Architecture: Overview

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Architecture: Overview

Architecture is the crystallization of ideas. Architecture has been defined many waysas shelter in the form of art, as a blossoming in stone and a flowering of geometry (Ralph Waldo Emerson), as frozen music (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), man's triumph over gravitation and his will to power (Friedrich Nietzsche), the will of an epoch translated into space (architect Mies van der Rohe), the magnificent play of forms in light (architect Le Corbusier), a cultural instrument (architect Louis I. Kahn), or inhabited sculpture (sculptor Constantin Brancusi). The architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable framed a rather clinical definition, saying architecture is a "balance of structural science and aesthetic expression for the satisfaction of needs far beyond the utilitarian." Most people in the early twenty-first centuryusers, that is, as opposed to designers and criticsseldom think of architecture as anything more than a mute utilitarian container. Yet architecture is a form of nonverbal communication, as was recognized by many builders in centuries past. Architecture speaks volumes about the values and priorities of the designer or architect, and of those who built it. This view of architecture has been voiced by many commentators but was expressed particularly well by the nineteenth-century critic John Ruskin, who pointed out in his preface to St. Mark's Rest (1877) that nations "write their autobiographies in three manuscriptsthe book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the other two; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last."

Accounts of military exploits and written expressions of theory and practice are records of ideas often subtly worded to shade the values of a time and culture; architecture, in contrast, is fundamentally driven by the most essential economic pressures. Architecture therefore is a truly revealing cultural artifact. In contrast to all the other durable visual arts, architecture comes into being only through the coordinated efforts of client, architect, builder, and scores of workers, and thereforesince it requires such a formidable financial investmentcaprice and personal whimsy are normally restricted, replaced by the pressures of what is truly important in the culture of client, architect, and builder. Architecture is a "bottom line" art form. Moreover, who people are and what they do is influenced, if not determined, by the architecture around them. As Winston Churchill suggested in speaking to Parliament in 1944, "we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us."

Early Humans in Europe

Buildings or shelters were being constructed by early human ancestors as early as 400,000 to 300,000 years ago, judging from the traces found at a site called Terra Amata, near Nice, France. The remains of the oldest human dwellings found so far do not suggest anything other than protection from the elements, but that must have changed with the rise of thinking in terms of symbols and metaphors between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago among Neanderthal people in Europe and certainly their Cro-Magnon homo sapiens successors. How symbolic thinking may have found expression in shelters so far has been impossible to determine, for all that survives from the infancy of modern humans are nonorganic materials; whatever else they may have built of timbers and hides, or carved in wood, long ago disappeared. The tantalizing evidence that does endure is found in the skilled paintings of animals and cryptic symbols created deep in the caves of Spain and France, in Australia, and at other locations.

Also suggesting a complex system of spiritual belief is the evidence of careful and thoughtful burial given some Neanderthal individuals, which became more customary for the Cro-Magnon. Reverence and respect for the remains of the dead as departed members of the human community seems to have developed about 250,000 years ago, along with ideas concerning some persistence of life after death, or at least the notion that the remains of dead parents, elders, and children merited care and reverence. Megalithic stone burial chambers were built in France and Ireland as early as 6,700 years ago (4700 b.c.e.). Cut into the limestone hill of Hal Saflieni, Malta, is a tomb called the "hypogeum," carved perhaps 5,500 years ago (3500 b.c.e.). Because it was excavated long ago, much of its chronological evidence was destroyed, but another semisubterranean burial site on the Maltese island of Gozo, called the Brochtorff Circle, was excavated in the 1990s and more accurately dated as having been built roughly 6,000 years ago.

Built evidence suggests that around 5,500 years ago the notion of time as a continual cycle of recurring celestial events was well developed in northern Europe, as the technically sophisticated construction of such sites as the Newgrange tomb in the Boyne Valley of Ireland (constructed 5,200 years ago) and the first phases of construction at Stonehenge in the plain of Salisbury, Wiltshire, England (started about 4,950 years ago) demonstrate. The enormous well-known megalithic stones at Stonehenge were put in place much later, between 4,000 and 3,500 years ago. These sites were carefully constructed to mark critical points in the cycle of the year, such as the day of the winter solstice sunrise and the summer solstice sunrise and sunset.

Antiquity: Egypt, Greece, Rome


In ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome architecture reflected the worldviews and underlying concepts of each society itself. The culture of ancient Egypt was rooted in chronometric conceptsthe cycle of the year, the notion of time extending endlessly from the past toward an unfathomable future, the human spirit continuing in existence into this future. As Herodotus (c. 484c. 420 b.c.e.) observed in his Histories, Egypt is the gift of the Nile, a long linear oasis extending from the south to the north, where the river expands into its delta and empties into the Mediterranean. Across this south-north line lies the east-west path of the sun. These two orthogonal lines and the cycles of what define themthe daily passage of the sun and the yearly rising flood and lowering of the riveralso define the human life cycles of ancient Egypt. Geometry and symmetry were fundamental to this life, both in remeasuring the fields after inundation and in laying out the ancient temples, the houses of the gods where endless ceremonies were carried out during the course of the year. The linear, rigorously ordered grid of the temple layout exemplified the idea of ma'at, a concept that combines the ideas of truth, justice, order, stability, security, harmonythe total of the right order of things that was established by the gods at the creation of the world.

For artisans, scribes, officials, and others who served the bureaucracies, life could be very pleasant in the valley of the Nile, at least during the politically settled periods that lasted hundreds of years. So the ancient Egyptians came to think that following death, an individual's soul passed into an afterlife whereproperly provided for with a preserved physical body and stores of food and drink, and assisted by statue-substitute servantslife could be enjoyed forever. It was for this reason that so much of the Egyptians' creative effort and energies went into the building of their temples, tombs, and (for the Pharaoh god-kings) the pyramids that were their ascent stairs to join the gods. Their focus was on the life to come.


The Greeks, for whom daily life was a much more arduous and risky affair, focused not on an unverifiable spiritual life after death but on achieving knowable excellence of human achievement in this world. Their term for this was aretē, that quality of excellence that comes from studied refinement, skill, and testing, demonstrated by achievement through valor in war or athletic competition or contest, agōn. Excellence could be represented in poetry, music, and athletic skillall of which were the subject of contestsas well as in sculpture and architecture. Through such contests individuals learned their abilities and limitations, what the priests of Apollo meant when they said "know thyself." In all things the ancient Greeks sought logos, a concept that encompasses reason, logic, generating idea, conception, a natural order that existed in the world, the opposite of chaos. The Greeks strove to realize this ideal of balance and symmetry (from symmetria, meaning "of like measure"). Heracleitus (c. 540c. 480 b.c.e.) described this concept of symmetry, saying "measure and logos are firm in a changing world," and describing how cold is balanced by hot, day by night, health by disease. The risk was that such mental constructs might venture into the realm of mystic speculation, as was somewhat the case with Pythagoras of Samos (c. 580c. 500 b.c.e.), who asserted that the universe was governed by a symmetry of numbers, demonstrated by the harmonic sounds created by vibrating strings of proportional lengths. Out of this theorizing, however, came such highly useful mathematical demonstrations as the Pythagorean theory describing how the areas of the squares drawn on the two sides of a right triangle are together equal to the area of the larger square drawn on the side of the connecting side, or hypotenuse.

This perfection of mathematical proportions and excellence in construction was embodied in the Greek temples, buildings erected in durable permanent materials such as marble, with blocks having sides ground to perfect planes that fitted together so tightly that a knife blade could not be inserted between them. In particular, the temple dedicated to Athena Parthenos (the Parthenon), built atop the Athenian acropolis in 447438 b.c.e., in addition to having this precision of assembly, also incorporated in its design numerous interrelated proportional systems governing such dimensions as the ratio of building length to width to height, and the thickness and spacing of the outer ring of marble columns, among many other dimensions and relationships. Moreover, it incorporated a subtle inward slant to the columns, especially a diagonal inward slant to the corner columns, as well as optical corrections, such as the upward swelling curvature of the base repeated in the upward curve of all the parallel horizontal lines of the building. These nearly imperceptible optical corrections make the building appear to be straighter and lighter, more perfect, than is physically the case. What the eye actually sees, then, and what the mind expects to see, are not in exact agreement. The result is that the building constantly shimmers and shifts in the viewer's perception between these two subtly conflicting mental activities, giving it a visual stimulation that has excited comment since the time of its construction.


Greek architecture is not particularly concerned with the enclosure of interior public spaces. Most activities in the Greek city-state polis took place in outdoor spaces such as the agora (marketplace) or the open precincts around temples. The Romans, however, developed numerous kinds of public buildings to house groups of peoplelaw courts (basilicas), markets, and baths, among othersas cities across their empire grew in size and density of population. To certain abstract constructs of Greek culture and learning, the Romans added a practical mind-set that enabled them to solve technical problems such as supplying water to their cities and carrying away waste products. They adopted arch and vault construction for a wide variety of buildings. To this they added the use of readily available volcanically modified materials to make a form of natural concrete. Using this concrete enabled Romans to vault spans of unprecedented size in their public buildings.

All these social programs and architectural developments come together in the Roman public baths, versions of which were built in cities the length and breadth of the empire, including Bath, in England, and Paris among countless other settlements. Aqueducts, carried aloft on stacked arches, brought water into the baths, where it was heated and distributed to the various bathing areas, with cold, tepid, and warm pools. In the warm bath areas the rooms themselves were heated by means of hollow passages under the floor and running up through the walls, acting as so many chimney flues for fires kept burning in side furnaces. In the early 2000s the great public baths of the city of Rome stand, mostly in fragmented unroofed portions, as testaments to the engineering skill of the Romans, but a better sense of the majesty of these vast spaces can still be glimpsed in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, originally the baths built by the emperor Diocletian in 298306 c.e., but sufficiently intact to be converted into a huge church with monastery by Michelangelo in the mid-sixteenth century.

Romans, for the most part, were concerned with the here and now. During the republican period Romans embraced the quality of gravitas, a sense of the importance of matters at hand, combined with ingrained discipline, patriotic responsibility, and seriousness of purpose, austerity, conservatism, and a deep respect for tradition. A good Roman citizen upheld a rigid morality, served the state, maintained unimpeachable honor, and strove for a physical and spiritual asceticismall qualities discernable in the first Roman emperor, Augustus (r. 27 b.c.e.14 c.e.) himself. It is all too easy to think of Romans comporting themselves as commonly depicted in novels and films, devoted to depravity and sensual excess, but this was more the case during the later empire. The goal of many earnest Romans in the first centuries after Augustus was to reestablish the moral standards of the republican past. In many ways, the best representative of the Roman personal values of probity and self-discipline can be found in the emperor Marcus Aurelius (r. 161180), trained in the tradition of the Greek Stoics. His Meditations, intended for his personal reflectionwith their repeated admonitions to uphold personal honor because of its basic practicalityare a tribute to the persistence of republican virtues.

Middle Ages

Even around 175 c.e., as Marcus Aurelius was writing his Meditations, Christianity was spreading across the empire. Of the various cults and religions that vied for converts during the early years of what has come to be called the common era, Christianity was the most persuasive for several reasons. Unlike the impersonal state religion of Rome, with its removed and de-personalized rituals to placate Jupiter and the deified emperors, Christianity offered direct communication with a personalized deity, embodied in the crucified Christ. The present world, with all of its shortcomings and disappointments, was seen as only the preparation ground for a subsequent eternal life. The classical focus on the practicalities of the here and now faded in importance. In the West, the old Roman Empire was transformed, through invasion after invasion from the north and east, as well as through the rise of Christianity, whose strong vertical bureaucratic structure took on much of the character of the fading Roman government. The old position of the Roman emperor as chief priest (pontifex maximus ) was taken over by the bishop of Rome as head of all bishops, and therefore head of the church.

Although Christianity maintained that all humans are born in original sin, and are destined to persist in this fallen state, doomed to spend eternity in Hell, doctrine held out the hope of Heaven. This consuming aspiration, directed away from the present world in favor of the next, is embodied in the abundant and mutually reinforcing vertical motifs in Gothic architecture, developed in France and other areas of Europe around 1150. Every line of the Gothic cathedral seems to point toward heaven. Moreover, the architecture is covered across its entire surface with sculpted images drawn from Scripture and the lives of the saints. Influenced by the writings of the abbé Suger of St.-Denis, architects opened up ever larger clerestory windows in the upper ranges of the churches and cathedrals. The windows were filled with highly colorful stained glass, an allegory of divine light, with images amplifying the stories told in the stone carvings. The churches became veritable Bibles in stone and colored glass, inculcating scriptural lessons in the faithful.

The later High Gothic urban cathedrals, for the most part dedicated to the Virgin MotherOur Lady, or Notre Dame, in French-speaking regionswere not only ecclesiastical buildings commissioned and paid for in part by the church, but also municipal undertakings raised to celebrate the status and power of the cities. Often the naves of these cathedrals were owned by the city, while the transept and crossing area as well as the choir were church property.


The culture of the so-called Middle Ages in Europe, focused on the life of the church, was bolstered by Scholasticism and the infusion of Aristotelian logic through the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 12241274). By the fourteenth century, with the growth of merchant cities in Italy and the development of banking, wealthy merchants began to underwrite the new scholarly study of Roman and Greek literature and history, not so much to augment religious doctrine but for its own inherent merit and political implications. In fact, in Florence, where the powerful and enormously wealthy Medici family supported scholars and artists, the qualities of humanism were seen as demonstrating how the self-governing Florentines were superior to the autocratic rulers of other Italian states. Thus was set in motion a rebirth of ancient classical learning, a Renaissance.

The challenge of the time was to link humanist study with religious doctrine, to uncover how the knowledge of the ancients paralleled and thus supported church doctrine; the means for this was a reinvigorated Neoplatonism. Just as Scripture maintained that Adam had been made in the physical image of an all-perfect god, so too did the pagan Roman architect Vitruvius (1st cent. b.c.e.) declare that within the form of the human body could be found the modules of the most perfect geometric forms, the circle and the square. His written description was beautifully depicted in the well-known drawing by Renaissance artist/architect Leonardo da Vinci, planned as an illustration for a new edition of Vitruvius's Ten Books on Architecture : a man with outstretched arms just touches the edges of a circle and square.

The circle and square became the measure of perfect architectural form as well in scores of new churches and chapels built in Italy. Of the many examples, the small church of Santa Maria delle Carceri in Prato, designed by Giuliano da Sangalloin in 1485, shows this modular perfection well. Its basic plan is a square of about 38 feet, extended upward to the top of the main cornice to form a cube. Short half-square arms project on the four sides. Atop the internal cube span four semicircular arches (half the height of the cube), and these define four curved pendentives that carry the topmost dome, circular in plan and nearly a perfect hemisphere in section. Circles and squares, and their three-dimensional counterparts, define the edges and perimeters of this idealized building.

The Renaissance emphasis on the ability of the human mind to grasp the rational structure of the universe led Martin Luther (14831546) to analyze the New Testament in search of support of papal practices, particularly the sale of indulgences. Instead, Luther uncovered in the letters of St. Paul the assertion that salvation was God's gift through faith and repentance, not something to be parceled out by, much less purchased from, an established church and clerical hierarchy. Coupled with the desire of numerous German princes to shed the political yoke imposed by the Roman Church, Luther's church reforms led to a splintering of the church universal. Delayed in reacting to this attack, the Roman Church convened the Council of Trent (15451563) to draft responses to the Reformation split in the church. Whereas the Reformationists, to varying degrees, shunned the use of sensory aids in worshipand in certain regions of Northern Europe engaged in the wholesale destruction of paintings and statuarythe Council of Trent decreed that, on the contrary, the ordinary worshiper can only grasp the mysteries of faith with difficulty and so highly evocative painted and sculpted imagery were to be emphatically employed. A superb illustration of this dictum can be found in the highly emotive and mysteriously illuminated sculpted figure of St. Theresa found at the end of the right transept arm of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, built by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 16451652. Here in a total work of art, fusing painting, sculpture, and architectural enframement, the ecstatic divine experience of St. Theresa is shown to the common worshiper in terms of seemingly carnal ecstasy, an analogy easily understood. Architecture, merged with painting and sculpture, was to serve as an instrument of propaganda in bringing the strayed faithful back into the protective arms of Mother Church (exactly the image Bernini said he was after in the curved encircling colonnade of his new piazza in front of the huge basilica of St. Peter's in Rome).

Modern Era

The emphasis on the place of human understanding and reason, on rational analysis, initiated by the Renaissance and Reformation, reemerged in the eighteenth century.


During the so-called Age of Reason, or Age of Enlightenment, scientific analysis of the structural forces at work in a building began to be modeled mathematically, and the strength of building materials such as different woods and stones were tested and recorded in statistical tables. A good example in which the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason overlap can be seen in the Church of Saint Geneviève in Paris, begun in 1755 by architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot. Returning to the perfected forms of the Renaissance, Soufflot used a plan based on a Greek cross, with four arms of equal length extending from a central rotunda capped with a dome. Heavily influenced by what he had learned on a recent trip to southern Italy to inspect and study the ruined Greek temples at Paestum, near Naples, Soufflot used rows of structural Corinthian columns inside the church, balancing the weight of the smaller domes over the arms of the building directly on these columns. Seldom in the preceding three centuries had free-standing columns been usedas in ancient Greek architecturefor true structural support. Moreover, the great central dome was supported by slender piers. Using his knowledge of the strength of materials, Soufflot made the entire building much more delicate and lighter in appearance than had been the accepted norm. When cracks began to appear in the dome piers, construction was ordered halted while Soufflot's computations were subjected to scrutiny. Overall, Soufflot's calculations were proven to be correct, although some strengthening of the building took place. The building was finished in 1790 after Soufflot's death, but such was the shift in ideology and patronage in those tumultuous years of the French Revolution that the church was desacralized and converted to become the Panthéon, a memorial to great deceased French military and literary heroes.

United States.

The nascent utilitarianism incorporated into the design of the Panthéon was carried to the newly formed United States of America where the demands of commerce became the driving cultural force. The greatest and most innovative achievements made by American architects were not in churches, nor even in buildings to house representative government; in these they borrowed heavily from Greek and Roman and even Renaissance models. Instead their most innovative achievements were made in the design of the free-standing single family residence (as in the work of McKim, Mead & White in their early years, and in the career of Frank Lloyd Wright) but most recognizably in soaring office skyscraper towers. The first accomplishments were made in Chicago in the 1880s and 1890s in ten-and twenty-story office towers, but the lead soon passed to New York architects, who piled floor upon floor to create spires of forty and fifty stories. In an effort to attach a measure of culture and time-honored respectability to his world headquarters, Frank W. Woolworth instructed his architect Cass Gilbert to model his new fifty-five-story office building, to be named the Woolworth Building, on northern Gothic European guild halls. Although a marvel of applied engineeringfrom its massive caisson foundations extending to bedrock, to its steel frame clad in terra cotta panels, to its innovative elevator system, among scores of other technical innovationsexternally the building is Gothic in style, artfully composed, like Gothic churches, with every line straining heavenward. Here, however, the aspiration is not for heaven, but for self-advertisement, aggrandizement, and profits. Woolworth called it a "Cathedral of Commerce." The apotheosis of the American office tower was reached in the soaring 102-story Empire State Building, 19291931, begun just months before the onset of the Great Depression. The tallest building in the world, it was not surpassed in height for thirty years.

American office skyscrapers became ever taller by the mid-twentieth centurysixty, eighty, and finally a hundred stories. These were proud towers, often showing little real concern on the part of patrons or architects for the impact on urban scale. They became symbols of American enterprise, and were first exported by American corporations around the world, and then embraced by developing countries around the globe in the late twentieth century. Even where the concentration of activities into narrow soaring towers made no practical sensemost notably in the twin Petronas towers designed for Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, in 1996, by the American architect Cesar Pelli, to rise 1,476 feet or 450 meterstowers they became nonetheless, as symbols of national power and pride. Such dramatic symbols, proud, standing free in the open air, inescapable emblems of American cultural imperialism (in some viewers' eyes), proved irresistible targets for terrorists at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Damaged in 1993 by a bomb, the twin World Trade Center towers (1,368 ft., 417 m) were brought crashing to the ground on 11 September 2001, after terrorists used commercial aircraft as flying bombs. For the terrorists, the ideas represented by the towers were too loathsome to let stand.


As the twenty-first century opened, new architectural paradigms emerged. One building type that gained new cachet as the embodiment of urban identity and cultural striving was the art museum. Such commissions came to represent the pinnacle of an architect's career, particularly after Frank Gehry made the small city of Bilbao, Spain, a cultural destination with his Guggenheim Museum on the waterfront there.

Gehry's free-form undulating buildings are only one representation of postmodernism, a multifaceted philosophical and artistic expression derived from literary analysis. In many instances the drive of late-twentieth-century architects to break the strictures of conventional mid-twentieth-century modernism rendered their efforts both disjointed and self-absorbed. The counterpart to this kind of postmodernism is found in so-called developing countries around the globe. Since roughly 1950 there has been a growing reawakening in these areas to long-standing regional building cultures and building methods. This "critical regionalism" encourages architects to draw once again on the wisdom gained in centuries of construction in their regions, in preference to the imported European and American building forms and methods, with the accompanying reliance on high energy consumption for lighting, heating, and cooling buildings. This regionalism began with the work of Hasan Fathy in Egypt and his advocacy of adobe brick in vaulted and domed construction, a time-honored building method in that land, and one that used building materials available at minimal cost. More recently in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, numerous Middle Eastern countries, and generally in the Third World nations, there has been a return to traditional building forms (but often using twentieth-century materials) for various public buildings but especially for mosques because of their strong symbolic importance. In Sri Lanka, architect Geoffrey Bawa drew on imagery associated with traditional small-scale village meeting houses for his expansive Sri Lanka Parliament building complex; its recognizable broad overhanging eaves and open pavilion-like structures providing shade and free movement of air in this tropical country.

Around the globe, as the twenty-first century began there was rising interest in sustainable building design and construction, in using materials in ways that minimize toxic production methods, and in using natural sunlight for energy and natural air movement and water for cooling. In this way, over time, the impact of such architecture on public resources will be limited and the total social and economic cost minimized. Among many late-twentieth-century architects who drew on this design philosophy, one whose work is particularly interesting is Ken Yeang of Malaysia. His thirty-two-story MBF Tower in Penang employs the skyscraper tower form, a symbol of progressive modernity, but also uses traditional ideas such as curved external terraces and separation of elements to promote natural ventilation in place of massive cooling machinery.

These examples demonstrate that there need be no elemental conflict between the use of modern materials such as concrete, glass, steel, and aluminum in the creation of traditional forms that reflect long-established ways of living and also make accommodation to local climatic conditions.

See also Aesthetics ; Arts ; Modernism ; Postmodernism ; Sacred Places .


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Leland M. Roth

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