Why does a building, a neighborhood or an entire city look the way it does? Why is one person's architecture another person's real estate venture?

What influences the design, investment and building decisions made by architects, planners, developers, financial institutions, governments and individual citizens who determine why, when and how the man-made environment is constructed?

Attitudes about architecture and real estate depend on who you are, on your goals and values. Most readers will fall into one or more of the following groups, each with its own special viewpoints:

*Designers -- primarily planners, architects, landscape architects and engineers.

*Owners and developers of real estate who initiate and carry out construction.

*Lenders and investors who provide equity and debt capital to finance building.

*Officials of government agencies and politicians responsible for public building and for safeguarding the public.

*Users of the built environment -- citizens who occupy, visit, conduct trade, pass through, or merely observe the city and its buildings.

Choose any building, and it will mean different things to different groups or interests. Often these interests conflict as much as they overlap. For example, real estate developers and investors primarily seek to make a return on the equity they risk and to reduce their income taxes. To them, buildings are business enterprises, economic "black boxes" that they hope will yield short-term financial benefits as well as long-term appreciation.

They want architects to provide designs that can be built and conform to projected budgets, schedules, space and functional requirements and marketing criteria. Only then can buildings fulfill their ultimate investment purpose: to attract tenants who pay rents that exceed operating and debt service costs.

On the other hand, architects see buildings as opportunities to explore and express design ideas. They may seek aesthetic, rather than economic, payoffs. For the architect, the ideal client is one who acts as a patron, providing the opportunity to create a form of art through building. Such architects may take a longer, more historical view than their clients, advocating or anticipating stylistic trends evolving over decades or even centuries.

Lenders -- commercial banks, savings institutions, insurance companies and other financing sources -- see buildings as generators of mortgage loans that become assets in their portfolios. Using depositors' or investors' capital, they think of buildings as forms of collateral and security for loans, not as architecture per se. Underwriting standards, not aesthetic standards, are what matter most to them.

Government agencies and officials may view a building as a source of tax revenue, a provider of employment, a business catalyst or, negatively, as an additional load on already overburdened city facilities and services. Politicians may see a project as adding prestige to the city as well as to the politicians who supported the project. Many government employes are preoccupied with their regulatory mandates to enforce zoning laws and building codes.

To tenants and other users of buildings, matters of comfort, security, convenience, utility, location and leasing may be of first priority. The soundness of the mortgage loan, the financial return to investors or the winning of design awards may be quite secondary or of no importance at all.

Individual citizens have different points of view depending on where they live and work, the paths they travel and the cultural sensitivities they bring to bear. A resident of Georgetown is likely to feel differently about the city than a resident of Bethesda, Anacostia or Arlington. Some citizens care about preserving old buildings, while others prefer newer ones. Some care about facades, while others -- indifferent to facades -- care much more about the shops, office space, restaurants or apartments behind them.

To explore the look of the nation's capital and its real estate, the first few articles in this series will delve into the city's history. They will recount its early formal origins and transformation from village to world-class urban environment, occasionally comparing Washington's growth and physical characteristics with those of other cities.

We will examine how the public and private sectors actually undertake building. The roles and functions of key participants -- developers and builders, architects and planners, lenders and investors, the federal and city governments and consumers (the ultimate market) -- will be discussed.

Subsequent articles will describe specific buildings and streetscapes, focusing on spaces and places in downtown or suburban Washington. Topics include the evolution of architectural styles, building types and construction technologies; the massing of buildings as determined by aesthetic, economic and regulatory pressures; building facades; and the street/sidewalk/open space environment.

We will look inside buildings at interior spaces and systems for making the environment comfortable, safe and usable. Atria, courtyards and malls will be considered, along with lobbies and passageways. The detailing and decorating of buildings, both interior and exterior, will be included.

Finally, we will look at the historic preservation of buildings and neighborhoods, an issue that poses challenging cultural, economic and technical questions. To save or not to save? The answer is rarely obvious or easy.

We hope to present in this column a broad-based approach to assessing urban environments and the individual buildings within them. We will always try to relate aesthetic, economic, functional, technical and social concerns to paint a holistic picture. Ideally, by understanding better the linkages between buildings as real estate and buildings as architecture, the reader will gain a new appreciation of how a city's fabric is formed.

NEXT: The Origins of Washington, D.C.