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Western Architecture

Edward D. Levinson / Gilon Levinson


Chapters 1 through 10

History of Western Architecture

From the Straits of Gibraltar to the shores of the Black Sea, from the banks of the Danube in Germany to the Rhone river in France, welcome to Architectural History One. We are going to be discussing, investigating, and analyzing Western Architectural History from Primitive times through the Gothic Period. But I must warn you - nothing in academia is held sacred by me; my thoughts and words are often iconoclastic. I question a lot, and hope you will, too. I believe that in academic circles that is called "critical thinking." Sometimes it is just plain curiosity. And we will often wander off our path in order to clarify a point, but we should come back together, so stay with me.

The Introduction to Architecture "Why Man Builds," deals with the basics of the course: "What is Architecture?"  "Why do we study Architecture?" and, lastly, "Why do people build things?"  We shall discuss these topics philosophically, and develop a definition of Architecture, and its elements: function, structure, and aesthetics.  We shall begin with a discussion of Primitive Architecture, describing the basic forms of construction, which include Post and Lintel, and Corbel development.  We will also discuss arches and vaults, trusses, and cantilevers all more advanced than basic primitive, but never-the-less necessary in our understanding of Architecture.  The geographical areas to be discussed in this Session include Spain, Italy, and England.  In Spain we shall look at Neolithic construction in Antequera, specifically the Dolmens of Viera, Romeral, and Menga.  Italy gives us the Trulli in Alberobello.  In England, of course, Stonehenge, located on the Plains of Salisbury.

And to put it all in perspective - Architecture, Past Present Future and where did it all really begin, where have we been, and where does it all lead?


Well, once upon a time a farmer plowed a piece of land, a shepherd built a fence, and land use, land design, and architecture began. People banded together for protection from the elements, from other people. They banded together for collective hunting, for farming, for trading. First in caves, then in buildings.

These people and their buildings became cities, and cities developed – along trade routes, at crossroads of those routes, at ports. Cities like Jerusalem, Avignon, Constantinople, Venice, Toledo, Florence, Cologne, New York, San Francisco, Toronto.

Cities were pools of skill, centers of culture and administration, of protection, of religion, of commerce. They were concentrations of people huddled together in the safety of enclosing walls. Cities required water, food, supplies, and power sources. The growth of tightly-knit masses of peoples, of cities, was a major part of the civilizing influence. And Architecture, of course, played more than a key role.


People became cities, and cities piled up inside of protective walls. Sometimes the walls were rebuilt, new rings of walls added. More often, cities became vertical. Buildings became skyscrapers in recent times, and skyscrapers piled up. Paths became streets which in turn became expressways, and expressways piled up into ribbons of “spaghetti.” Rivers, which once hosted barges, became sewers, and sewers and their pollution piled up.


There was a time when the city and its buildings was a world; now the world has become a city. But a city in trouble. The future of our cities lies in the solving of the following global issues:

1. Population explosions – either natural or through immigration.

2. Change from an agricultural to an urban society.

3. Free time and surplus created by automation and computerization.

4. Struggles for equal rights and self-determination.

5. Attempts to eliminate poverty.

6. Giant industrial, military, and governmental complexes.

7. Speed of transmission of ideas, and transportation of goods.

8. Nuclear threats / terrorism.

What's all this got to do with Architecture? Architects today and in the future should be involved in not only design of single buildings, but land planning, civic design, possibly even politics. We need to create order out of chaos. And ordinary citizens – you, taking this course – SHOULD become aware of all that surrounds you. And perhaps get back to downtown, create a Master Plan. Philadelphia created the first such Plan in the Post-World War II era, with a Master Plan in 1949. But then industries pulled out and the city almost went bankrupt. Best laid plans of mice and men? Paris, first under President Francois Mitterand, then Parisian Mayor and later President Jacques Chirac, formulated and developed the “Grands Projets,” which saved the view of the Eiffel Tower from being obliterated by surrounding skyscrapers. They brought a halt to indiscriminate skyscraper development, creating instead La Défense, which clustered high rises together in a planned environment. Then in 2005 Clichy-sous-Blois, a Parisian suburb, and home of St. Denis, which we shall study extensively, blew up in a riotous conflagration.

Just as had Detroit in 1965, where two years before they had received the first American Institute of Architecture Citation for “Excellence in Community Architecture for their vision in implementing a comprehensive plan for the central thirty square miles, which will transform and revitalize this metropolitan region.” Army tanks rolled into the city in 1968, accompanied by the staccato of machine-gun fire. City officials continued to delude themselves, running the following ad in a national travel magazine in 1970:

When god asked Detroit what it wanted to be...Detroit replied..A city of people. All kinds. Businessmen and assemblyline workers. Tree trimmers and secretaries. A city of places. Nightclubs and restaurants. Symphonies and outdoor markets. Department stores and churches. And a city with country around it. With farms and lakes and parks. god answered Detroit (with his face breaking into a smile): “Why not?””

Now the definition of “city” is good, but whose god could have looked down and uttered such thoughts – about Detroit – a city which had not even cleaned up its mess, both physical and emotional. Was this god perhaps General Motors, or Ford, or...God only knows whose “god” this was.

In 2011, Detroit is cutting the number of their public schools in half, placing sixty students in high school classrooms. The city has gone bankrupt, and lost more than one half million citizens since 1970. Fifty percent of its citizens are functionally illiterate. Estimates have put unemployment at twenty-eight (28) percent as of this writing. Forbes Magazine listed Detroit as the fifteenth most miserable city in the United States.

Miami in 1968 and again in 1980 (albeit without planning of any kind to blame), hosted riots, which brought death (eighteen murdered) and destruction ($200 million) in 1980. In 2011, Forbes Magazine ranked Miami as the second most miserable city in the United States. Only its weather and lack of a State Income tax kept it from being number One. Political corruption, long commutes, violent crime, precipitously falling housing values, have taken Miami from the number six position to number two. Still no planning. There is not even a Master Plan for the downtown Central Business District. But then again, of what value are plans? We'll get into “plans” later, see “Rod McKuen.”

One answer, however, is an Architecturally educated populace. A short note: the city of Ottawa, Canada, decided to keep its population at one half million, so the government achieved control over a sixty-five (65) square mile area surrounding the city. The land will remain farmland, containing a few governmental buildings, and will provide the closeness of the country to the city. The city will achieve a balance with nature. In fact, it offers “Primers” on land-use decisions and the planning process.

Another aspect of future planning, some of which has already begun, is designing for flexibility in the event of total change of the function of a building. Some Architects are assuming this responsibility. We can take this concept a step further. We could say that if the “father” of Architectural design is planning, then the “mother” of design is form, and the “union” of their relationship is function. The amount of care, of nurturing of the Architectural design, of thinking of future problems and providing for those problems with contingencies for special growth, for change, for adaptation – all of this care and concern for not just today, or opening day, but for future days and future populations, will determine the success or failure of the function.

To end this introduction on a more pleasant note, think of your favorite city – what makes it that? The buildings, the public squares, plazas, piazzas? The intimate little nooks and crannies – the side-streets and cafes with their sense of human scale, making you comfortable? What, after all, are these, if not bits and pieces of architecture?

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