Carlson on Architecture

In Stecker and Gracyk, Aesthetics Today (2010) 

This document is a summary of Allen Carlson.
My personal comments are in red.

In order to consider architecture as a fine art, we have treated a select number of building as special, singular objects. More importantly, we have learned to appreciate them in isolation from their larger surroundings.

We should think about environmental aesthetics, and reconsider how we appreciate our human-made environment. Buildings are part of that environment, but their appreciation will change.

The key idea of an environmental aesthetic is that of functional fit within an ecostystem.

In natural ecosystems, individuals survive when they "fit," and the same holds for types (species). But each ecosystem must also "fit" with others around it. (If we put a dam on a river and create a lake, we change the downstream ecosystem, too. Some animals that fit into the previous ecosystem will no longer fit into the new one. Think about what happens to plants and animals when the edge of town moves further into a natural environment.)

In nature, functional fit can be measured by survival (of the individual, of the species, of the ecosystem itself). It's a mistake to consider any of these things in isolation from functional fit. (Although Carlson does not explicitly spell it out in this reading, he holds that the aesthetic appreciation of the parts of an environment is not legitimate unless it is informed by considerations of functional fit.)

Humans create their immediate environments. The lesson of environmental appreciation should be extended to human landscapes and everything in them.

They develop, and the development is functionally driven, and we must understand the historical-functional process in order to properly appreciate the human-made environment.


  • All buildings are subject to aesthetic evaluation by the same standards.

  • Every component of the human landscape should be evaluated in terms of functional fit. Power lines are as important as buildings.

  • It is a mistake to appreciate isolated features and things.

  • We should see the human landscape as organized around different functions, giving us different "ecosystems." The downtown and the suburb have distinct functions. Different buildings have very different functions within that landscape.

Summary: The right approach to architecture is contextual: "functionalist appreciation under functional descriptions."

Does it follow that form follows function? Cultural history is important. There is a temporal dimension to a human environment. Building designs that ignore it are a bad fit to their community..


                        Last updated May 2, 2011 ~ All text 2011 Theodore Gracyk