Building character

Character in a building makes us smile. Character implies something time-worn and wise, like laughter lines around the eyes. We see character in thatched houses, wonky walls, and in quirky details like turrets and fancy gables. But can you build character into a new structure? If architectural character is viewed as being akin to character in people then shouldn’t we move beyond the quaint and shambolic and assess a building on a broader scale of attributes – for its fortitude, its bearing, its handsomeness?

I was thinking about this as I wandered along the quay at Darling Harbour in central Sydney. It’s always been an odd place, a part of the old working harbour that was transformed in the 1980s into Sydney’s leisure land, with hotels and restaurants, cinemas and event venues. The first version is now being gradually torn down and replaced by buildings that better fit the current mood of the city. Which means it’s remained an odd place but with newer buildings. And do they have character? I’m not sure.

does Darling Harbour have personality?

Why is character important? I think it invites us to form an emotional bond with a building and that helps with place-making. The towns and cities we love tend to have strong personalities, and much of that is down to the architecture. People want to live in places that have character, hence the refurbishment of inner city areas that are ingrained with the sweat of life itself, in old warehouses and workers’ cottages. But so too do we love the apparent friendliness of villages that cluster around charming squares or grassy commons. It’s the remarkability of the buildings that aids the character.

I have always viewed architecture in human terms, in the same way that I anthromorphise animals. When I find myself standing before a building that I have only ever known through books I feel a chest-thumping  moment of recognition, as though meeting an old friend. “So here you are,” I say to it, and I usually lay my hands on a wall to connect myself physically with the building. I do this with Gothic cathedrals and 1950s office towers, and almost unconsciously, as I would when meeting a new person, I assess whether or not the building is a friend or not. What sort of character does it have?

giggling Central Park One (by Jean Nouvel)

Sydney Opera House is a bit flaky, all those flaring shapes, and also rather lonely, marooned on its little peninsula away from other buildings, bearing the burden of being in the spotlight. The Victorian terraced streets of Sydney, on the other hand, are usually happy and smiling. The plant-walled Central Park One building is proud, suppressing giggles as it rises up like a glamourpuss thrilled with her fabulous new coat. Well, that’s the way my mind works (which is why I could never be an architectural academic).

The other day I walked around my suburb looking at the new houses that have recently gone up. I was looking for character and found buildings hiding behind masks. I’ve mentioned before Robin Boyd’s marvellous  The Australian Ugliness which speared the Australian love of features in suburban buildings in the 1950s. Little has changed. On my little saunter, I passed houses filled with so many details, features, shapes and textures that they have ended looking like kids let loose with the dressing-up box. And then I came across a little red-brick bungalow, a hangover from the 1950s. Almost immediately I felt its friendly nature. I’m sure it said hello, while its newer neighbours were too busy sucking in their cheeks.


The French have a wonderful term – jolie laide – to describe a woman who is not classically beautiful but has an allure despite her plainness. Architecture can do this, too, which is what draws us to the beauty in a variety of buildings that some might think of as ugly. Their simple honesty is as refreshing as someone telling us that the emperor is wearing no clothes.

jolie laide (the Sirius building in Sydney)

I treasure emotional honesty and laughter in people. And these qualities draw me to buildings, too.  Seeing a building that can make me laugh, and one that is imbued with the integrity of a good idea carried out well, is just as good as sitting down for the evening with a valued friend.

Do you think character is important? What characterful buildings do you love?


Categories: Architecture, Australia, DesignTags: , , , , , , , ,


  1. I love the buildings of Dean Village by the Waters of Leith in Edinburgh, Scotland.

  2. The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes S02 E03 shows a japanese home made form waste concrete blocks, glass, and aluminum. This is brilliant and very atrractive

    • You’re the second person to mention this programme to me in as many days – must seek it out. I think you mean the Glass House for a diver. Brilliant character. But I’m not surprised – the Japanese have a tremendous sense of play and adventure that keeps bursting through that veneer of politeness and conformity.

  3. I think that building in Hampstead that you show is Boy George’s home. Now there’s a man of character too!

  4. Wonderfully evocative writing Colin, I loved this piece.

  5. Like you I think character is important but find it almost impossible to define it. So much of we call ‘character’ comes down to aesthetics, proportions, honesty. I love modern spaces but also some period styles and older buildings with a certain ‘feel’. Nothing fussy or fake. Perhaps it comes down to any space that is not pretending to be something it’s not. But then, can you gentrify an old warehouse and call that honest? Tough question. Interesting post!

    • Yes, very tough. It’s like tapping into a different sort of language, in some ways, but it’s interesting that so many of us can understand it. I’m with you on the kind of faked ‘atmosphere’ you get in hipster cafes and those phony bleached ‘French’ interiors – it’s so wonderful when you stumble upon something that is brimful of character, almost by accident. Thankfully there is plenty of that still around. And maybe the key is in that accidental quality…

  6. I love the Central Park building – hope it’s not all fur coat and no knickers 🙂 But I also have a real fondness for the ‘ordinary’ bungalows – our UK house is one of these – because they sometimes seem to mature rather well, and I think people often overlook their charms and rip them out to build monoliths. Most of our neighbours have done this

    • She’s definitely a good girl and got her undies on!… Interesting to hear that the same is happening in Britain as here. It’s tied in with nostalgia, I suppose, and the older buildings seem to be from a simpler times when people weren’t trying so damn hard to display their wealth and didn’t confuse sheer size with liveability.

      • So true. There is already a legacy of oversized, overdesigned and under-thought-about buildings in my street. Just because something could be bigger, it doesn’t mean it should be. Admittedly, our UK home is a bit of a squeeze but only by assumed modern standards. Roll on summer, when we can spill out onto the garden again and spread out a bit!

  7. What a beautifully written piece. And what a large subject to tackle.
    I don’t think I have ever consciously thought about character in buildings – but as you point out, we probably all do it without realising.
    Can there be too much character in a building? I know you are a great fan of Arts and Crafts architecture, which I loathe as I find it fussy and over complicated. I really am a Classical girl.
    A building with character … How about Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence. So beautiful, so restrained, so quiet, so purposeful.
    I love the idea of you hugging new buildings. I’ll try that next time.

    • I agree that so much of it is unconscious – it’s part of that sense we have when we walk into a new building and feel at home or dislike the atmosphere. I think the Ospedale is an excellent choice – it’s so serene and, as you beautifully put it, purposeful yet one thinks of what heartache it must have witnessed in its long history. (I think cities have character, too, and Florence’s seems to me very generous and welcoming in a way that Rome isn’t.) I’ll let the comment go about Arts & Crafts buildings being (deep breath) fussy but I agree with you that the restraint of the Classical can be gentle (but thuggish in some instances, usually when mangled & overblown in neo-Classicism). As for too much character, that’s a poser – that makes me think of buildings that dominate too much, like Ceausescu’s awful Palace in Bucharest but that is hugely bland, whereas the dominant Chrysler Building has oodles of character and carries one along in its sense of joy… More to ponder, thanks.
      Now I’m going to find an Arts & Crafts building that we can hug together…

      • Oh, Yes, cities with character! How about Venice?
        I agree, neo-Classicism can be ghastly.
        How do you rate Wren’s St Paul’s?
        I look forward to our joint hugging!

      • I so fear for Venice becoming a beautiful but empty shell. Where are the people who boost the energy of its buildings? I daresay there are pockets, still, but for how long? As for St Paul’s, it is certainly not a warm and cuddly building (although perhaps in Mary Poppins…) but it is proud, and that pride is nowhere better demonstrated than by those iconic photos of it surrounded by the flames of the Blitz. (Still thinking which A&C building might work for you….)

  8. There was a staircase I was really fond of that I always saw crossing back over Hungerford bridge towards Embankment tube in London. It was at night and the staircase was lit up with a sort of golden yellow light. I’ve no idea of the building but I loved that lit up staircase on a cold winter night! I love houses with balconies and turrets. Perhaps because they look like something out of a fairy story. And I do love yellow on a building. In Berlin I found some yellow, circular buildings that I took endless photos of but them mislaid. It was in Potsdamerplatz. Looking at that building made me feel ecstatically happy!

    • Interesting that a particular colour always attracts you. I remember staying in Darwin, which I found a pretty ugly place, but there was a bright yellow wall to one building that made me feel happy, too, so maybe there’s something about the colour of sunshine. Sounds like the buildings you’re drawn to set off a creative train of thought & curiosity – which is precisely what good architecture should do, I think. Not surprised, though, given your books are always set in architecturally interesting places.

  9. Nothing says “hello” like a traditional Queenslander.

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