Architectural Patents: On what Grounds?

Architectural Patents: On what Grounds?
Courtesy of

We have all heard of patenting building systems, building technologies, details and of course, products. But what about patenting architecture? Jack Martin brought this to our attention in light of Apple successfully getting an architectural patent for the design of a store in the Upper West Side in New York City, asking “On what grounds can you patent architecture?” The inventors listed in the patent are architects Karl Backus, Peter Bohlin and George Bradley of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, and Robert Bridger, Benjamin L. Fay, Steve Jobs and Bruce Johnson for a design that Architect’s Newspaper describes as “meticulous and seamless as its clients”.

So, what is the extent of patenting architecture? Structural systems, materials, details, conceptual strategies, the look of it? We interpret architecture as a language in itself, but it is difficult to conceive of copyright infringement when it comes to architectural design because it is difficult to pin-point exactly what makes all of the parts of a building a copyrighted entity. What if Le Corbusier patented his designs? Mies van der Rohe? Frank Lloyd Wright? Their work and strategies have been copied and implemented all over the world to varying degrees. So, where is the line between protecting an original idea and creating a barrier against progress? Or does this commercialization of architecture fuel competition to design better or design around strategies already patented? More after the break.

Apple uses the architecture and interior design – down to the details of presenting its merchandise – as a form of branding. The image it portrays and attitude that it evokes is consistent with its products – sleak, clean, streamlined and user-friendly. Looking at the selection of materials, the brightness of the lights and finishes, it is like looking at the three dimensional version of the iMac, iPad or iPhone display. The architecture has become so familiar through the numerous stores that Apple has – check out the evolution of the design here – that even without logos and merchandise many of us would recognize their interiors.

Courtesy of - Architecture Patent to Apple

But with branding aside, it seems that for centuries architecture has always been interpreted as patent-free – open to the design community to build upon, improve, innovate and re-invent. So what does it mean for architecture when the U.S. Government granted Apple its first architectural patent on November 15th, 2011 for the design of a store in the Upper West Side in New York City? The design features an all glass facade and glass canopy, opening the entire interior space to the street and to the sky. It is bounded by stone walls on either side. The components of this design are not necessarily original and the patent, which can be viewed here, only gives a cursory view of the design, alluding to the materials and assembly that is to be used. It has also been announced, according to, that Apple plans to build similar models of this design in two other locations, one in Palo Alto in Northern California and Third Street Promenade in Southern California.

Courtesy of Apple via

This concept of patenting architecture commercializes a field already starting to produce “Starchitects”, architects whose designs are well known and sought after for their particular style – so is it style that we are looking to patent? Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind come to mind, but even their ideas have started and arose out of design movements that have evolved, blending over the years with technological progress. Even some patented designs have striking similarities to completed projects of today, like this design below patented in 1989 by Radu Vero, which has a resemblance to the HSB Turning Torso Building in Sweden by Santiago Calatrava.

Courtesy of USPTO - Architectural Patent to Leroy S. Buffington

The Architecture & Copyright Law suggests that all projects as completed works should be protected and patented – but the procedure requires two steps because architecture is interpreted in two ways. First there are the drawings and specifications which fall under “technical drawings” and then there is the completed structure which is registered as “architectural work”. But even if a work is patented there so many standards in the industry that who can say where to draw the line?

Courtesy of USPTO - Architectural Patent to Radu Vero

Image gallery

See allShow less
About this author
Cite: Irina Vinnitskaya. "Architectural Patents: On what Grounds? " 23 Jan 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.