Architecture, the art and technique of designing and building, as distinguished from the skills associated with construction. The practice of architecture is employed to fulfill both practical and expressive requirements, and thus it serves both utilitarian and aesthetic ends. Although these two ends may be distinguished, they cannot be separated, and the relative weight given to each can vary widely. Because every society—settled or nomadic—has a spatial relationship to the natural world and to other societies, the structures they produce reveal much about their environment (including climate and weather), history, ceremonies, and artistic sensibility, as well as many aspects of daily life.

The characteristics that distinguish a work of architecture from other built structures are (1) the suitability of the work to use by human beings in general and the adaptability of it to particular human activities, (2) the stability and permanence of the work’s construction, and (3) the communication of experience and ideas through its form. All these conditions must be met in architecture. The second is a constant, while the first and third vary in relative importance according to the social function of buildings. If the function is chiefly utilitarian, as in a factory, communication is of less importance. If the function is chiefly expressive, as in a monumental tomb, utility is a minor concern. In some buildings, such as churches and city halls, utility and communication may be of equal importance.

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Foster and Partners: the Great Court The Great Court, designed by Foster and Partners, 2000; in the British Museum, London. © Jarno Gonzalez Zarraonandia/Shutterstock.com

WRITTEN BY
James S. Ackerman See All Contributors

Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts, Harvard University. Author of The Architecture of Michelangelo; Palladio.