Understanding Architectural Elegance

Posted Jan 18th, 2022 in Design

Understanding: Elegance / unity / coherence / balance / order / harmony
                   Ian Ellingham.  January 2022

    From Ellingham, Ian (2020) 
Understanding Ugly:  Human Response to Buildings in the Environment. 

In our recent experimentation, we have dealt with numbers of characteristics of buildings that cause people to esteem buildings, or not.  Some are fairly simple, such as whether a building has a pitched roof or not[1], while others are more elusive.  One relates to what, in our experiment, has been offered to our respondents as a continuum from Awkward to Elegant.  The data from respondents shows it to have a significant correlation with overall esteem.  Essentially, perceived elegance seems to be a good thing.

It is tempting to believe that it might be possible to poll people, identify preferences and merge them to produce a design that would create buildings people would assess positively. Such efforts, as were done for paintings by ‘conceptualist artists’ Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid,[2] have shown that a democratic mixing of things that people prefer into one work can lead to curious results – including bizarre, disjointed creations that are likely to be widely negatively perceived. Even considering the evidence of specific human preferences, the designer is faced with myriad ways of assembling design variables in such a way as to evoke a positive response. This elegance/ unity/ coherence/ balance/ order/ harmony factor is important because it works to tie the more concrete factors together, yet is difficult to define, in contrast to such things as familiarity, ornamentation, materials, symmetry and visible entrances. This very flexibility enables us to avoid monotony in the built environment – the challenge is the infinity of possibilities that can be manipulated by the designer. 

Elegance / unity / coherence / balance / order / harmony are difficult to define, but there is no shortage of commentary on these related terms. Arthur Stamps offered a definition for coherence: ‘How well a scene hangs together. How easy is it to organize and structure the scene?’[3] If a first-time viewer immediately perceives an object as a coherent whole, legibility is enhanced because the viewer does not have to assemble a comprehensive understanding from a multitude of individual and perhaps conflicting elements. We seem to have an innate desire to merge things into a whole, which is logical, as it makes it easier for the brain to evaluate the stimulus.[4] A logical understanding of this might be, somewhat following Peter Bloch,[5] that a building is usually encountered as a whole and, if sufficiently interested, a person will then consider the elements. Of course, buildings are often first seen in pieces. For example, when walking by you tend to see the ground-level elements first, so initial impressions may be dominated by specific elements. This might be why some monumental ‘architecture’ is so unappealing: such buildings often concentrate on overall form, with the elemental view at street level being left to chance.

Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada. Completed 2007.
Daniel Libeskind, Architect, and Bregman & Hamann, Architects
pectacular from a distance, but how is the pedestrian supposed to react? Does the streetscape relate to the overall form?

Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) in Summa theologica commented on beauty: that it resulted from wholeness (or perfection), harmony and clarity (brightness). The Kaplans called it unity: that the structure is ‘a coherent entity’.[6] In (non-architectural) product design it is well known that there should be a congruity between the elements of a product, so they work together as a harmonious and orderly visual whole. Expressed in yet a different way, it is a ‘feeling of rightness’ that ‘originates deep in our cognitive architecture’.[7]

Numbers of studies have shown that harmony is preferred to chaos by most people.[8] It is well known that people seek patterns – that is the reason why we see the man in the moon, images of saints in toast, and faces on some buildings. Our brains try to make things fit together in an effort to make sense of the world – and if they don’t fit together as a whole, we will tend to reject the whole. This relates to familiarity and legibility: we like vistas that are easy to interpret and make sense of; that are unified.

    ‘… beauty is the child of the coherent relationship between parts’.[9]
                        Alain de Botton

Some research has considered the relationship between colour and other design factors. Slatter and Whitfield, albeit using interior spaces and having a small sample size, found that ‘… appropriateness may be a major determinant of evaluative responses to interior color.'[10]  Their research led to the proposal that subjective responses to colour are at least partially dependent upon the object with which the colour is associated. Whitfield, again using interior spaces, found that differences between some styles (modern versus Georgian or Art Nouveau) had an impact on the selections of appropriate colour. Lazreg and Mullet used colours and two-dimensional shapes and found that their subjects used ‘… a complex rule in which the weight attributed to one element depends on the value of the other element’.[11] They also found that the results did not depend on whether the subject was a connoisseur or not. In other words, what architectural colours are preferred is highly dependent on what they are being used for, and where – with all of this underlining the need to consider how factors interact to produce a harmonious whole.

This need for unity can be explained in practical terms. For example, if some good or service is to be marketed as an upscale product, its elements must support this sort of unity / coherence. It is not difficult to find violations of this rule. I recently visited a building purporting to be at least somewhat luxurious – one entered into the lobby through an impressive set of wooden doors. Yet the next doors, from the lobby into the building, were ordinary painted steel doors – something usually seen on mechanical rooms. The elevator lobby was nicely panelled, but the elevator interiors themselves were obviously the cheapest one could buy. The intended elegance of this building was undermined by the mixed messages offered – was it a luxury building, or something more pedestrian? The extra money spent on the main doors was largely wasted as a result of the cheap second set of doors. It is necessary for the designer to make trade-offs between elements, but it has to be done with consistency. Buildings are very complex products, but it is desirable that the overall goals of the project (commodity, firmness and delight) be respected in these trade-offs in order to achieve a project that has coherence, and so the messages it offers are reasonably comprehensible to the layperson.

Building design aspects often interact. Yannick Joye of the ISM University of Management and Economics in Lithuania pointed out that desirable housing forms combine both complexity and order.[12] People seem to want that balance; however, when complexity is higher, a designer has to be cautious not to reduce coherence and legibility.[13]

There are analogies between the appreciation of visual design and the appreciation of fine food and wine. Wine writer and connoisseur Hugh Johnson, in trying to explain favourite wines, suggested: ‘Wines that stand out for their boldness, freshness, sweetness of savour: ideally a balance of all these.’[14] At a wine-tasting session a noted French-Californian winemaker[15]  offered his insights into what makes a wine ‘elegant’. His notion was that it largely related to initial impact – that, on first tasting, if you perceived the wine as a pleasant whole, then it was elegant. If the first response has been the perception of details, it failed the elegance test. No matter how good the individual details might be, it was the unified impact of the whole assemblage that defined a great wine. He further commented: ‘Complexity but unity. Not aggressive. A great connection with your body. You can create diversity in the elements, but have to blend them …’ Think about those words: a great building should be like a great wine. From an architectural perspective, Louis Sullivan (1856–1924), the eminent Chicago architect, agreed, stating that the decorative elements (the small scale) should exist in harmony with the overall form of the building.[16] Also, explicit explanatory messages (rather like the programme notes that frequently accompany symphony performances) about the architecture or wine or music can help to increase the coherence of the whole.

Relative to urban settings, Jane Jacobs offered the opinion that visual order was important. She did not see the complexity of cities as being art, but stated that it was desirable that urban environments should avoid offering conflicting impressions, thereby reducing the likelihood of being seen as confusing and disordered.[17] That does not mean that everything should be the same – that would lead to a boring prospect. Jacobs suggested that city streets need ‘visual interruptions … visually heightening and celebrating intense street use by giving it a hint of enclosure and entity’.[18]

For the designer, ‘elegance’ occurs when the various design elements are integrated into a meaningful whole, and should be a primary objective. It is likely that people sense elegance in the Parthenon (and its many imitators) not because of the specifics of proportion, but because it reads as a harmonious whole. They see and understand the repetition of column and lintel (translational symmetry), together with its ornamentation (column capitals, mouldings, embedded sculpture …). And, of course, the Parthenon itself is the fundamental prototype for many people’s understanding of a pervasive form of design.

In our ongoing experiments we have probed the role of elegance, by asking for a response to the stimulus buildings on a scale from Awkward to Elegant. It was found to correlate with overall esteem. Buildings that were generally seen as elegant by all groups were the Stockholm Riddarhuset/House of Nobility (first or second place for all groups), the Jerwood Library at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and the Stuttgart Mercedes-Benz museum. As this factor was within the control of the designer, it is also worth noting the awkward, inelegant buildings: the MIT residences in Boston, Suomi-Koti in Toronto, and Arthouse Graz (but seen as much more elegant by the wider public than by architects and others in the building industry).


Riddarhuset (House of Nobility), Stockholm.                      Maitland Robinson Library, Downing College, Cambridge
Completed 1660,Simon and Jean de la Vallée,                  Completed 1992, Quinlan Terry, Architect   
 In the experiments, these buildings were highly rank
ed relative to elegance.   


Jerwood Library at Trinity Hall, Cambridge                                   Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart

Suomi-Koti, Toronto - one of the author's own buildings        MIT Residences in Boston
Designed to be esteemed by a specific group.

Arthouse Graz, Graz, Austria

What did the respondents think constituted elegance? There is the historical simplicity and design consistency of the Stockholm Riddarhuset and the Downing College Library, but also, the high-tech simplicity and consistency of the Mercedes Benz museum. Although the Stuttgart New Palace ranks highly in overall esteem, it is lower in elegance (except to architects), possibly due to an exterior configuration that is less flowing and more ‘heavy-handed’ than the Stockholm building. The Italianate reproduction Colaneri Estates winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, among the wider population came in second place in overall esteem, but ranked eighth among that group for elegance. Presumably the romantic familiarity of its Italian village demeanour more than compensates for the complexity and multiple materials of the facade. That elegance is in the minds of the individuals, and can vary by group, is suggested by differences in responses from architects relative to the wider population.

Elegance ratings:  Highest and Lowest Expressed by Survey Respondents

Five Highest
    Stockholm Riddarhuset
    Stuttgart- New Palace
    Mercedes-Benz Museum
    Downing Library, Cambridge
    New Birmingham Library

Five Lowest
    Old Birmingham Library
    Domus Graz Gallery
    MIT Residence
    Lomma Library

This complex design matter obviously needs further interpretation and exploration.  Elegance/unity/Coherence/Balance/ Order/Harmony is a difficult concept to experiment on, and more work needs to be done. But the concept offers significant clues about why a building might be rejected as ugly. A building consisting of disjointed elements that do not relate to an overall theme would be at risk. This was brought to my attention while cycling down a pleasant residential street in a suburb. One new house offered a very mixed set of messages. The house had a problem with unity – although the gables were symmetrical, the windows underneath were defiantly asymmetrical. The facing material was grey brick combined with a rougher, almost-white stone, something that most people in the area would have problems associating with any known prototype. The painted trim was brown – but some panels were painted grey, apparently to match the brick. In addition, the facade was obviously skin deep: the very-visible sides of the house were clad with low-cost pre-finished panels. The result is that the onlooker is confronted with many disparate messages emanating from a small building. In this case, the first glimpse is likely to lead to an unpleasant sense of confusion. The creator might suggest that these mixed messages were there to challenge the viewer, but is that a major role for an otherwise ordinary American suburban house?


Small suburban house with conflicting elements - 
Difficult to read as a whole.

A foodie friend once offered a criticism of a meal: that while the chef had prepared splendid individual elements, they didn’t go together. One course consisted of braised beef that fell apart deliciously as it was eaten, accompanied by crunchy lightly cooked dill carrots – each dish was wonderful alone, but sadly discordant when served together. My friend commented that the chef was young, and would learn. This is where the magic of the capable designer is important – the parts of the whole building come together with some magic that raises the spirits and delights the onlooker.

It might be expected that good results are more likely to occur when the design approach is considered in advance: whether the intent is to have the finished product regarded as beautiful, challenging, romantic or sublime. Or taking it further into a multitude of possibilities, perhaps proud, piquant, overwhelming, gentle or authoritative. Having an explicit design intent should lead to more positive outcomes.


 higher levels of unity/coherence/balance/order/elegance/harmony => greater preference.

     How hsould a designer combine things to create a building that is likely to be widely esteemed?


1  Fawcett, Ellingham & Platt, 2008.

2  Woodward, 1994.

3  Stamps, 2004, p.2.

4  Kumar and Garg, 2010, p.488.

5  Bloch, 1995, p.19.

6  Kaplan and Kaplan, 1983, p.35.

7  Lawton, 2015, p.31.

8  Bell et al., 1991.

9  de Botton, 2006, p.218.

10  Slatter and Whitfield, 1977, p.1070.

11  Lazreg and Mullet, 2001, p.530.

12  Joye, 2007, pp.310–311.

13  Herzog and Shier, 2000, p.572.

14  Johnson, 2006, p.91.

15  Philippe Bascaules of Inglenook winery in the Napa Valley of California at an International Wine and Food Society- Niagara session in November 2015.

16  Sullivan, 1896.

17  Jacobs, 1962, p.392.

18  Jacobs, 1962, p.393.


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Bloch, Peter H. (1995), ‘Seeking the ideal form: Product design and consumer response’, The Journal of Marketing, 59(3), pp.16–29.

De Botton, Alain (2006), The Architecture of Happiness, London: Penguin.

Fawcett, William; Ellingham, Ian and Platt, Stephen (2008), ‘Reconciling the architectural preferences of architects and the public: The ordered preference model’, Environment and Behavior, 40(5), pp.599–618.

Herzog, Thomas R.; Kaplan, Stephen and Kaplan, Rachel (1982), ‘The prediction of preference for unfamiliar urban places’, Population and Environment, 5(1), pp.43–59.

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Slatter, Philip and Whitfield, Thomas W.A. (1977), ‘Room function and appropriateness judgements of colour’, Perceptual and Motor Skills, 45, pp.1068–1070.

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Sullivan, Louis H. (1896), ‘The tall office building artistically considered’, Lippincott’s Magazine, 57, May, pp.32–34.

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