I was asked by Dan Livis to write an article that focuses on the ways in which architecture affects / influences the progress and evolution of humanity. Since the subject is extremely broad, I will address it in terms of a brief history of Western Architecture, passing at great speed from the pre 19th century architecture through modernism, postmodernism and finally arrive at today’s world. This will hopefully help you engage with the buildings you encounter daily, enjoy them for their visual qualities and the stories they tell. I will break the article into 3 parts, each focusing on a distinct period.
1. Pre-Modern Architecture. Since Medieval times until the 19th century, European architecture had a relatively slow progress. Building technologies changed little over the centuries, and there were only a few successive architectural styles which were mainly differentiated by distinctive decoration: Gothic, Renaissance, Classicism, Mannerism, Baroque and their short eclectic revivals in the 19th century.
The architecture of that period can roughly be divided into 2 categories: edifices of power (religious or secular) and vernacular buildings.
The purpose of edifices was to symbolise specific values, to celebrate and instill them within the masses. These were cathedrals, churches, imperial or royal palaces, town halls, concert halls etc. They were all built according to a specific architectural style, which was the main concern of the architects. The classical style was often used by secular powers as a means of signaling their authority, stability and continuation with the Roman Empire. The Church symbolised its power through more grandiose styles like the Gothic (in late medieval times) and later the Baroque, as a reaction to the Protestant reformation.
Architects generally focused on decoration, the choice of certain Greek orders and the proportions of the buildings. The main aesthetic value of the time was harmony, understood as perfect balance between the whole and its parts. Therefore, most buildings were symmetrical, axial, built according to certain ratios (e.g. the golden rule) and featured a tectonic logic – the ground level expressed stability and robustness, while the upper levels became more and more supple and refined in decorations.
Vernacular buildings, on the other hand, were built by the common uninitiated folk according to a popular knowledge passed on through generations. The principles of these buildings were much more utilitarian, fulfilling the direct needs of their inhabitants, adapting to pragmatic constraints like limited space within fortified towns or citadels. Built organically and periodically transformed according to the latest stylistic tendencies, those buildings formed urban tissues that were surprisingly vivid and unique. Although disregarded by learned architects as worthless slums, they finally gained some appreciation in the 19th century when the rapid process of industrialisation triggered a Romantic reaction concerned with conservation and heritage. Valuing new aesthetic categories such as the sublime, the picturesque and the grotesque, the Romantics found a source of inspiration in the vernacular, which they aimed to preserve through new conservation laws.
Many architects were involved in this Romantic fever, and not only sought to cherish and protect the buildings of the past, but also drew inspiration from them and tried to evoke them through a new eclectic architecture which ranged from Japanese-like pavilions to Disney-like neo-Romanesque palaces like Neuschwanstein and Gothic Revival train stations and hotels like St. Pancras, mixed with newly discovered cast iron structures. Caught up in this shallow, carnivalesque approach, architects soon became alienated from the needs of their clients, proving unable to understand the requirements of the post-industrial society, as well as assimilate the new technologies. Mastering the new cast iron technology, engineers soon gained the upper hand and addressed newly emerging types of buildings like bridges, greenhouses, pavilions, train stations, leading to a new aesthetics of functionality and progress. This led to the apparition of a unified Modern Movement towards the end of the 19th Century.