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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 Basics:

The learning process is sometimes one of questioning and searching for answers. So our line-up of questions begins with:

  1. "What is architecture?"

  2. The next question will be: "Why do we study architecture?"

  3. And then: "Why do people build things?"

First, What Is Architecture?

Louis Kahn (1901 -1974), my Graduate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who was a philosopher-architect, said: "Architecture is the thoughtful making of space." Now space has to be created by some sort of form, and just what shape that form takes - well, throughout history there have been an almost infinite variety of forms, which we can call architecture. Perhaps we can trace some notion backward in time from an architectural expression so popular it is now used in commercial advertising for just about everything but architecture. Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) developed the popular expression: "form follows function."

Going a bit further, Louis Kahn coined the expression "form evokes function." As an example, Kahn said if you design a chapel for a university, a multi-denominational chapel where students could go to pray (perhaps that they pass their next exam), he said you should design it, of course, so that when you went into the chapel you would be able to perform or partake in whatever religious ceremony you needed or wanted. He also said that you might not want to go inside to partake in an organized ceremony. Instead, Kahn suggested, you might want to walk through an atrium (in religious structures, a forecourt or cloister might be a more appropriate description). There you would be able to walk about, as in the forecourts of ancient synagogues, or the cloisters in which monks and nuns have walked for centuries, and prayed or meditated or contemplated anything. Kahn suggested a colonnade or arcade, some shelter, yet out of doors. Lastly, Kahn's expression of "form evokes function" - if a student could walk past the chapel, not enter it or even stroll through the cloistered area, just walk past and wink at the building, and feel as though he or she had been involved in a religious experience, then the architect had succeeded in evoking the function of the chapel.

You should be able to believe that in both cases - form following function and form evoking function - each architect meant: 'form should follow function,' and then: 'form should evoke function.' It has not always been as the two architects stated. Now as you go through life, perhaps as an architect, perhaps as a client, perhaps as a student, do keep in mind the notion of "winking" at a building, and see if some feeling is evoked in the process. It is an ultimate challenge for a designer as well as for an architect, and as we go through the history of architecture, let's see if we can find examples of this evoking sensation.

On a lighter, simpler vein, Kahn said that a library should be so designed, that while you were in the library, you would want to pull a book off of the shelf and sit down and read it, right there! Major bookstore chains seem to have picked up on this notion, now serving coffee and pastries in addition to providing very comfortable seating arrangements. Libraries, sadly, have not kept pace.

My own definition of architecture involves buildings. Bear in mind not all buildings are deemed worthy of being called architecture - the backyard shed you bought pre-packaged at Sears, your corner strip shopping center waiting to be disassembled in the next flood, hurricane, or tornado - think about it. Technically, building and zoning codes classify those objects as "architecture." However, in the artistic realm of history, we're not dealing with true "architecture” in these instances, just 'buildings.'

I would suggest that architecture results from a need, and involves discernible structure, a sculptural massing, and some aesthetically pleasing result of the two. Ian McHarg (1921-2001), Landscape Architect and Environmentalist said: "form expresses process," with process being defined as a systematic series of actions directed to some end. All of this can be summed up simply with the following basic elements of architecture:

1. Function (use)

2. Structure (construction methods and materials)

3. Aesthetics (beauty / artistic endeavor)

A digression - In researching background for this writing, it has - at this moment (2001) - come to my attention that my former Professor Ian McHarg passed away within the last month. His ideas about landscaping, the environment, and development have influenced communities throughout the world. What became known as "McHarg's Method" involved the process mentioned above - that of having planners inventory every level of detail about a place, from the rock layers to the vegetation to the hydrology - and then take all of this into account when developing the site. Prof. McHarg's lament was that most architects and planners do not go through this process. He also railed against the "New Urbanism" - a concept of "village" creations - often in the midst of quite unsuited urban fabric (this will be introduced in the second part of this History). His text “Design with Nature” has become a standard for Landscape Architects - both professionals as well as students.

This brings an admonition: we can learn from and study the past, preserve it where appropriate (see Eric Severeid's declaration below), but we should not copy that past. McHarg preached about the need to be responsive to the physical and social environment when we design. What we must do, and hopefully will explore and discover in this course, is to seek the principles of good design exhibited in the past, learn from those principles, and apply only where and as applicable. There is a "native" American expression: "Remember the Past… Imagine the Future." This is especially appropriate to this History. As we study the past, we should imagine that our learning could help to shape our future.

On a very mundane note, the New Oxford American Dictionary defines architecture as: “the art or practice of designing and constructing buildings.”

Second: Why Do We Study Architecture?

So often, clever sayings, which describe things architectural, are often best rendered by non-architects. Here's the first: Eric Severeid, a journalist, said in 1977:

"A society which loses its symbols loses its identity,

and becomes a stranger unto itself."

He wasn't speaking of architecture, but he could have been. I cannot think of a better reason to study the history of architecture, in this specific course: Western Architecture. We're going to begin in Europe, go eastward as far as present-day Istanbul (the European side actually), then return to Europe. This course will take us through the Gothic period, ending at the threshold of the Renaissance. Stay on-line for the presentation of The History of Western Architecture Two.

There are, of course, additional reasons, practical ones. We study history so that we won't repeat its mistakes. Prior to structural formulas sitting in computers, things collapsed before they were made safe. In this respect we still have a lot to learn from the past. So, too, with aesthetic things. A major theme, which will run through this course, is:

The integration of art with architecture throughout history.

These thoughts will be explored once we answer our next question.

Third: Why Do People Build Things?

See if you can come up with the answer. Think for a moment. First, there were trees. Our ancestors hung out in them, probably literally. Then in our wanderings, we found caves. But in the open plains, the fertile lands of the Jordan Valley, for instance, where Jericho is located, there were no natural living places. Here, a region in which paths crossed, roads coming and going, people in transit, people harvesting things, trading or selling or buying - people had to build permanent construction. We can now trace this back to about 8,000 B.C.E.; construction which can be called 'architecture.' In the "Fertile Crescent" - the land "between rivers" - the Tigris and Euphrates - known as Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), people began to build about 4,000 B.C.E., in an area without forests and caves. No natural protection! They had to create their own shelter.

There you have the answer. People needed to keep out of the rain, out of the snow, needed to be warm when it was cold, cool when it was hot. Throughout history people have been confronted with a need for shelter resulting from climatic conditions. In their search for shelter, there has often been an innate instinct to combine beauty with that shelter, which moved people towards an emotionally rich environment. Available building materials and technological capabilities of their time and place determined the results, which we call architecture.

Vitruvius (Marcus Vitruvius Pollio c.90-20 B.C.E.) writing in his collection "De Architectura," spoke of "commodity, firmness, and delight," which we could translate into present-day terms of "function, structure, and aesthetics."

1. Function: History has shown that people strove to create a better way of life through their architecture, aiming constantly for an ideal of convenience. Protection from the forces of nature has been a prime motivating factor in the history of architecture. Once that primary need has been met, methods and materials of construction are developed to upgrade levels of convenience.

2. Structure: Architecture has followed many directions in construction aimed at an ideal of an efficient use of materials, technology and labor. R. Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller (1895-1983), an architect, philosopher, and poet, searched for "ways of doing more with less." He lectured that the goal of every architect was to create the most space with the least material. That concept has manifested itself throughout much of history.

3. Aesthetics: There seemingly has always been a direction in architecture, which included beauty, and which led towards an ideal of an emotionally rich environment. Primitive societies developed artistic sensitivity, expressing with their hands - through sculpture and painting - feelings they had about their surroundings, life and death, other people, and their gods.

The history of architecture becomes a history of the struggle to create a man-made environment on earth, defying the elements, including gravity. It is the history of the rise, development, and decline of building techniques.

In the past, however - not always, but upon occasion - once having mastered structural problems, architects often did not know how to continue, and so they would begin to play games with form and structure. Now whether or not they had fun playing those games, we will never know. They embellished. They decorated, but not in an integrated fashion, they just pasted on details that had no structural or intrinsic value; we'll see examples of this. Musicians do something similar. Opera singers, for instance, perhaps due to serious egos, will add notes, flourishes, etc., which embellish the original score. Listening to reproductions of the 'three tenors' in concert, you'll hear them competing by the addition to, and strength of, notes. One example in architectural history is the flamboyant extravagance of the late French Gothic period. Also, later, the Rococo. More recently, unfortunately, has been the play of Post Modernists who, in the United States at least, just didn't know what to do with modern architecture, so they embellished their designs with costuming from the past. There was no sense of delight or joy as in the French flamboyant. If this is an oversimplification, so be it.

Today, unfortunately, every building that rises out of the ground is dubbed "architecture." But try to remember that aesthetics needs to enter the equation.

Basic construction materials used throughout history have been wood and masonry; stone, brick, concrete, marble, iron, and more recently steel, followed. Wood structures are not very durable, and if durability was an objective, stone was substituted, when and where available. If there was clay in the ground, brick was used. If there was wood for creating fire, the brick was "baked." If there were insufficient supplies of wood, then the bricks were dried in the sun (not as durable as the oven-baked items). Concrete seemed to have originated in Roman times, a little more than 2000 years ago, although mortar was used earlier .

But an isolated archaeological find in Israel has revealed the use of concrete floor slabs, created about 9000 years ago. Source: CONCRETE CONSTRUCTION MAGAZINE 
Publication date: January 15, 2009. Glass seems to have existed in the days of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but faded from existence for window use during the early Middle Ages. Why?

This availability of raw materials, combined with a technological process for producing those materials, have been factors in determining architectural ways of designing. In many instances functional needs and requirements resulted in discoveries of new materials and/or methods of construction.

As cities grew crowded at the end of the nineteenth century, mostly due to the Industrial Revolution, downtown real estate became expensive. There was a realization that if buildings could climb skyward, space could be saved, money could be made. Masonry structures lost too much area to pure structural needs. You have to pile bricks and stones on top of each other as you climb, but the base has to be quite large, and you have to set back as you go up. The ziggurats and stepped pyramids of ancient Egypt exemplified that. Steel began to be used commonly near the end of the 19th century, replacing shorter, heavier masonry structures. Frank Lloyd Wright seems to have been the first to combine steel with concrete, giving us "reinforced concrete," which began to rival steel as a structural component. Do realize that construction cannot advance without companion technology; skyscrapers could not have been developed without the invention of the elevator!

Basically, materials used in construction, and the principles involved in assembling those materials, are both means to an end: the enclosure of a volume of space, the size and arrangement of which will be determined by the use of the building.

© Architecture Past Present & Future - Edward D. Levinson, 2009

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