Now and then, you’ve probably heard people describe some interesting old house as having "good bones." But what do they really mean by this? What gives one house better "bones" than another? The answer lies in an aspect of architecture that’s little appreciated and even less understood: composition.

Many people assume that the way a house looks from outside is just the inevitable consequence of the room layout within. But this is a modern conceit brought on by the idea — equally modern — that "form follows function." For all the modernist talk about buildings reflecting their internal functions, though, modernist architects were even more attuned to the need for artful composition than their predecessors were. They were fastidious in arranging the purportedly functional features of those otherwise stark facades — juxtaposing big window against small, high roof against low — to wring more drama out of their compositions.

Now and then, you’ve probably heard people describe some interesting old house as having "good bones." But what do they really mean by this? What gives one house better "bones" than another? The answer lies in an aspect of architecture that’s little appreciated and even less understood: composition.

Many people assume that the way a house looks from outside is just the inevitable consequence of the room layout within. But this is a modern conceit brought on by the idea — equally modern — that "form follows function." For all the modernist talk about buildings reflecting their internal functions, though, modernist architects were even more attuned to the need for artful composition than their predecessors were. They were fastidious in arranging the purportedly functional features of those otherwise stark facades — juxtaposing big window against small, high roof against low — to wring more drama out of their compositions.

In truth, any architect worthy of the title will compose the exterior elevations of a house with painstaking deliberation — fussing with rooflines, or adjusting the size or location of windows or doors by a few inches here or there in order to get just the right balance of movement and repose. So few houses, whether traditional or modern, are bestowed with "good bones" just by accident — getting them to look that way takes a good bit of thought.

Ironically, the verdict on all this effort arrives in the few seconds after we first behold a building in the landscape. This is when our brains try to make visual sense of it and, as it were, give it a subconscious thumbs up or thumbs down. Since our brains find objects with a few bold elements more comprehensible than inarticulate jumbles, compositions with limited elements and a clear hierarchy of features seem more pleasing than those with lots and lots of competing elements.

The fact that our brains tend to favor coherence over chaos doesn’t imply that buildings should be simplistic or have an absence of detail. It simply means that, no matter how complex they might be, their overall design should still feature a limited number of elements with a clear hierarchy. This concept holds true whether we’re talking about a one-room cottage or the Palace of Versailles.

To prove the point, let’s distill these two extreme examples into a few phrases summing up the viewing experience. For our imaginary cottage, we might describe the sequence of visual impressions as follows: big steep gable; lovely front door; towering chimney. As for Versailles, despite its enormous size and complexity, our initial impression might still boil down to just this: imposing central block; powerful flanking wings; gardens stretching away. Both, we might finally decide, have "good bones."

Architecture is, of course, far more complex these few brief impressions can possibly convey. Proportion, scale, symmetry, color, texture, procession and a host of other concerns round out the experience of a great building. Yet labor as architects might on aesthetic minutiae, if the overall composition doesn’t pass muster, the fine points — no matter how beautifully wrought — won’t make any difference. It’s the big picture that we judge in pronouncing a design pleasing or pitiable — as having good bones or bad.

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