Architecture, structure and story

What does architecture actually do? What makes it different from anything else that people do?

(There’s no particular start-point to this one: it’s probably a mixture of several of those interminable LinkedIn conversations, but likely a bunch of other stuff as well. Let’s just say that it’s a question that’s been brewing away for me in the background for quite a while: what is architecture?)

What is architecture?

A lot of people – particularly in IT-architecture and software-architecture – seem to think that it’s all about structure, and really nothing much else.

But is that it? Really?

I don’t think so… Doesn’t feel right… doesn’t feel enough

Think about it: if that were true, then there’d be no difference between the disciplines of architecture and of building – because building really is about creating structures, and not much else.

Architecture feeds into the processes of building, interweaves with the processes of building – yet it’s clear that somehow, in some way, there’s more to it than just building something. And that’s true for every form of architecture: building-architecture, civil-architecture, naval-architecture, software-architecture, financial-architecture, brand-architecture, business-architecture, enterprise-architecture, whatever.

So what is this extra bit? – the bit that makes it more than ‘just building’?

One suggestion comes from my colleague Chris Potts, who would point us back to Vitruvius – ‘the architect’, for many people throughout history.

Vitruvius is famous for asserting in his book De architectura that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – that is, it must be solid, useful, beautiful.

Yet to me, although I’d agree that each of those qualities are necessary, it’s still not complete. There’s still something else…


People create architecture. People use architecture. Although people aren’t part of structure – except in certain special-cases, either by choice or otherwise… – they are somehow part of architecture. There’s a key difference there.

So: people, and… what?


When people are involved, every structure implies a story, expresses a story, provides a stage for a story.

Architecture is what people do to create structure. Building is how we create structure. Vitruvius’ ‘firmitas, utilitas, venustas’ and suchlike provide a necessary what for the structure that architecture creates. But story is why people do what they do to create structure.

Story is that other missing key to architecture. Or, to put it another way:

Architecture is the intersection of structure and story.

A useful way to put it, I hope?

20 Comments on “Architecture, structure and story

  1. Absolutely. In fact, I’d go further and say that it is creating structure that facilitates the story. To use one of your favorite words, it must be aspirational. When the “what” is removed from the “why”, the result can hardly be expected to be fit for purpose.

    • Yep. The point I’m reaching towards is that there’s an interaction between the structure and the story (and the people too, of course, as Oliver Baier pointed out in a separate tweet). The (people)-story informs the structure, and the structure informs the story, round and round – especially so in a dynamic-structure such as an enterprise and the organisation(s) that enact that enterprise.

  2. Quite simple if you ask me: architects better help creating something using firmitas, utilitas, venustas so that people want to live in, work in or use it or in other words want to make it a structural part of their story.

    As far as I understood Chris Potts that is what he means especially when you look at his phrase: “What do we have to do to be part of our Customers (Employees, Suppliers) Processes.”

    • True enough, though again, as in my reply above to Gene, it’s more the interaction between structure and story that interests me here. To me, ‘firmitas, utilitas, venustas’ are attributes of a viable relationship between people, structure and story, rather than the core of that relationship itself.

      • Just to understand you right:

        If I have the four concepts
        1) Structure
        2) Story
        3) People
        4) Relationships between 1,2 and 3
        then you place “firmitas, utilitas and venustas” on 4?

        I am more simple minded here I think. I place these three atrributes still only on the structure.

        People (hopefully) use the structure as part of their story. Or People use the story to create their (needed) structure.

        So I only use 3 concepts, but not 4. Can you somehow elaborate where I am missing your point?

  3. The phrase “People create architecture” reminds me of this quote from Graphic thinking for architects & designers by Paul Laseau:

    “Architects may overlook at times the impact of the construction process as a context for the design solution. Construction method is recognized as a strong determinant of form in vernacular architecture, and it is still influential in contemporary architectural design. With the pressures of financing and the variations in the cost of borrowing funds, innovations in construction processes are continually emerging. When these processes are included in the set of determinants of form, the designer enhances the probability of developing a successful design. Abstract representation of the alternative construction processes, as with other design determinants, promotes the designer’s intuitive access to these considerations.”

    • Yes, good point and good quote. In building-architecture, I remember a friend at college (40 years ago now!) saying that his father was the first architect to use a structural innovation in buildings that enabled corner-windows in houses – introducing a quite different element to the social-story that that the house could enable.

      On vernacular building-architecture, yes, there’s a lot of interaction between the building-methods used in people’s living-spaces and the the social-stories that arise from them. Compare, for example, the rectangular ‘box-form’ the dominates most ‘Western’ cultures, versus the more free-form curved shapes typical of adobe, or yurt, or woven-wood structures common in tribal areas in Africa or Amazonia – furniture, living-arrangements, social-relations, privacy-constraints and just about everything else would intersect with the overall shape and layout of the building.

      What I’m interested in here is how the same principles echo in other forms (modes? models? disciplines?) of architecture – particularly the architecture of the enterprise, in this context.

      • I think enterprises almost always start(ed) as a form of vernacular architecture, designed by one or more amateurs without any training in enterprise/business design/architecture.

        When enterprise architects enter the arena, what will happen, will the “amateurs” stop creating their vernacular architecture(s)? Should they? Or (how) can you integrate the two forms?

        I think it’s essential to look at the construction process of both forms to be able to make enterprise architecture not too rigid and the vernacular architecture not to slummy. For this it is essential that both “amateur” and professional architects can understand (and empathise with) each other stories.

  4. Hi Tom.

    An interesting rumination. If I may make two observations in a slightly ‘philosophical register’…

    I do have a preference for simple explanations – Occams’ razor and all that – and I think while architecture is a subtle, and even counter-intuitive concept, it is rather simple. The Maya video is still the most elegant expression of the meaning of architecture I have found: It pleases me that something so deep as the idea of architecture can be expressed in a handful of words using an example no more complicated that a cup. Moreover the semantic work this simple idea can do is still sufficient to include the intentionality you are getting to here. No need to superimpose a narrative category to come to an effective and useful understanding of architecture in practice.

    Observation 2: I have not found a consistent discourse on this idea, but I have long contrasted two forms of intentional (aesthetic) meaning that I like to think of as poetics and narrative. And by aesthetic I mean that meaning is to some real extent formally derived. The informing idea of your post – architecture as intentional form – allows for both a poetic and narrative basis for meaning. One casting intentions over time and in causal relations to intentions and goals. (Narrative) The other (Poetic) being the delimitation of possibilities appreciated through form-in-relation-to-self such that those possibilities can be understood (maybe it’s even better to say inhabited) as possibilities of being.


    The architecture of the record based transactional information system is a form predicated on a (poetic) structure that takes lends itself to the functional enclosure of it object within a set of possibilities that tend to preclude autonomy – call this the process worker. These architectures work when the narrative teleology confirms with that of the assembly line – consistent managed inputs, efficiency of organised, sequenced, devolved, and predetermined activity, and highly homogenous outputs. The record based transaction system fails when a narrative is imposed that creates expectations precluded by its structure (its poetics) – to whit the expectation of using it for knowledge work. In which case the architecture must be changed to allow for the narrative possibilities of the autonomous synthesis of information and results that are heterogeneous.

    A family can ‘live’ as a family on the fifth floor of an standard cubicle-grid office building. The relationship of story to architecture, narrative to poetics, is already well expressed in the familiar maxim ‘form follows function’.

    It is not required to include story in the definition of architecture. It is absolutely essential to understand that architecture – albeit a deceptively simple thing – provides a special kind of page that permits some stories may be written on it and not others.

    If I may switch ‘narrative’ metaphors – in all things, good architecture is not designed by architects who attempt to stage a play and tell a story, (which is a an act of domination) but but the creation of the stage itself, (which is a gift of freedom) so that the tellers of great stories inhabit that stage, and through their own talents entrance their audience.

    • Yes, the Maya video is nice, and itself reflects a nice architectural solution to ‘the telling of simple visual stories’. Yet to me it seriously misses the point. In essence, what it’s saying is that abstraction of structural-elements is architecture – and whilst, yes, abstraction is arguably a necessary component of a viable architecture, it’s not the full ‘necessary and complete‘. There’s a huge amount that’s missing: so much so that it becomes little better than a glib over-simplification of a necessarily much more complex and nuanced idea.

      To me – as per the main article above – the most important point that’s missing is the intersection with story. It’s not just about the abstraction, it’s also about what happens – or needs to happen – as we come back down from the abstraction, towards the architecture-clients’ needs in the real-world. Yes, we can play endless games with ‘academic’ architecture, a delightful all-imaginary ‘architecture-only-in-the-abstract’: yet it’s only expressed in the real world through real structure. And the process of bringing the imaginary-architecture down into real-architecture always involves some kind of intersection with real-people, and their real stories. (If that didn’t happen, there wouldn’t be an architecture – there’d just be an abstract idea.)

      To give a (literal) concrete example, consider the Sydney Opera House. The fundamental form does not follow function – though function is very much there, of course, and is indeed actively supported by the form. Yet the key point is that the whole thing reflects an interaction not just between form and function, but of both of those and the overall story – the politics, the prestige, the social role of the arts, the smaller-stories of individual patrons attending events there, another whole stream of side-stories around accessibility issues (wheelchair-access and the like). Layer upon layer of continuing, interweaving stories, interacting with and, even now, changing the physical structure of the building. That’s architecture – much, much more than mere abstraction to a supposed ‘essence’.

      On your other theme, about ‘poetics and narrative’ – yeah, very good points, though I’ll have to think long and hard about them before replying.

      • I suspect we may be considering the difference between a presence of clouds and an absence of sky.

        I am myself fairly enthusiastic about story.

        Introducing teleology in some kind of hypostatic role in the definition of meaningful structure (architecture) is enticing. And there is no doubt poor thought given to the information ( Architecture that tells ‘a’ story leads to solutions. Architecture that is ‘for’ story leads to platforms.

        My inclination to keep architecture and narrative ontologically distinct persists -> to my mind they each have work to do and work better together than as one.

        But I certainly agree that architecture that is deaf to story will be shite – at least until someone does a Banksy on it.

  5. Oops – a couple of typos in the above – but the one that must be corrected…

    “A family *cannot* live as…”

    Sorry ’bout that.

    • Actually, I disagree – you didn’t need to correct the typo. 🙂 A family can ‘live’ as a family on the fifth floor of an standard cubicle-grid office building. Form interweaves with function; previous-function (story) does constrain function (kind of related to structure, but not quite the same thing), but it doesn’t define it. ‘Re-purpose’ is where a story re-intersects with a structure, such that the structure can be adapted to a different story: yes, the overall ‘box’-structure does constrain the immediately-obvious options, but you’d be amazed at the inventiveness of some architects in re-thinking the possibilities for a true living-space within those constraints. For examples of how to tackle an even more constrained example, do a web-search for what architects how have done with perhaps the most extreme ‘box’, namely a standard 40ft shipping-container: again, truly amazing.

  6. First, Ric, thanks for the pointer to the Maya video. I have been saying for years that architecture is about essence, the essential properties (the video says principles, but I take its use of the word to be more general than the way we use it in “our kind of architecture”) that define what is necessary and sufficient for something to be what it is supposed to be and do what it is supposed to do. This concept of architecture is not new to our domain of discourse; it was articulated in the Amdahl, Blaauw and Brooks paper “Architecture of the IBM System/360” published in the IBM Journal of Research and Development in 1964, almost 50 years ago.

    Many people hear me and say they understand and agree, but then they go off and say things like “architecture is the intersection of structure and story”. This is a nicely poetic effusion, but it is pretty much useless, or worse, misleading, as a way of understanding the “architecture of architecture”. This is difficult for me to say because I have such great respect for Tom’s thinking, but in this case, codswallop.

    You say “the intersection of structure and story” and the first thing I think of is writing. Grammar maybe. Or something about the psycholinguistic implications of word order. But I don’t think about architecture.

    I think this story meme has been abused. Stories are a great way of communicating, especially with clients or stakeholders (but I think we should be listening to their stories, not telling them stories), but they are terrible ways of expressing essentials. They require far too much inference and interpretation, and as such are far too susceptible to misinterpretation. That is after all the real value of stores — what they leave to our imagination. Stories in general define instances and not classes, and extrapolating a class (which is, after all, an expression of the essential properties of its members) from a single instance is fraught with peril.

    The community’s obsession with architecture as structure, regardless of what it intersects with, is an artifact (look up the alternate definition) of the blueprint metaphor, as in “architects draw blueprints, therefore an architecture is a blueprint”. One of the wonderful things about the Maya video is doesn’t use this pernicious blueprint metaphor.

    And this in turn brings us back to Vitruvius. I have long wondered why people who seem to have excellent critical faculties swoon over the idea that something written by a guy who was designing buildings made out of stone blocks over twenty centuries ago should constrain the way we think about what we do. Can anyone who cites Vitruvius actually point to the place in De Architectura where he says “firmitas, utilitas et venustas”? This is not to in any way detract from his contributions to the architecture of buildings, but enterprises are not building, and if you’re going to claim that something he wrote about the architecture of buildings should apply to a discipline that he probably could not conceive of, you should have a pretty compelling justification as to why this makes sense.

    I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.


    • From the ten books I think this quote from chapter two of book 1 of Vitruvius On Architecture is one of the (very?)few that can be applied to enterprise architecture: “Architectura autem constat ex ordinatione, qua graece taxis dicitur, et ex dispositione, hanc autem Graeci diathesin vocitant, et eurythmia et symmetria et decore et distributione quae graece oeconomia dicitur.”

      My Latin is not so good so I’ve to believe the translation at*.html: “Architecture depends on fitness (ordinatio) and arrangement (dispositio), the former being called τάξις, in Greek, and the latter διάθεσις; it also depends on proportion, uniformity, consistency, and economy, which the Greeks call οἰκονομία.”

      For me Chapter 2 of book 1 is the only part of the ten books that I can relate almost directly to my work.

    • ‘Codswallop’ is perhaps a bit extreme, but I’ll take it as meant 🙂 – i.e. not as a snarky putdown, but as a serious critique and concern from someone whose opinions I deeply respect.

      Some of your critique I hope I’ve already answered in my reply to Ric above. In short, I fundamentally disagree with the notion that architecture is solely an expression of abstraction to a putative ‘essence’: abstraction is a necessary element, yes, yet not in and of itself ‘necessary and complete’.

      So, to take your example of the IBM/360, yes, the abstraction is there, a huge simplification (in the right sense) and clarification of the notion of ‘what a computer should be and do’. Yet none of it would have existed without the story: the story of computing, and the desire to make a ‘better’ computer (e.g. contrast the IBM/360 story with the later story described in the book ‘Soul of a New Machine’ ); the stories of experience and frustration with other hardwired-program and similar machine-architectures; the commercial story of IBM, stretching back some six or more decades at that time; the commercial and other stories of the prospective clients for the IBM/360; the future hopes and concerns of everyone involved in the story. Again, the abstraction of the ‘essence’ is ‘necessary but not complete’ – none of it would or even could happen without those interweaving stories.

      You say: “Many people hear me and say they understand and agree, but then they go off and say things like “architecture is the intersection of structure and story”. This is a nicely poetic effusion, but it is pretty much useless, or worse, misleading, as a way of understanding the “architecture of architecture”.” And you then say “Codswallop”. To which I can only reply that an arbitrary ‘ignore-ance’ of the role of story in architecture is the real ‘codswallop’ – an ignorance that lead us straight back into the causes of delusions such as IT-centrism.

      To use the relationships-model I summarised some while back (see ), the ‘essence-only’ view of architecture is pretty much exclusively ‘inside-in’, a self-referential story with no view of anything else such as purpose, intent or people-story. That pretty much summarises the dry ‘architecture’ of the IBM/360. The next level of story is ‘inside-out’, which we see in the commercial intent of IBM for the IBM/360, and perhaps even better described in the mutual rivalry of the two design-teams described in ‘Soul of a New Machine’. Then we move the focus of story to ‘outside-in’ – the way in which the prospective-customers influenced the IBM/360’s architecture. And finally, we move to ‘outside-out’ – the story of computing itself, which both influenced the IBM/360’s architecture, and which the IBM/360 then itself influenced (as can be seen from the fact that you still reference that book, some fifty years later! 🙂 ).

      Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in any way claiming that architecture is story – and, especially, not saying that architecture is only story. What I am saying is that, within a viable architecture, there’s a very clear and necessary interweaving between structure and story – and that if we don’t acknowledge that interweaving, we end up with an architecture that is not ‘viable’, not ‘fit for purpose’. (And since purpose itself changes over time – as described again by layers of story – the architecture/structure must also change if it is still to be ‘fit for purpose’: there’s an interweaving there.)

      On your other ‘harrumph’ re Vitrivius’ ‘firmitas, utilitas, ‘venustas’, I’d sort-of agree: I wouldn’t take those three putative ‘virtues’ to be architecture, certainly. Relevant, desirable, even necessary attributes of an architecture, yes; architecture itself, no. There is a difference… 🙂

      • “What I am saying is that, within a viable architecture, there’s a very clear and necessary interweaving between structure and story – and that if we don’t acknowledge that interweaving, we end up with an architecture that is not ‘viable’, not ‘fit for purpose’.”

        Well put. I agree completely.

        …and kudos for engaging with our obtuse critiques – not sure I would have the patience.

    • Actually I have no problem with the idea that architecture *occurs* at the intersection of structure and story.

      I just am not willing to go the full ontological hog and say that architecture *is* the intersection of structure and story.

      It dooms any specific idea of architecture to limitations I am uncomfortable with. And perhaps because it confuses the story out of which an architecture arises with the stories that may be told ‘upon’ it.

      Architecture is structure – form – principle.

      But structure form and principle cannot be structure from and principle without being structure form and principle for something.

      The principle of the cup is its fitness to the act of drinking.

      Without drinking there is no cup.

      That is how I took Tom’s article – and to that extent I agree.

      I think however, drinking is story, cup is architecture (poetry). That there is a strong teleological and ontological relationship between story and architecture does not indicate identity. (I don’t think cause – of any type – is essence or substance).

      In short, I am quite happily having a bit of an ontological nit-pick.

  7. Story and architecture seem to me to be orthogonal concepts. I advocate the value of both, but would not suggest that they are synonymous.

    An invaluable set of insights in this arena has just been offered to me through reading “The Coherence Circle” – see

    Rather than suggest conclusions that I have drawn, I will leave you to draw your own!! Suffice to say that reading this article immediately brought this blog post to mind.

  8. I have been reflecting on what is architecture over the last few weeks. Mark Goetsch has pointed out the difference between what architects do and what they produce.

    My guess at what they focus on includes:

    a) purpose of entity
    b) function and flexibility
    c) structure and utility
    d) intended experience of occupiers
    e) quality, integrity, reliability and sustainability of constructed entity
    f) optimum outcome within available budget / impact of budget limitations

    What I suspect most architects would be offended by is our omission of attention to
    a) intended experience giving consideration to utility, comfort, aesthetics, atmosphere, etc
    b) utility, flexibility, affordability, integrity, viability

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