whose opinion is more important. Is the customer always right or should we leave it to the professionals? This can lead to a long and emotional discussion, but lets not go there for once – looking for a winner-looser situation is never the optimal solution. That is why I was pleasantly surprised to find a piece of work that tries to reconcile differences between professionals and laymen in preferences for the appearance of built environment.

Dancing House (Fred and Ginger) by Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry, Prague, Czech Republic; photo by Samuca°

Fawcett, Ellingham and Platt (2008) investigated preferences of architects and building users presenting them  photographs  of office buildings’ exterior. Buildings were distinguished from each other by three main attributes:

  • Roof shape: pitched or flat
  • Wall material: traditional (brick) or nontraditional (metal or panels)
  • Architectural character: weak or strong

Kamer van Koophandel office building by Jo Coenen, Maastrich, Netherlands; photo by jpmm

Design types that architects ranked highest included flat roof, nontraditional wall material and strong architectural character; and pitched roof, nontraditional wall material  and strong architectural character.

Design types that users prefered the most were combinations of pitched roof, traditional wall material and weak architectural character; and pitched roof, traditional wall material and strong architectural character.

Vitra Haus by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Basel, Switzerland; photo by aless&ro

At first glance, preferences of architects and users couldn’t be more different. However, authors have found a way to avoid preference conflict by investigating importance that each attribute had for both architects’ and users’ preferences as shown below.

weighting of appearance attributes:

Architects                                                                                            Users



Users’ preferences appeared to be based primarily on roof shape, while architects’ preferences appeared to be based on architectural character.

Based on these findings, the building design that would satisfy both architects and building users, according to  Fawcett, Ellingham and Platt, would be a design with pitched roof, traditional walling, and strong architectural character. Yes, this sounds very simplified, but it’s so refreshing to think that it is possible to meet both architects’ and users’ expectations  regarding the attributes that are important to them.

MartA museum by Frank Gehry, Herford, Germany; photo by jpmm

Authors developed what they called an ordered preference model which assumes that building attributes could be ranked from ‘basic’ (roof shape) to ‘complex’ (architectural character), with the basic attribute being most important in the preferences of laymen, and the complex attribute most important to the architects. They suggest that the architect should follow user or client preferences to the level of competence of the user or client group, and take responsibility for the aspects of design where users do not have clear preferences, normally the complex attributes.

The NEMO Science Centre by  Renzo Piano,  Amsterdam, Netherlands; photo by o palsson

Since there seems to be a straightforward way of reconciling the values of architects and laymen, we can’t simply go on thinking that beauty is in the eye of beholder and leave things as they are – with one or the other side often dissatisfied.  You might say now that beauty is in the willingness for the cooperation.



Fawcett, W., Ellingham, I., Platt, S. (2008). Reconciling the architectural preferences of architects and the public: the ordered preference model. Environment & Behavior vol.40, no.5, pp.599-618 (full text)

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