Brain Pickings

100 Ideas That Changed Architecture

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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.

Idea # 4: COLUMN AND BEAM

Steel frames, consisting of vast networks of columns and beams, have been the preferred structure for tall buildings in the U.S. since the late nineteenth century.

Idea # 5: DOOR

'Places made for an occasion,' from Gaudi’s Casa Milà in Barcelona and Michel de Klerk’s housing in Amsterdam to medieval doors in San Gimignano, the design of openings and doors offers rich, expressive possibilities.

‘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.

Idea # 11: VAULT

Right: Lincoln Cathedral is celebrated for its experimental vaults, such as that seen here in St. Hugh’s Choir –known as the “Crazy Vault” on account of its eccentric, asymmetrical version of the classic six-part tierceron vault developed in France.

Idea # 15: ATRIUM

Right: Glass-covered atria—seen here on the grand scale at Rafael Viñoly’s Tokyo International Forum—offer numerous environmental and energy-saving advantages and have become common in offices, hotels, and many other buildings since the 1980s.

Idea # 19: PROPORTION

Top left: Le Corbusier’s lifelong fascination with proportion as a key to architectural beauty culminated in the development of a proportioning system based on the so-called Golden Raio, published in his book Le Modulor in 1948.

‘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.

Idea # 22: IDEAL

In plan and section, Classical designs such as Sir Christopher Wren’s for St. Paul’s Cathedral, were controlled by 'ideal' geometric forms such as circles and squares that were thought to bring visual harmony to the composition.

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 # 25: SYMMETRY

Left: As well as sharing the use of axial symmetry in their spatial organization, the decoration of Islamic buildings abounds in complex forms of symmetry rarely encountered in Western architecture.

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.

Idea # 28: ARCHITECT

Left: More than any of his contemporaries, Le Corbusier—seen here with his ever-present black-rimmed glasses—helped to define the modern image of the architect as an inspired artist-designer.

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.

Idea # 30: PERSPECTIVE PROJECTION

Right: This beautiful watercolor rendering of the project for Otto Wagner’s own house in Vienna was published in 1890 in the first of a four-part edition of his work. As can be seen from the construction lines on the plan, the center of projection for the perspective lies just off the street.

Nodding to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the notion that to create is to copy, transform, and combine, Weston observes:

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.

Idea # 35: CORRIDOR

Ubiquitous in complex institutional buildings such as many offices, schools, and hospitals, the corridor is a surprisingly recent invention, dating back only to the eighteenth century.

Idea # 49: THE ELEVATOR

Top right: The 1930s offered no more compelling illustration of the intensity of development made possible by the elevator than the New York skyline; the 102-story Empire State Building, seen in the distance, remained the world’s tallest until the 1970s.

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.

Idea # 63: ORGANIC ARCHITECTURE

Right: The Spanish architect-engineer Santiago Calatrava frequently claims inspiration from nature, as seen here in the Quadracci Pavilion, a major addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum completed in 2001. The fully glazed reception hall is surmounted by an adjustable, winglike sunscreen (above) while the galleria (right) is said to have been inspired by a wave, and to resemble the bleached bones of a shark.

Idea # 70: AXONOMETRIC PROJECTION

Right: Theo van Doesburg, the founder of the Dutch De Stijl movement, employed abstract colored planes and axonometric projection to evoke his vision of an ideal spiritual world, floating free of gravity.

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.

Idea # 78: MORPHOLOGY

Right: During the 1950s the Finnish architect Reima Pietilä (1923-93) undertook an imaginative series of morphological studies of natural phenomena: supremely elegant, the resulting drawings and models exerted a decisive influence on his later architectural work.

Idea # 97: BIGNESS

In 1994, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, founder and principal of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), wrote that 'In a landscape of disarray, disassembly, dissociation, disclamation, the attraction of Bigness is its potential to reconstruct the Whole, resurrect the Real, reinvent the collective, reclaim maximum possibility.'

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

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