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Architecture is the art and science of building the human environment. Because that environment is meant to enclose, enhance, and shape human activity, architecture thus extends beyond abstract issues of formal geometrical design and structural science into a far broader social dimension. As Winston Churchill is famous for saying to Parliament in 1943: “First we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.”
Exactly when the conscious, deliberate shaping of the human environment began defies dating, since the earliest structures most likely were made of organic materials that quickly returned to earth. Archaeological evidence discovered near Marseille, France, however, revealed repeated construction of wood-framed dwellings dating back as far as 300,000 to 400,000 years ago, and several skin coverings and wooden house frames from 13,500 years ago were surprisingly preserved at a Chilean site called Monte Verde. The well-known stone structures of megalithic Europe date to 6,000 years ago, but it is significant that these were almost universally built for ceremonial or religious purposes, while the construction of dwellings apparently still relied on vegetable and animal materials long since vanished. Hence, the first intentionally permanent architecture was shaped for the most fundamental of social communal purposes—to bring a sense of visible order to the cosmos and to provide a link to the dead.
Architecture is a decidedly social activity, for it involves the interactions of many individuals, beginning with the patron—individual, committee, or organization—who calls a building into being. The architect and assistants, or architectural firm, then translate the client’s wishes into abstracted drawings and other construction documents that are used in turn by an army of construction specialists to fabricate the final product. At every step of this process, social exchanges, discussions, and negotiations are required to adjust the design to changing needs and costs. This multidisciplinary social process involves large numbers of people specializing in many occupations, such as drawing and computer design, materials acquisition, preparing written specifications, scheduling construction, arranging construction materials, assembling the prepared materials, and applying the interior finishes, among many others. For the most complex buildings, additional management specialists are required to ensure that materials and subassemblies arrive at the building site with optimal timing to prevent costly delays.
As a social art, architecture is subject to a range of controlling forces to ensure public safety. In ancient Rome, huge privately financed urban apartment blocks, called insulae, sometimes were so shoddily built that they collapsed. With the establishment of a firmer centralized authority during the Roman Empire, regulations were enforced to curb the worst of these building shortcuts. Later, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, governing authorities in France and Britain similarly instituted building regulations to reduce the spread of urban fires. In the United States, following disastrous fires in Boston and Chicago in the late nineteenth century, building codes and regulations were instituted in larger cities. To ensure general public safety, nearly every community now has zoning regulations and building codes controlling where types of buildings can be located and governing density as well as engineering requirements of design and durability of building materials. These regulations apply equally to commercial and governmental buildings, as well as to private residences.
Making architecture involves the shaping of space in a way reached by no other art. Whether fully enclosed or an open external area, architectural space has several different properties. Initially designed to accommodate some function of human activity, this space is definable as square feet or meters. If the space is enclosed by glass, then the user’s view extends beyond the physically enclosed space, and this larger reach constitutes perceptual space less easily quantified. If some substantial object is permanently fixed in that space—a large table, for example—the physical presence of that object emphatically conditions human use of the space, giving definition to the social parameters of behavioral space.
Beyond these three-dimensional aspects, another important spatial quality is the distance members of a particular species place between themselves. This strong determinant of social behavior, called personal space, can be seen in the way birds space themselves along a telephone wire. Seemingly genetically programmed, impinging upon personal space may produce socially aberrant behavior. Among humans, however, Edward T. Hall notes in The Hidden Dimension (1966) that personal space seems to be significantly determined by culture in addition to any fixed internal programming.
Making places for human use extends from the design of a single room and its interior furnishings in everincreasing scales: from a small building to a large multistory office or institutional structure, to a group of interconnected buildings such as a college campus, to an urban neighborhood, even to the planned organization and pattern of use of a region. Architectural design involves not only physical structures but also the landscape in which the buildings are placed.
Meaning in Architecture
Buildings embody wishes and aspirations on several levels, beginning with the desires of the client. Typically, images a client might envision for a building are part of a general collection of accepted communal formal qualities, evolved over time and called by a style name. These stylistic qualities are understood by most of the community and symbolize its values at any given time.
This concept is the iconography of a particular architectural style. To later historians, additional layers of meaning might be discernible, but these interpretations may not have been part of the consciousness of the original builders. This more embracing concept is the iconology of a time period.
The Social Function of Architecture
In sketching the general iconological content of past architecture, one might make several observations:
- that ancient Greek architecture, particularly temples,represented humans striving to achieve the highest level of excellence in construction;
- that ancient Roman architecture borrowed detailsfrom Grecian architecture for use in buildings of vast scale devoted to public purposes;
- that the most important medieval architectureserved to reinforce human religious life in anticipation of an eternity in heaven;
- that Renaissance architecture sought to fuse thisinherited religious meaning with a renewed appreciation of the geometric logic of classical architecture; and
- that Baroque architecture endeavored to appeal toemotions to enhance religious mysticism (in the ecclesiastical realm) or to make a political impression through magnificence or vastness of scale (in the aristocratic realm).
Architects of the nineteenth century struggled to master new industrial technologies while attempting to understand the enormously rich and complex history of architecture around globe.
What changed in the early twentieth century was an added layer of social utopianism, an outgrowth of the Arts and Crafts movement in England. Through the exploitation of industrial production processes, and using industrial materials such as concrete, steel, and glass, architects were challenged to devise a radically new architectural style that would eliminate slum housing. Moreover, this new millennial architecture was to be shaped by an idealistic view of the way things should be (at least in the eyes of the architects and theorists), rather than shaped by the way things actually were. The resulting new communities were to provide fresh air, clean water, and open space in the belief that these transformations would permanently improve society. Architect and polemicist CharlesÉdouard Jenneret (who called himself Le Corbusier) declared in his 1923 Vers une Architecture that it was either this new architecture or social revolution. He even suggested the creation of a normative type—one building type for all people everywhere. Begun in Europe at the dawn of the twentieth century, the new architecture became public policy in the 1920s and 1930s, with more limited application in the United States. Although this social utopianism was well intended, it often fell short of the objective. It may have been supremely utilitarian, but as Hannah Arendt would observe in her 1958 The Human Condition, utility established as meaning generates meaninglessness.
The perceived lack of referential meaning in the International Modern style (as it came to be known by mid-twentieth century) led to a reaction by a new generation of architects, particularly Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown in the United States. Beginning with the use of broadly and whimsically altered historic details, postmodern architecture appeared in the mid-1960s, entering the professional mainstream by the end of the 1980s and extending worldwide by the 1990s. In referencing the past, postmodernism also validated reexamination of traditional regional architectural styles around the globe. Architects in Hungary, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, and scores of other nations began to draw inspiration from their own ancient regional traditions in new buildings of wholly original design and construction; such architecture proved rich in meaning to its users. Architecture in the late twentieth century was viewed once again as capable of being a powerful element in how people envision themselves in time and place.
New Architectural Considerations for the Twenty-First Century
The end of the twentieth century was marked by the emergence of certain mega-architects identified by their unique building forms. Most notable was Frank Gehry, known for his multiply curved, metal-clad, irregularly shaped “swoosh” buildings. Exploitation of computeraided design has rendered such complex building forms more cost effective, marking a dramatic change in the imagining and construction of buildings and doing away with traditional drafting instruments largely unaltered for centuries. The unfolding effect of this fundamental change in design methodology will shape twenty-first century architecture.
An equally significant shift in the nature of the discipline is the emergence of women in a field dominated for centuries by men. Women began to make important contributions beginning at the dawn of the twentieth century, but their names were seldom widely known and their numbers were few. This advent of women as major players in the discipline was vividly demonstrated by the award of the prestigious international Pritzker Architecture Prize to Zaha Hahid in 2003.
Perhaps more significant for Earth’s future is the movement toward sustainable “green” architecture. The traditional energy-consuming methods of making construction materials—toxic in themselves and leaving toxic residue from their manufacture—resulted in buildings that, once completed, further consumed prodigious amounts of energy for lighting, heating, cooling, and ventilating. Nowhere was this old-style architecture more evident than in the thin-walled modernist glass-sheathed boxes of the mid-twentieth century. In contrast, the emerging philosophy of sustainable green architecture promotes using less toxic materials and forming buildings in ways that allow them to work with, rather than against, nature. For example, windows can be shaded by calculating orientation and latitude to prevent internal solar heat gain, and buildings may be cooled in part by facilitating natural ventilation, practices of architect Ken Yeang. The future social implications of such a design approach, especially in the reduction of long-term operating costs, are enormous.
- Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Le Corbusier. 1977. Vers une Architecture, rev. ed. Paris: Arthaud. (Orig. pub. 1923).
- Gauldie, Sinclair, 1969. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Hall, Edward T. 1966. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Kostof, Spiro, ed. 1977. The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Kostof, Spiro. 1991. The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History. New York: Little, Brown.
- Kostof, Spiro. 1995. A History of Architecture: Setting and Rituals, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Moffett, Marian, Michael Fazio, and Lawrence Wodehouse. 2004. Buildings Across Time: An Introduction to World Architecture. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
- Norberg-Schulz, Christian. 1975. Meaning in Western Architecture. New York: Praeger.
- Prak, Niels Luning. 1968. The Language of Architecture: A Contribution to Architectural Theory. The Hague: Mouton.
- Rasmussen, Steen Eiler. 1962. Experiencing Architecture, 2nd ed. Eve Wendt, trans. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Roth, Leland M. 2006. Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning, 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Trachtenberg, Marvin, and Isabelle Hyman. 2002. Architecture: From Prehistory to Postmodernity, 2nd ed. New York: Abrams.
- Watkin, David. 2005. A History of Western Architecture, 4th ed. New York: Watson-Guptill.
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