How the art and science of building evolved along the parallel axes of the philosophical and the pragmatic.
“Art is a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use,” legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously observed. Indeed, this convergence of practicality and beauty is perhaps the central defining characteristic of architecture itself, and of every meaningful development that has pushed the discipline forward over the millennia. In 100 Ideas that Changed Architecture (public library), Cardiff University architecture professor Richard Weston and British publisher Laurence King — who brought us 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, and the epic Saul Bass monograph — trace the most influential cornerstones of architectural ideology and practice, arranged chronologically, from the fireplace (idea #1) to the term “the everyday” (idea #100), by way of the arch (idea #10), symmetry (idea #25), utopia (idea #32), the elevator (idea #49), empathy (idea #55), “less is more” (idea #74), and sustainability (idea #95).
Weston writes in the introduction:
Surprisingly few of the ideas are philosophical or theoretical in character; indeed, some readers may wonder whether some of them — like Fireplace with which the book begins, and Wall and Brick which quickly follow — are ideas at all….
‘Ideas’ that really change the practical art of architecture are not just the relatively few grand philosophical bodies of thought that shape civilizations, but frequently altogether more humble ideas like a brick or reinforcing concrete with rods of steel. Everything that humans make begins, ultimately, with an idea: not, perhaps, those we think of as patentable — the kind cartoonists like to represent as a bulb flashing in a scientist’s head — but as a guiding concept that, for example, tells a stonemason how to shape and place stone on stone to create an arch which, as if by magic, makes it possible to defy gravity and make an opening in a wall. Many such ideas must have occurred independently to different people in different places and the moment when the metaphorical bulb first flashed will never be known — but this does not diminish their importance.
‘A door,’ observed the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck, ‘is a place made for an occasion.’ The language is personal, but the thought universal: although necessary for security, privacy, and climatic protection, doors transcend the demands of function by mediating the moment of entering and leaving a building or room.
‘Without symmetry and proportion there can be no principles in the design of any temple; that is, if there is no precise relation between its members as in the case of those of a well shaped man.’ Thus wrote Vitruvius in his Ten Books of Architecture, restating a belief that descends from the Pythagorean tradition of mathematics and number mysticism in Greek philosophy, but began in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where dimensions were derived from the symmetry and proportions of the body.
One of the most pervasive ideas in the West is that the ultimate reality is based in the mind or ideas. In Western thought, and indeed in architecture, this has led to an attempt to represent things in an ideal form, as they ought to be rather than as they are.
Idea # 27: PARTICULARITY In philosophy, the word ‘particulars’ is used to describe concrete things existing in space and time, which stand in opposition to abstractions. The word ‘particular’ may not come to mind as readily as ideas infused with the Platonic world view — form, ideal, symmetry, proportion — but it describes recurring attitudes in architecture, from responding to the genius loci and a concern for place rather than space, to designing in the nature of materials.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s determination to design houses in response to the particular qualities of a site is seen at its most spectacular in Fallingwater (1935) where everything, from the overall ‘geological’ stratification to a concrete trellis wrapped around a tree trunk reflects this aspiration.
As its derivation from the Greek words for ‘chief’ and ‘carpenter’ suggests, the term ‘architect’ is ancient. The current idea of the architect as an independent professional knowledgeable in all aspects of design and construction, however, has more recent roots in the Renaissance and was consolidated only in the eighteenth century.
It takes only a few moments’ reflection to realize that many of the most potent ideas that have changed architecture are of this seemingly prosaic character. One of the most celebrated in Modern architecture, the free plan, for example, would have been impossible without the development of the central heating systems that liberated architects from the discipline of accommodating fireplaces and chimneys and, in time, teenagers from the constraints of continual parental supervision — just as the chimney had previously enabled the development of grand houses with many private rooms or apartments.
Architectural histories emphasize the structural frames that made possible the tall buildings that have transformed cities worldwide. Equally important, however, was the passenger elevator, without which frequent circulation beyond a few stories becomes impracticable.
Axonometric projection is one of several means of representing a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface; unlike the more familiar technique of perspective projection it does not suggest how the object might appear to the eye. Lines to not converge to one or more vanishing points but remain parallel, enabling all dimensions to be preserved true to chosen scale.
At once an essential primer and a useful timeline, 100 Ideas that Changed Architecture is quite possibly the best thing since Matthew Frederick’s modern classic, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.
Images courtesy of Laurence King