The Role of History in Architecture

Posted December 19, 2018 | Tags: History in Architecture

Have you ever thought about the undeniability of gravity? Nearly everything we do has to consider gravity. The mere fact that you have to lift a package off the floor and that it doesn't just float around is a testament to the omnipotence of gravity. Architects also have to deal with it. From the materials they use to the energy systems they design, they have to consider it.

Just like gravity is a physical constant that must be accepted and accommodated, there is yet another constant that we should treat with the same level of importance: history. History is the lens through which we contemplate the reasons designers had for building a building the way they did.

The way we view history in architecture can sometimes be like the way we view our food. The truth is that we all need nutrition, and so we need to eat. However there are those that will not accept a meal that has come from the murder or subjugation of another animal for the benefit of human beings. There are also those who don't see what the fuss is all about and will happily consume their milk, meat, and eggs without thinking twice.

Similarly, when it comes to history in architecture, there are those who reject history in their design and those who make it an essential component of their design; sometimes the very heart of it.

I like to think of it from a slightly different perspective.

We can’t afford to lose history. It’s a lot more nuanced than the black and white way in which some people will treat it, delineating between a ‘then’ period and a ‘now’ period’. Time never freezes, and it never cleanly demarcates.

No building is created in its own temporal vacuum. They are born of culture and circumstance. They can never completely be precedented and they can never fully be replicated either.

We also have a new player coming into the market that is likely to change and redefine everything: artificial intelligence. When that time comes, human creativity will be more important than ever in offering us something beyond what we can get from technology.

In fact, technology has been a significant player in the history of buildings. When we needed taller buildings, we invented steel, and so the skyscraper was born. Everything from facades to elevators to central heating followed that change to create new building concepts. Technology doesn't just affect the function of a building; it affects the aesthetics too.

Architectural training should also reflect a respect for history. It should be diverse and broad so that students can learn to appreciate the entirety of their heritage. We can also extend this to the kind of publications we produce. They shouldn't merely preach one manner of looking at things: either reject history or make it the end-all-be-all. They should show the public how history has many dimensions that are important in architecture and how, while it can sometimes be at the peripheries of design, it can also sometimes be the centerpiece.

We can't forget our history. That would almost be like forgetting about the existence of gravity. It is a part of everything. It isn't a style or a fad. It is all-encompassing and all-pervading. Without this intricate dance of the old and the new, there is simply no music.

Where has architectural history revealed itself to you?  A downtown building? A church? A home?  I’d love to know where history and architecture have intersected in your life.

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