Book Review: Buildings That Feel Good

Buildings That Feel Good by Ziona Strelitz
RIBA Publishing, 2008

The phrase "buildings that feel good" -- with a clear emphasis on the word feel in this book's title -- brings to mind a number of things: thermal comfort, warm materials, uncluttered spaces, clear spaces. In other words one thinks about the experience of being in a space or place, the sort of consideration that tends to be played down by architects, in favor of talk of form, texture and light. But of course architects know that these are one and the same, as form, materials, and transparency influence (if not dictate, to some extent, in some circumstances) how one feels in an environment, be it "designed" or not.

This book by Ziona Strelitz -- founder of ZZA, a London-based "research and consulting practice ... [who] provides briefing guidance and design evaluation to achieve productive and enjoyable use of space" -- attempts to disseminate lessons for architects and clients that can achieve her company's goals. These lessons are explained in detail at the book's end, in a list that moves from the large to the small (from site and context to the joinery of materials), following case studies of twenty mainly public projects, the majority in London, all in England. The projects range in type from industrial and infrasturucture to offices and restaurants, exhibiting that one type of environment does not take precedence over another, in terms of considering the user's experience. As well, the projects range in scale from a single-room kiosk to a twelve-building office campus, though most fall somewhere in between. Diversity in type and scale is balanced by geographical and stylistic homogeneity, namely the trite British hi-tech and minimalism "schools."

While the author expends a great amount of effort on the book's theme -- most evident in the text, not the drawings and photographs -- one can't help but think something is missing, something is being held back, namely the actual experience of the user and the means of determining the success of a space or place. With ZZA's unique position between the client and the architect, always with the user's best intentions in mind, the office's blend of research and observation rooted in social science is one that could be very interesting to architects. But we do not find illustrations of such, no notes or mapping of observations (here's a series of maps (PDF link) I created for a paper for an anthropology of space and place class, to proffer an example), no first-hand accounts by people working, shopping, eating, being in the spaces. Perhaps Strelitz wants to keep certain techniques of ZZA secret (their web page would corroborate this hypothesis), or more likely the author is suiting the book to its audience, the architects that can learn a lesson or two from her presentation of the case studies. By focusing the presentation on the formal strategies of the architecture over the determination of of how the formal strategies become successful, we are left with a variation on the theme of a collection of contemporary projects. The book does offer some valuable lessons, but ones that would be stronger with a more open and honest expression of how exactly buildings feel good.