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by the WBDG Aesthetics Subcommittee

Last updated: 08-10-2015


The broad obligations and opportunities of architecture were summarized by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in the prescription that buildings should provide Commodity, Firmness and Delight. Commodity addresses the spatial and functional utility of a building. Firmness addresses the building's ability to resist natural forces, starting with gravity. Delight relates to the sensory and associative pleasures buildings can provide—their meaning.

When the forms of architecture were limited by materials and construction methods, aesthetic principles were narrowly defined by the successors to Vitruvius. In the modern era, many more forms are possible, and the selection or invention of those forms can give a much wider range of meaning.

Choosing traditional forms is, of course, possible and can follow, or violate the principles of the many styles of architecture which followed Roman classicism. Selection of such a style shows an intention of continuity with the life and buildings of the period selected, and misinterpretation of principles can be seen as exercising bad taste.

Modern architecture proposed a break with stylistic traditions, and invented what have become new ones—some derived from precedent movements like the Bauhaus, others from the work of influential architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Others found possibilities in vernacular architecture, construction methods, or abstract, new forms.

The selection of specific forms conveys meaning to us, whatever choice is made. A glass building can, for example, mean transparency and honesty, while an opaque building means privacy and concealment. Tall buildings have always been expressions of power; colorful buildings can mean levity and whimsy. The building's activities can be shown or concealed, as can the means by which the building operates, like structure and mechanical systems.

New developments in architectural tools including sustainable design, the emergence of building science, and building information modeling (BIM) all lead to new insights in the design and construction processes with aesthetics often revisited. As necessity is the origin of invention, scarcity can also inspire. With a lack of quality large timbers for framing, coupled with rising costs for steel and concrete, new production techniques developed around laminating timbers together in large plates. The cross-laminated timber (CLT) framing system as it is known increased in both popularity and acceptance as an alternative to traditional methods of construction. The impact on aesthetics can be seen in the large expanse and planes of wood layers that convey strength and delight.

Today's variety of expression can be seen in these four examples of federal building projects.

Air Force Academy Cadet ChapelJose V. Toledo U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Left: Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel (more)
Right: Jose V. Toledo U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Credits: Finegold Alexander + Associates, and GSA.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Satellite Operations Facility, Suitland, MDHoward M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, Cleveland, OH

Left: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Satellite Operations Facility, Suitland, MD. Credits: Morphosis and GSA.
Right: Howard M. Metzenbaum U.S. Courthouse, Cleveland, OH. Credit: GSA

Contemporary culture advocates diversity of styles, even in cases of historic preservation. It also encourages the development of new architectural languages. In response to this openness, designers agree that aesthetically successful architecture comes from an integrated approach. By correctly formulating a project's purpose, seeking inspiration in programmatic requirements, and engaging in team-wide design reviews, an architect most effectively arrives at a solution that is as delightful as it is cost-effective, secure/safe, sustainable, accessible, and functional/operational. In much of contemporary architecture, the notion of expressive exteriors becomes tempered by new materials such as: high performing glass that conveys literal openness in an age of digital communication via the Internet or alternative roofing technologies that can extend the livable areas to the top of buildings proving a green space that can hold storm water and offer new amenities.

Returning to Vitruvius, one can conclude that his three standards of architecture reinforce one another. Good architecture achieves useful, humane, and economical results, and a building expresses those qualities regardless of style.

A fully integrated building promises to be durable in way that Vitruvius may not have envisioned: It will inspire a community to find ways to use it even when the original program is no longer relevant.

With an eye to integration, an architect makes aesthetic decisions in full collaboration with the client, building users, other consultants, and the public. Therefore it is important for the client and building users to be well informed about the possibilities of architecture. They can assist the design team in conceiving a building that meets the most needs.

One way to become acquainted with the possibilities of an architectural commission is to study a number of buildings of the same type. In addition, this branch of the WBDG will help those not familiar with architectural design terminology to understand the basic process, techniques, and language by which architectural concepts become reality.

  • Understanding the Language and Elements of Design
    Architects use specific terminology to describe fundamental elements of a building, and to assess its design quality. A client's fluency with this vocabulary improves the architect's application of the elements it represents.
  • Engage the Integrated Design Process
    An integrated design process interlaces the multiple disciplines that inform a building. A series of steps can provide an orderly flow to this dialogue, and the full and constructive participation of all members of the design and delivery team will ensure the best results.

The design awards programs of professional societies, the federal government, and industry trade associations offer additional insight into aesthetic values at a given time in history. For more information see Design Awards.

Emerging Issues

Architectural Resiliency

Building Information Modeling (BIM) and Building Energy Modeling (BEM)

Building Science/Building Physics

Life Cycle Analysis/Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

Sustainability and High-Performance Buildings

Security Measures

Major Resources

Federal Agencies


  • National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC)—The National Capital Planning Commission provides overall planning guidance for federal land and buildings in the National Capital Region
  • U.S. Commission of Fine Arts—The Commission of Fine Arts was established by Congress in 1910 as an independent agency to advise the Federal and District of Columbia governments on matters of art and architecture that affect the appearance of the nation's capital.


The work of many building professionals impact aesthetics decisions. These include architects, landscape architects, interior designers, lighting designers, and engineers. In part to help define the boundaries of professional and aesthetic responsibility, each of these professions is represented by a national trade association. In most cases, the trade association or organization publishes industry guidelines about the legal, ethical, and aesthetics role of their members in the building design process.

Profession Association
Architects The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Committee on Design
Society of American Registered Architects
National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB)
Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA)
Landscape Architects American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)
Interior Designers American Society of Interior Designers (ASID)
Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA)
International Interior Design Association (IIDA)
National Council for Interior Design Qualification (NCIDQ)
Lighting Designers Illuminating Engineering Society (IES)
International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD)
Professional Engineers American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)
American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)
American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)
American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE)
American Society of Sanitary Engineering (ASSE)
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE)
Society of American Military Engineers (SAME)
Structural Engineering Institute
Planners American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP)
American Planning Association (APA)
Others ASIS International
Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America
Audio Engineering Society (AES)
Building Commissioning Association (BCA)
Building Owners & Managers Association International (BOMA)
Construction Specifications Institute (CSI)
Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI)
International Facility Management Association (IFMA)


  • The Aesthetic Movement by Lionel Lambourne. London, England: Phaidon Press Limited, 1996. ISBN 0714830003.
  • Architectural Graphic Standards, 11th Edition by Charles Ramsey and Harold Sleeper. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007.
  • Architecture For Dummies by Deborah K. Dietsch and Robert A. M. Stern. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002.
  • The Four Books of Architecture by Andrea Palladio and translated by Robert Tavernor and Richard Schofield. Dover Publications, 1965.
  • Design Professionals and the Built Environment: An Introduction by Paul Knox (Editor), Peter Ozolins (Editor). February 2001. ISBN: 0-471-98515-5.—Brings together many of the world's leading names from the UK, USA, Europe, and Asia; this is the first book to fully reflect the move towards a more synthetic approach in professional and student courses.
  • Green Building Studio Handbook: Environmental Strategies for Schematic Design, 2nd Edition by Walter Grondzik and Alison Kwok. Architectural Press, 2011.
  • A History of Interior Design, 3rd Edition by John Pile. August 2009. ISBN: 978-0-470-22888-3.—Much like the history of art, the history of interior design encompasses numerous styles, movements and the international political and social developments that have informed or challenged its evolution. This lavishly illustrated book will be of interest to anyone who appreciates interior design as well as antiques, furniture design, textiles, decorative objects and the general evolution of the space where we work and live.
  • Interior Design, 4th Edition by John Pile. March 2008. ISBN: 0132321033. Extremely comprehensive on all elements of interior design including codes. Textbook standards.
  • Interior Design Illustrated, 2nd Edition by Francis D. K. Ching, Corky Binggeli. October 2004. ISBN: 0-471-47376-6.—Ching's illustrated introduction to interior design is now completely revised to be even more clear and accessible. It includes new and updated material on finishes, furnishings and textiles, lighting, sustainability, acoustics, workstations, and much more.
  • Interior Graphic Standards, 2nd Edition by Corky Binggeli, Patricia Greichen. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010.
  • On the Art of Building in Ten Books by Leon Battista Alberti and translated by Joseph Rykwert and Neil Leach. MIT Press, 1988.
  • The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability by Steve Mouzon. January 2010.
  • A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Shlomo Angel. Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition, Fifth Revised and Enlarged Edition (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) by Siegfried Giedion. 2003.
  • The Ten Books on Architecture by Pollio Vitruvius and translated by Morris Hicky Morgan. Dover Publications, 1960.

Samples of Great Buildings and Architecture

  • Architecture and Interior Design Through the 18th Century: An Integrated History by Buie Harwood, Bridget May and Curt Sherman. New York, NY: Prentice-Hall, December 2001. Exceptionally comprehensive, this single-source reference allows readers to compare and contrast architecture, interior design, interior architectural features, design details, motifs, furniture, space planning, color, lighting, textiles, interior surface treatments, and decorative accessories through many centuries—from antiquity to the 18th century—from the many regions of the world.
  • The Art of Landscape Detail: Fundamentals, Practices, and Case Studies by Niall Kirkwood. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., August 1999. A fresh, holistic approach to the theories, approaches, and practices of landscape detail. With the support of a wealth of graphic and written material taken from historic and contemporary landscape design work, Kirkwood clearly demonstrates the role that landscape detail plays in the design process. Going beyond theoretical considerations, the book outlines landscape detail as a primary design activity, both pragmatic and poetic, using a range of built landscape design examples.
  • The Evolution of American Urban Design: A Chronological Anthology by David Gosling. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., December 2002. Covering a 50-year span, the book seeks to identify built urban design projects and traces the evolution and separation of American urban design theories up to the end of the twentieth century. It includes contemporary designs, projects, and writings in an attempt to identify future directions of the next century.
  • The Great Buildings Collection
  • The Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture is a gorgeous new compendium of recent design from around the globe. This coffee-table book is so heavy, it's sold in its own carrying case.