||Architecture (Greek/Latin, â€˜skill of the master builderâ€™) was, until very recently, an activity more cognate with (say) surgery or shipbuilding than with any of the arts. That is to say, its skills were universally known and practised, and there were individual practitioners of genius (some of them even known by name, for example Imhotep, who designed the Great Pyramid at Gizeh and is the first â€˜knownâ€™ architect in history), but there was no universal theory or critical consensus about it. Buildings were commissioned, built and used, as wounds were dressed or ships constructed: the work was functional, and it never occurred to anyone to assess its skills or measure its success or failure in other than functional terms.
The principal purposes of such â€˜architectureâ€™ are first, to provide shelter and security, and second, to dignify such activities as religious practice and rule. If aesthetic considerations impinged at all, it would be in choice of materials and of decorationâ€”and even then, in early times, all but the most ornate buildings (temples or mausoleums, for example) were what one might call â€˜organicâ€™ architecture, made from locally available materials, â€˜growingâ€™ out of the surroundings as naturally as woods or hills. In such circumstances, â€˜thoughtâ€™ about architecture, even at its finest, must also have tended to be practical and undemonstrativeâ€”and not just in prehistoric times, but until well into the modern era. No doubt the people who planned and executed the Parthenon complex in Athens, the temples at Ankor Wat or Macchu Pichu and the palaces and streets of Fatehpur Sikri must have had anxious discussions about the overall planning of the sites and the place of the buildings in their environment; they must have made plans and discussed them; they may well have felt a glow of creative satisfaction when the job was done. But their work was considered craft rather than art, and they were more likely to talk about foundations and materials than about such abstract notions as â€˜form follows functionâ€™ or â€˜the built environmentâ€™. When the Roman writer Vitruvius, â€˜architectâ€™ to the Emperor Augustus, published his treatise De architectura in the 1st century Â BCE, he intended it not as an artistic statement but as a manual.
This lack of artistic pretension gave architecture a low-key image (despite the size and magnificence of so many of its artefacts) in most of the world through most human history. The architect was a craftsman, more at home with the surveyors and builders he worked with than in the salons of the patron. In the case of most buildings, the planners were as anonymous as the executorsâ€”indeed, they may well have been the same people. This is still the way of things in the greater part of the world: architecture may nowadays be taught as a practical art, with a codified set of theories and techniques and a libraryful of historical exemplars of style, but in the real world houses, shops, warehouses and so on are built as need arises, in a kind of consensus style determined by practicality and expense rather than by the designer\'s inspiration. It is only the wealthyâ€”nowadays corporations more frequently than individualsâ€”who can commission buildings to be works of art.
The concepts of the architect as an artist, and of architecture as fine art, is Western and dates from the Renaissance. A key idea was that beautiful works of art should be placed harmoniously in beautiful buildings, themselves grouped to enhance the overall effect. The environment itself was designed; each part had artistic significance not merely in its own right but as one component of a pre-planned whole. Architecture, being concerned with the enclosure of space, was a three-dimensional art form, but three-dimensionality was the only real distinction made between it and other kinds of art. The architects who enclosed the grandest spacesâ€”individuals (as in the Square of Miracles in Pisa) or teams (as in the St Peter\'s complex in Rome)â€”were often painters or sculptors as well as architects; they shared the principles and ambitions of fine art, and the self-absorption and creative pretension of its practitioners. In their hands the planning of buildings, and of the space in which buildings were placed, for the first time took precedence over the actual brute activities of building: surveying, preparing the site, gathering materials and so on were relegated (on the ladder of creativity) in the same way as such practices as sizing a canvas, mixing colours, preparing a marble block or casting bronze did in the other arts.
This elevation of the architect from craftsman to geniusâ€”â€˜elevationâ€™, â€˜craftsmanâ€™ and â€˜geniusâ€™ are typical terms from the theoretical writing of the timeâ€”has persisted ever since, and has spread from the West throughout the world, at least at the expensive end of the market. Architects are now mainly designers and planners: the â€˜built environmentâ€™ is their predominant sphere of interest. To some extent, their work programmes the way we live, and they take account of demographic, social and political factors as they plan. The architects of the 1920s USSR, of the Third Reich in Germany, of purpose-built towns and cities everwhere (from Peterlee in the UK to Brasilia in Brazil) went further, setting out quite deliberately to design not just buildings, but whole societies. Le Corbusier famously talked of a house as a â€˜machine for livingâ€™ and planned â€˜radial citiesâ€™ in which each activityâ€”living, working, relaxingâ€”would have its own area, separated off from all the others. In architecture and city planning, from the mid-19th century onwards, every single artistic â€˜ismâ€™ has been applied to the practicalities of living, often with minimal consent from the mass of the people who actually have to use, and live in the shadow of, the buildings which embody those â€˜ismsâ€™.
To say this is not to impute creative arrogance to architects as a profession, or at least to all of them. Because of the practical thrust of their work, not to mention in order to eat, they must temper their creative inspiration at least some way to the mood of the times, to the market place. Philanthropicâ€”values the desire to provide healthy, secure environments for living and working, which have been part of architecture since its beginningsâ€”still play their part. But the problem remains that, unlike the product of any other of the arts, what an architect creates, good or bad, is both enormous and permanent. No-one has to use a still life for shelter, or bring up a family in a figurine. If you hate it you can sell it or dump it. But if, as a â€˜consumerâ€™, you feel oppressed by the grid-system and skyscrapers of downtown Chicago, bemoan the regimentation and implicit imperialism of Chandigarh, or deplore the Guggenheim Museum, the Baubourg or the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters, that is your tough luck. All these works have three things in common: they were conceived by people of â€˜visionâ€™ who behaved like creative dictators rather than democrats, they were enormously expensive and they will stand where they are, for better or worse, for centuries.
The standoff between pretension and appropriateness, in both architecture and town planning, is perhaps a predominantly 20th-century phenomenon, an unfortunate collision between reality and modernism. And 20th-century architects have created beautiful places and glorious buildings, works of art for living in, as well as monstrosities. In the days of postmodernism, they are also starting to listen again not just to their patrons but to the people who will actually use their creations, and we have also developed a healthy trend towards biting our lips against the financial loss and dynamiting the most disastrous of their creations (1960s tower-block slums come readily to mind). In short, if architects mislaid their humility at some stage in the last 500 years, there are signs that they are now, after a barrage of adverse criticism lasting nearly forty years, beginning to find it againâ€”and that can only be good for all the rest of us. KMcL
See also architect; craftsmanship; functionalism; space and architecture.Further reading Peter Collins, Architectural Judgement; , Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: a Critical History; , Nikolaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture; , A. Soper and , L. Sickman, The Art and Architecture of China; The Art and Architecture of Japan.