Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning

Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning

Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning

Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning


This clearly written, fully illustrated survey of Western architecture defines and explains structure, function, history, and meaning. Architecture is examined as a cultural phenomenon as well as an artistic and technological achievement. The book is divided into two parts: Part One, "The Elements of Architecture," deals with the basic properties of architecture in chapters that explain function, structural principles, and elements of design, including examples in the text and illustrations from all periods and styles. Part Two, "The History and Meaning of Architecture," is a chronological survey of Western architectural development from prehistoric times to the present. The approach is selective in terms of buildings and architects included; the examples are chosen for their importance and significance and are fully explained. Each chronological chapter begins with a concise, historical outline giving the social and cultural background. The illustrations (photographs, drawings, maps, and plans) are integrated with the text and there are notes, suggested readings, a glossary, chronological chart, and index.


This book is about learning to perceive and understand our man-made environment. It is about architecture as a physical vessel, a container of human activity. But since architecture is a social activity, building is also a social statement and the creation of a cultural legacy. Every building, therefore, whether a commanding public structure or a private shelter--whether a cathedral or a bicycle shed--is constructed in accordance with the laws of physics in ways that crystallize the cultural values of its builders. This book is an introduction to the artistic urge that compels humans to build as well as to the structural properties that make it possible to make buildings stand up. It is also an introduction to the silent cultural language that every building expresses. This book, then, might be thought of as a primer for visual environmental literacy.

Since the Protestant Reformation, there has been a tendency in the West to stress the written cultural record, whether historical or literary, and to give little serious attention to the meaning of visual imagery. Hence very few students are taught how to "read" or interpret the physical environment in which they certainly will have to live and work. In some schools students are offered classes in the visual arts, music, and dance, even though only a fraction of them will be able to put such knowledge to use when they enter the work world. Yet, concerning the built environment with which they will have to deal, most people are taught next to nothing. What they know is what they gain "in the streets" through experience by trial and error. This environmental illiteracy has been readily accepted as the normal state of affairs. Most people learn little of the history of their built environment or how to interpret the meaning of the environment they have inherited.

This book seeks to help correct this situation. It is aimed at the inquisitive student or general reader interested in learning about the basic operation of the built environment and the layered historical meaning embodied mute within it. This book is not intended as a historical survey tracing the complex evolution of building forms, but as a basic introduction to how the environment we build works on us physically and psychologically, and what historical and symbolic messages it carries.

The basic structure of this book grew out of an outline I developed in 1977 for Sandee Harden for the architecture section of a telecourse, "Humanities Through the Arts," produced by the Coast Community College, Fountain Valley, California, and the City Colleges of Chicago. As a result, the idea for this book was that architecture be examined as a cultural phenomenon, as well as an artistic and technological achievement. The content of the book then evolved from an introductory course on architecture taught to college freshmen during a period of thirteen years, at Ohio State University, Northwestern University, and now the University of Oregon.

The form and organization assume that the reader knows nothing in either a technical or historical sense of the built environ-

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