Architecture: A History Lesson on Context, Craft, Gravity and Time
Architecture is a human expression. Despite their exquisite beauty and intricacy, burrows, hives, nests, and anthills are creations of instinct and evolution, not design. Humans are distinct from all other fauna because, for us, instinct is inadequate. So it is with architecture.
Outcomes in architecture are twofold. The first is shelter, protection for those who use buildings. They must resist gravity, shield against the weather, fit the site, and be buildable, or they fail at their prime directive—which ultimately is the same as that of the anthill.
Buildings are fundamental. But sometimes, for those who make them, shelter is more than mere survival. Like the burrow, buildings protect; like the hive, they allow for other uses; like the beaver’s dam, they intentionally impact the environment. But the value of architecture transcends those outcomes, and includes our motivations. Those are what make architecture.
The second necessary outcome of any building is aesthetic expression. These outcomes transcend the necessities required for any piece of architecture. This distinction, between outcome and aesthetics, exists nowhere but in the human eye and mind.
Architecture has conflicting values. The outcomes, the objective judgments applied to buildings beyond the primal realities, are easier when motivations and values are left unconsidered, and we focus and revel on outcomes.
Judging outcomes is the way we rationalize our reactions to the world. But that is an inadequate basis of apprehension and an incomplete understanding of how and why things are made.
History: The Other Gravity
There was a before. There is now. And there will be an after. This is unceasing, for everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and perceive. Time is universal—so pervasive and so overwhelming that we often simply ignore it.
We want to live forever, to freeze time. We revel in the past, and yet we want it to disappear. We are terrified of the future. We’re impatient to have now become what is to come. And when we allow ourselves to think about it, we are transfixed with death. What other force is so overarching, constant, and brutally impossible to ignore?
Gravity is what architects are tasked with manipulating every day. Structural integrity is not just for entire buildings. Gravity is set into each piece of every construction. Architects live through it. Gravity is both friend and foe.
But most architects are either dismissive of history, or are completely controlled by it. They have evolved two orthodoxies, often mutually exclusive. Both ignore the reality of time. Either history is tantamount to intellectual dishonesty, sentimentality, or just laziness in banal mimicry, or it is the Truth, the unquestioned reality of what has been and survived judgment, the very essence of beauty.
Trying to design a building without understanding history is like trying to design a building without gravity. Trying to freeze the past in the present is like pretending time is not real. The adolescent desire to find orthodoxy is as human as religion. That desire denies our humanity, but in architecture it denies the unavoidable truths of gravity and time.
It is time to know that our motivations are real. What we perceive and feel, how we respond, is as factual as our outcomes. We may never crack the code of matter and energy, but we can know ourselves. If we deny our humanity and judge architecture by the measurables alone, architecture’s outcomes, when we are the sole creator of what we judge, then we lose the reality of what architecture is: human creation.
Time and gravity need to be understood, before aesthetics and technology. They are not taught as fundamental, they are taught as obstacles to avoid, manipulate, and control. We do not control time and gravity; they define us.
When architects create, they often have two approaches: “Go along to get along,” where what’s here now determines what will be; or, “My way or the highway,” where what’s here now has no bearing on what will be.
Both denial and mimicry are the mind of a 2-year-old. “No!” is often the first or second word we learn. Between those rejections, children live in a world where familiarity and comfort are central to their existence. Making things cannot deny context, but if we copy it, it is not creativity, it’s mimicry.
Context can be social, vernacular. It is the environment where we create. Political, legal, climatic, geographic, funding, materials, technology, all have an impact on what we create. But the land comes first.
We cannot deny the way the land is shaped, how water flows around it, what the soil is beneath it. But we often do not create or even judge buildings by those primal facts. We just see the results, dropped on the landscape.
We can try to void the past, pretend that the existing realities of the places we build, their populations, climates, topographies, even their cultures, are simply raw materials to be transformed by our genius.
But if we see what exists, just replicate it, we beg the reality of our shared humanity. We don’t eat one food, listen to one music, speak one language. Humans are a quilt, not a tapestry.
Every addition to the landscape is just that. Is the result a marriage or a fight? A dance or a rigid chorus line? Creation cannot copy or deny the existing world—it is either alive in it or tries, and fails, to be apart from it.
Unless we see what is there, we deny it. And denying reality is simply not possible.
Context is not about gravity or time, because context has our humanity subsumed in it. Even the intensely private, isolated place is somewhere, used by someone.
If we want to be here, now, and make something for people, a place, and a culture, we cannot wish them away. And if we see the world as it is built, replicate the patterns, and the designs of those who are long dead, our work becomes the walking dead, not a living extension of who we are now.
Context is hard to deal with in architecture, because it is neither the raw food to be eaten (the need) nor is it the spice that makes that food sing. It is the cauldron of context that contains both the food and the spice, where both are cooked and architecture is created.
We speak, but we also write poetry. We whistle, but create symphonies. We can eat a protein bar or a seven-course meal. Our needs do not limit our desires.
The places of instinct—the nest, the burrow, the anthill—do everything required. They solve the problem, but they only answer the existing questions.
Our hands define us, but our minds cannot be contained. We do more than make; we create, add unnecessary complexities, criteria, even silly extrapolations. We make beauty. Make delight. But architecture does not make itself. We make it.
The denial of craft beyond the necessary is a death sentence of unmet possibilities. Humans can envision what has not been, what is unknown, even unknowable. We have the same basic parts as all living things, but we are different because we create beyond response.
We make things.
Defying gravity is temporary, defeating the environment is always an adaptation, but architecture asks for more. We want what we do to extend who we want to be. That is the humanity of architecture.
Craft is not simply making things that stand up and protect. It is the knowing application of technology, dexterity, and materials to make things that go beyond our needs and enter the world of our hopes.
We can make things that manifest our motivations, values, even the unnecessary joys of creativity that make poems, symphonies and soufflés. We can make architecture.
To do that, we need to control how we want to make it, because how we make affects what we make. If we understand process as well as product, we can make things that go beyond outcomes and reflect values.
Size does not matter. A doorknob or a skyscraper, everything built benefits when the designer knows the craft of what’s to be made. The technologies are interchangeable, but the passion, devotion and expertise of making is not faked or mimicked. And the only way to gain mastery is to fail and admit ignorance. First school, then apprenticeship.
What we want in architecture may be a product, but the most effective, inspiring, delightful products come from our humanity, or motivations, not from a catalogue of outcomes. To do that, creation has to be based in craft, of any short.
Whether electrons, splinters, polymers, rocks, chemicals—anything—the actual tools of craft are irrelevant to creativity. But knowing the realities of whatever tools are needed is absolutely central. Passion, devotion, and work lead to skill. That leads to more effort, more understanding and, eventually, beauty.
All craft is human. All architecture is human, too.
All photos courtesy of the author.