World Architecture: An Illustrated History

World Architecture: An Illustrated History

World Architecture: An Illustrated History

World Architecture: An Illustrated History

Excerpt

Buildings that survive from the past are fossils of civilization. For certain early cultures that left no written records, or whose records have not been deciphered, monumental remains are the principal source's of information. Even of so-called 'high' periods -- Periclean Greece, say, or Hadrianic Rome -- such edifices as the Parthenon and the Pantheon are, for many people, the most impressive manifestations. Nearer to our own time the architecture of the nineteenth century provides evidences of achievement and of failure hardly to be found in political chronicles. Some writers even attempt, rather prematurely, to judge our own twentieth-century civilization, in part at least, by its man-made setting. They contrast favourably or unfavourably our vast industrial and business structures with the cathedrals and palaces of the past, or they try to read the degree of success or failure of various 'Welfare States' in the quality of their housing and their schools. That will be quite legitimate for future historians, but it is likely to be tendentious and arbitrarily opinionated if attempted too soon.

Architectural history is always a part, sometimes even the most important part, of history in general. It can be interesting intellectually even in periods whose products appeal little or not at all to mid-twentieth-century taste. Yet to consider architectural history merely as a part of general history is to miss a great deal of its potential interest. Despite the social, technical, and functional aspects of building -- those that link architecture most closely to other aspects of history -- architecture exists in the realm of art, more specifically of the visual arts. The artistic value of individual buildings or, indeed, of whole cities and regions at certain periods may have been low or even, so to put it, negative -- doubtless more buildings are and always have been, if not ugly rather than beautiful, at least of negligible visual interest -- yet we turn to the history of architecture not merely to become informed but in the expectation of visual pleasure. We even distort statistically the history of building by habitually throwing emphasis on those aspects of the production of the past that have the most positive visual qualities, paying far more attention to the temples than to the houses of the Greeks, and studying the churches of the Victorians with greater assiduity than their equally characteristic factories. This is no serious error if we are fully aware of what we are doing. Indeed, one may admit that for certain portions of architectural history, such as the story of castles and fortifications of cities in the Middle Ages and succeeding periods, or the development of lowcost state-aided housing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a predominantly non-visual approach has its value.

There are significant aspects of architectural history that can be treated conceptually, using chiefly words; or, in matters of construction, with simple diagrams (since all buildings considered as physical objects are within the realm of solid geometry). But considered as an art, architecture is a visual matter, and it is through pictures -- today chiefly photographs-that it must be apprehended. In the actual presence of a building other senses are affected, but even within a great man-created space the response of the other senses is mostly dependent on what the eye sees rather than direct. The height of a tower may perhaps be realised by climbing it, but that of an interior is usually experienced merely by our sub-conscious interpretation of what the eye reports.

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