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Background Information

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Section and elevation of Brunelleschi's dome of Florence Cathedral.

Architecture (Latin architectura, from the Greek ἀρχιτέκτων – arkhitekton, from ἀρχι- "chief" and τέκτων "builder, carpenter, mason") is both the process and product of planning, designing and construction. Architectural works, in the material form of buildings, are often perceived as cultural symbols and as works of art. Historical civilizations are often identified with their surviving architectural achievements.

"Architecture" can mean:

  • A general term to describe buildings and other physical structures.
  • The art and science of designing and erecting buildings and other physical structures.
  • The style and method of design and construction of buildings and other physical structures.
  • The practice of the architect, where architecture means the offering or rendering of professional services in connection with the design and construction of buildings, or built environments.
  • The design activity of the architect, from the macro-level ( urban design, landscape architecture) to the micro-level (construction details and furniture).
  • The term "architecture" has been adopted to describe the activity of designing any kind of system, and is commonly used in describing information technology.

In relation to buildings, architecture has to do with the planning, designing and constructing form, space and ambience that reflect functional, technical, social, environmental, and aesthetic considerations. It requires the creative manipulation and coordination of material, technology, light and shadow. Architecture also encompasses the pragmatic aspects of realizing buildings and structures, including scheduling, cost estimating and construction administration. As documentation produced by architects, typically drawings, plans and technical specifications, architecture defines the structure and/or behaviour of a building or any other kind of system that is to be or has been constructed.

View of Florence showing the dome, which dominates everything around it.  It is octagonal in plan and ovoid in section.  It has wide ribs rising to the apex with red tiles in between and a marble lantern on top.
Brunelleschi, in the building of the dome, not only transformed the cathedral and the city of Florence, but also the role and status of the architect.

Theory of architecture

Historic treatises

The Parthenon is a rectangular building of white marble with eight columns supporting a pediment at the front, and a long line of columns visible at the side
The Parthenon, Athens, Greece, "the supreme example among architectural sites." (Fletcher).

The earliest surviving written work on the subject of architecture is De architectura, by the Roman architect Vitruvius in the early 1st century AD. According to Vitruvius, a good building should satisfy the three principles of firmitas, utilitas, venustas, which translate roughly as –

  • Durability – it should stand up robustly and remain in good condition.
  • Utility – it should be useful and function well for the people using it.
  • Beauty – it should delight people and raise their spirits.

According to Vitruvius, the architect should strive to fulfill each of these three attributes as well as possible. Leone Battista Alberti, who elaborates on the ideas of Vitruvius in his treatise, De Re Aedificatoria, saw beauty primarily as a matter of proportion, although ornament also played a part. For Alberti, the rules of proportion were those that governed the idealised human figure, the Golden mean. The most important aspect of beauty was therefore an inherent part of an object, rather than something applied superficially; and was based on universal, recognisable truths. The notion of style in the arts was not developed until the 16th century, with the writing of Vasari. The treatises, by the 18th century, had been translated into Italian, French, Spanish and English.

The Houses of Parliament in London, seen across the river, are a large Victorian Gothic building with two big towers and many pinnacles
The Houses of Parliament, Westminster, by Charles Barry, with interiors by A.W.N. Pugin

In the early nineteenth century, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin wrote Contrasts (1836) that, as the titled suggested, contrasted the modern, industrial world, which he disparaged, with an idealized image of neo-medieval world. Gothic architecture, Pugin believed, was the only "true Christian form of architecture."

The 19th century English art critic, John Ruskin, in his Seven Lamps of Architecture, published 1849, was much narrower in his view of what constituted architecture. Architecture was the "art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by men ... that the sight of them" contributes "to his mental health, power, and pleasure".

For Ruskin, the aesthetic was of overriding significance. His work goes on to state that a building is not truly a work of architecture unless it is in some way "adorned". For Ruskin, a well-constructed, well-proportioned, functional building needed string courses or rustication, at the very least.

On the difference between the ideals of "architecture" and mere " construction", the renowned 20th C. architect Le Corbusier wrote: "You employ stone, wood, and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces: that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say: This is beautiful. That is Architecture".

By contrast, le Corbusier's contemporary, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said that architecture begins "when 2 bricks are put together."

 The view shows a 20th century building with two identical towers very close two each other rising from a low building which has a dome at one end, and an inverted dome, like a saucer, at the other.
The National Congress of Brazil, designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

Modern concepts of architecture

The great 19th century architect of skyscrapers, Louis Sullivan, promoted an overriding precept to architectural design: " Form follows function".

While the notion that structural and aesthetic considerations should be entirely subject to functionality was met with both popularity and skepticism, it had the effect of introducing the concept of "function" in place of Vitruvius' "utility". "Function" came to be seen as encompassing all criteria of the use, perception and enjoyment of a building, not only practical but also aesthetic, psychological and cultural.

The Sydney Opera House appears to float on the harbour. It has numerous roof-sections which are shaped like huge shining white sails
Sydney Opera House, Australia designed by Jørn Utzon.

Nunzia Rondanini stated, "Through its aesthetic dimension architecture goes beyond the functional aspects that it has in common with other human sciences. Through its own particular way of expressing values, architecture can stimulate and influence social life without presuming that, in and of itself, it will promote social development.'

To restrict the meaning of (architectural) formalism to art for art's sake is not only reactionary; it can also be a purposeless quest for perfection or originality which degrades form into a mere instrumentality".

Among the philosophies that have influenced modern architects and their approach to building design are rationalism, empiricism, structuralism, poststructuralism, and phenomenology.

In the late 20th century a new concept was added to those included in the compass of both structure and function, the consideration of sustainability. To satisfy the contemporary ethos a building should be constructed in a manner which is environmentally friendly in terms of the production of its materials, its impact upon the natural and built environment of its surrounding area and the demands that it makes upon non-sustainable power sources for heating, cooling, water and waste management and lighting.


Origins and vernacular architecture

A small hut composed entirely of split logs, and raised above the ground on stout upright stumps.
Vernacular architecture in Norway.

Building first evolved out of the dynamics between needs (shelter, security, worship, etc.) and means (available building materials and attendant skills). As human cultures developed and knowledge began to be formalized through oral traditions and practices, building became a craft, and "architecture" is the name given to the most highly formalized and respected versions of that craft.

It is widely assumed that architectural success was the product of a process of trial and error, with progressively less trial and more replication as the results of the process proved increasingly satisfactory. What is termed vernacular architecture continues to be produced in many parts of the world. Indeed, vernacular buildings make up most of the built world that people experience every day. Early human settlements were mostly rural. Due to a surplus in production the economy began to expand resulting in urbanization thus creating urban areas which grew and evolved very rapidly in some cases, such as that of Çatal Höyük in Anatolia and Mohenjo Daro of the Indus Valley Civilization in modern-day Pakistan.

The three main Pyramids at Gizeh shown rising from the desert sands with three smaller pyramids in front of them
The Pyramids at Giza in Egypt.

Ancient architecture

In many ancient civilizations, such as those of Egypt and Mesopotamia, architecture and urbanism reflected the constant engagement with the divine and the supernatural, and many ancient cultures resorted to monumentality in architecture to represent symbolically the political power of the ruler, the ruling elite, or the state itself.

The architecture and urbanism of the Classical civilizations such as the Greek and the Roman evolved from civic ideals rather than religious or empirical ones and new building types emerged. Architectural "style" developed in the form of the Classical orders.

Texts on architecture have been written since ancient time. These texts provided both general advice and specific formal prescriptions or canons. Some examples of canons are found in the writings of the 1st-century BCE Roman military engineer Vitruvius. Some of the most important early examples of canonic architecture are religious.

 The Golden Pavilion is a building of three storeys with encircling balconies and curving roofs, overlooking a tranquil lake and woods
Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto, Japan

Asian architecture

Early Asian writings on architecture include the Kao Gong Ji of China from the 7th–5th centuries BCE; the Vaastu Shastra of ancient India and Manjusri Vasthu Vidya Sastra of Sri Lanka.

The architecture of different parts of Asia developed along different lines from that of Europe; Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh architecture each having different characteristics. Buddhist architecture, in particular, showed great regional diversity. In many Asian countries a pantheistic religion led to architectural forms that were designed specifically to enhance the natural landscape.

The Taj Mahal is a mosque-like structure of white marble with an onion-shaped dome, and a tall marble minaret at each corner
The Taj Mahal (1632–1653), in India

Islamic architecture

Islamic architecture began in the 7th century CE, incorporating architectural forms from the ancient Middle East and Byzantium, but also developing features to suit the religious and social needs of the society. Examples can be found throughout the Middle East, North Africa, Spain and the Indian Sub-continent. The widespread application of the pointed arch was to influence European architecture of the Medieval period.

The medieval builder

Notre Dame, Paris, is a grand Gothic cathedral with Towers at one end and a small spire rising from the centre of the roof.
Notre Dame de Paris, France

In Europe, in both the Classical and Medieval periods, buildings were not often attributed to specific individuals and the names of architects remain frequently unknown, despite the vast scale of the many religious buildings extant from this period.

During the Medieval period guilds were formed by craftsmen to organize their trade and written contracts have survived, particularly in relation to ecclesiastical buildings. The role of architect was usually one with that of master mason, or Magister lathomorum as they are sometimes described in contemporary documents.

La Rotunda is a domed domestic building of which two sides can be seen, with identical classical porticos, indicating that it is the same on all sides.
La Rotonda (1567), Italy by Palladio

Renaissance and the architect

In Renaissance Europe, from about 1400 onwards, there was a revival of Classical learning accompanied by the development of Renaissance Humanism which placed greater emphasis on the role of the individual in society than had been the case during the Medieval period. Buildings were ascribed to specific architects – Brunelleschi, Alberti, Michelangelo, Palladio – and the cult of the individual had begun. There was still no dividing line between artist, architect and engineer, or any of the related vocations, and the appellation was often one of regional preference.

A revival of the Classical style in architecture was accompanied by a burgeoning of science and engineering which affected the proportions and structure of buildings. At this stage, it was still possible for an artist to design a bridge as the level of structural calculations involved was within the scope of the generalist.

Early modern and the industrial age

The Opera House in Paris is an ornate 19th century building decorated with much sculptured detail.
Paris Opera by Charles Garnier (1875), France

With the emerging knowledge in scientific fields and the rise of new materials and technology, architecture and engineering began to separate, and the architect began to concentrate on aesthetics and the humanist aspects, often at the expense of technical aspects of building design. There was also the rise of the "gentleman architect" who usually dealt with wealthy clients and concentrated predominantly on visual qualities derived usually from historical prototypes, typified by the many country houses of Great Britain that were created in the Neo Gothic or Scottish Baronial styles. Formal architectural training in the 19th century, for example at Ecole des Beaux Arts in France, gave much emphasis to the production of beautiful drawings and little to context and feasibility. Effective architects generally received their training in the offices of other architects, graduating to the role from draughtsmen or clerks.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution laid open the door for mass production and consumption. Aesthetics became a criterion for the middle class as ornamented products, once within the province of expensive craftsmanship, became cheaper under machine production.

Vernacular architecture became increasingly ornamental. House builders could use current architectural design in their work by combining features found in pattern books and architectural journals.

Modernism and reaction

The Bauhaus Dessau architecture department from 1925 by Walter Gropius

Around the turn of the 20th century, a general dissatisfaction with the emphasis on revivalist architecture and elaborate decoration gave rise to many new lines of thought that served as precursors to Modern Architecture. Notable among these is the Deutscher Werkbund, formed in 1907 to produce better quality machine made objects. The rise of the profession of industrial design is usually placed here. Following this lead, the Bauhaus school, founded in Weimar, Germany in 1919, redefined the architectural bounds prior set throughout history, viewing the creation of a building as the ultimate synthesis—the apex—of art, craft, and technology.

When Modern architecture was first practiced, it was an avant-garde movement with moral, philosophical, and aesthetic underpinnings. Immediately after World War I, pioneering modernist architects sought to develop a completely new style appropriate for a new post-war social and economic order, focused on meeting the needs of the middle and working classes. They rejected the architectural practice of the academic refinement of historical styles which served the rapidly declining aristocratic order. The approach of the Modernist architects was to reduce buildings to pure forms, removing historical references and ornament in favour of functionalist details. Buildings displayed their functional and structural elements, exposing steel beams and concrete surfaces instead of hiding them behind decorative forms.

Fallingwater, Organic architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright developed Organic architecture in which the form was defined by its environment and purpose, with an aim to promote harmony between human habitation and the natural world with prime examples being Robie House and Falling Water.

The Crystal Cathedral is a built in a modern style with panels of glass set in metal frames making both the walls and roof. A tall tower of the same materials rises beside it
The Crystal Cathedral, California, by Philip Johnson (1980)

Architects such as Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson and Marcel Breuer worked to create beauty based on the inherent qualities of building materials and modern construction techniques, trading traditional historic forms for simplified geometric forms, celebrating the new means and methods made possible by the Industrial Revolution, including steel-frame construction, which gave birth to high-rise superstructures. By mid-century, Modernism had morphed into the International Style, an aesthetic epitomized in many ways by the Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Centre.

Many architects resisted Modernism, finding it devoid of the decorative richness of ornamented styles and as the founders of that movement lost influence in the late 1970s, Postmodernism developed as a reaction against its austerity. Postmodernism viewed Modernism as being too extreme and even harsh in regards to design. Instead, Postmodernists combined Modernism with older styles from before the 1900s to form a middle ground. Robert Venturi's contention that a "decorated shed" (an ordinary building which is functionally designed inside and embellished on the outside) was better than a "duck" (an ungainly building in which the whole form and its function are tied together) gives an idea of these approaches.

Architecture today

The Railway station in Lisbon has a fibreglass roof supported on piers with radiating arms resembling Gothic columns, arches and vaults
Postmodern design at Gare do Oriente, Lisbon, Portugal, by Santiago Calatrava.

Since the 1980s, as the complexity of buildings began to increase (in terms of structural systems, services, energy and technologies), the field of architecture became multi-disciplinary with specializations for each project type, technological expertise or project delivery methods. In addition, there has been an increased separation of the 'design' architect from the 'project' architect who ensures that the project meets the required standards and deals with matters of liability. The preparatory processes for the design of any large building have become increasingly complicated, and require preliminary studies of such matters as durability, sustainability, quality, money, and compliance with local laws. A large structure can no longer be the design of one person but must be the work of many. Modernism and Postmodernism, have been criticised by some members of the architectural profession, such as Christopher Alexander, who felt that successful architecture was not a personal philosophical or aesthetic pursuit by individualists; rather it had to consider everyday needs of people and use technology to create liveable environments, with the design process being informed by studies of behavioural, environmental, and social sciences.

 A low building has a roof completely covered with soil and grass. It appears to be built into a hillside
Green roof planted with native species at L'Historial de la Vendée, a new museum in western France.

Environmental sustainability has become a mainstream issue, with profound affect on the architectural profession. Many developers, those who support the financing of buildings, have become educated to encourage the facilitation of environmentally sustainable design, rather than solutions based primarily on immediate cost. Major examples of this can be found in greener roof designs, biodegradable materials,and more attention to a structure's energy usage. This major shift in architecture has also changed architecture schools to focus more on the environment. Sustainability in architecture was pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright, in the 1960s by Buckminster Fuller and in the 1970s by architects such as Ian McHarg and Sim Van der Ryn in the US and Brenda and Robert Vale in the UK and New Zealand. There has been an acceleration in the number of buildings which seek to meet green building sustainable design principles. Sustainable practices that were at the core of vernacular architecture increasingly provide inspiration for environmentally and socially sustainable contemporary techniques. The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system has been instrumental in this. An example of an architecturally innovative green building is the Dynamic Tower which will be powered by wind turbines and solar panels.

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