The discipline dealing with the principles of design and construction and ornamentation of fine buildings •
The profession of designing buildings and environments with consideration for their aesthetic effect
We all love to look up at the wonderful buildings created by an architect some time ago in history, don’t we? We marvel at the complexities of the work; the intricate detail, the bold statements, and the display of power it exudes. In every country, there are great monuments, civil buildings and private palaces, and let’s not forget the churches and cathedrals. But most of these are buildings of a different age, built when money was no object, by powerful wealthy men, as a testament to their great influence and status in the land. Today’s modern buildings pale into insignificance by comparison, don’t you think?
The only people who can afford to build grand buildings are wealthy companies, and they don’t even do it. Why? Because they’re just too darn expensive! And in an age where money is the bottom line, architecture and good taste seem to go out the window. Now we have monstrous office buildings dominating the skyline; and although impressive as feats of great engineering, they are in no way comparable to great palaces like versailles and the vatican. “Those buildings were the vision of architects of the past,” commented a well known architect. “Today’s design is about clean lines, lots of glass; and tall, very tall.”
So although they don’t have the exquisite stone masonry work the churches had, they still want to make a statement. They want to say “look at me, I am here! Oh, and by the way, I am owned by company X.” The architects of the past would be horrified by what they see now.
“Where is the skill in that?” they would ask. “Where is the work of the artisans? All you have now is a big lump of metal with lots of glass.” But you would want to ask them what they would have created if they had access to the most modern materials, and had machinery that could have got the job done in half the time at half the price! I’m sure they would have replied calmly that, “that wasn’t the point of architecture.” I think it would be funny to see something as iconic as the coliseum in rome all done is modern steel and shiny smoked glass windows. Somehow I don’t think they would get quite so many visitors as they do now.
But these iconic structures were different. They were built with the hands of men, with no fancy machinery to take the burden. You only have to look at the pyramids in giza to realise what a great feat was achieved in constructing them.
Unfortunately, they probably used slaves, as their lives were valueless to the rulers; but nonetheless, they are still striking. Whatever symbolism all these ancient structures were designed to convey, there was one thing that could be said about them – they were built to last! Some of the stones in these buildings are so huge you have to wonder if there weren’t a race of giants living at that time who were employed to do all the hod carrying and brick laying.
They just seem like impossible structures to create without all the modern engineering knowledge we have now. But created they were, and they still stand, in countries like italy and greece amongst many others. These were advanced civilisations who had amazing knowledge, and we still fail to comprehend how it was all possible – given what they were up against.
But as we said in the first paragraph, these were buildings designed to show how powerful the rulers were, to show how much greater they were than the ordinary man (who unfortunately, was the one made to create the structures). Perhaps many thousands died building them, but to the rulers, their lives were unimportant; what was important was exercising their power over the people. And as such, great courts of law and palaces were built to keep the people in awe of their power. At the same time, the religious leaders were building their own monuments to themselves (sorry, to god) and showing what great power they (sorry, god) had over them. So maybe it is better we don’t create anymore of these structures as we have enough people in the present day trying to show how much power they have over others.
Let them crumble
If you ever have the misfortune to be called into your courts of law, you will feel the power that the buildings hold over you. You, the weak individual who has done wrong, versus the state, encompassed in the stonework and the grand arches. That is what these great stones convey to me; power – nothing more. So why don’t we just knock down all these institutions, after all, we don’t really want any more reminders of how powerful the state was and still is.
“You can’t knock them down! These are national institutions, these are the symbols of the country,” say the politicians (also thinking about the drop in visitor numbers).
But let’s imagine for a moment that we no longer had these ancient reminders of power, that unfortunately, we had a big earthquake which only targeted the churches, the cathedrals, the courts of law, and the buildings of government, amongst other things; how would your sense of national identity be without them?
For americans, the white house is a symbol of america’s power, not only over its neighbours, but also over its people. Imagine if it too fell, and the president was forced to live in a three bedroom house in downtown washington! How would his status be then? How powerful would the state be without the architectural symbols of national identity? How would you feel? Would you feel that something was missing, that somehow you didn’t feel so british, french, or american?
What do you think? Would the power structure in the country continue if they could no longer extract the population’s obedience with these symbolic buildings?
Just think about it. All this great architecture was designed to do one thing; make you fear the state, the powerful, and the mighty. These buildings refused to let you intimidate the state.
“Who are you, you are nothing compared to us,” the buildings would growl. I know that this discussion may seem a little silly to you, but I would like you to give your utmost attention to it.
Imagine if the rulers of your country (thanks to the impromptu earthquake) were forced to run the country from a local italian restaurant or tea room! That would be a funny sight to see. These people would be naked without their architectural symbols of power, and we would discover what we already knew – that they are nothing but men made of flesh and bone, now vulnerable without their “armour,” which are the buildings. Would you still respect them; still look up to these great men, these powerful rulers? I’m sure you wouldn’t, and neither would I.
Just like a tank commander who needs his tank, a ruler needs his buildings; and without them, he’s kind of, well, pathetic looking. 1
Several years ago I was travelling around europe with my wife, and we ended up in rome, where we followed the other million tourists to that great architectural colossus, the vatican (the residence of the catholic pope in the vatican city).
Now I’m not follower of religions, but I do like the grandeur of the buildings, and the fantastic frescos (a mural done with watercolours on wet plaster) on the ceilings; so I was eager to get in and have a look around. I was upset to not be allowed in because my wife had “bare shoulders” (she had a singlet on as it was hot).
“What! Why can’t we get in?” I argued. I looked over at a sign that said all shoulders had to be covered. “Why? We only want to look around,” I muttered.
As we left with our heads hung low I happened to catch a glance at another lady, who, determined to comply with the rules, had inserted a napkin into either strap of her singlet, so it covered her shoulders. I laughed heartily when I saw this. The great power of the vatican disarmed by two napkins!
I don’t want to get into a silly debate about why women should cover up, or shouldn’t, that is a pointless; all that can be said is that these are rules created by powerful humans, men to be exact; so make up your own mind. But back to the pope!
Here is a man who sits in power over a church with millions of followers worldwide; so as a powerful man, he needs powerful symbols. He sits up on a balcony above us, like the religious images that are placed looking down on us in places of worship; and he issues his speeches.
But imagine if the vatican was no more. Imagine our earthquake had magically swallowed up the whole vatican, and the pope and all of his deputies were forced into a rather more humble cottage or cafe. Where would his power be then? How in awe of god would you be when man’s (catholic) representative on earth is giving speeches from a coffee shop?
Please think about this because it is important. You see, when you strip a man of his authority and his power, which in this case is the buildings, what does he become? A man, just like you and me; with his own fears and desires. But the powerful don’t want you to see the man like that. They don’t want the prime minister or president to look like you, otherwise why would you follow them? Do you see? Without his buildings surrounding him, the powerful man is nothing.
Let his buildings crumble around him, and with it let the symbols of power be gone. I’m sure the pope and the presidents are all nice people, and we can all look forward to getting on with them once they stop putting themselves above us.
What do you think?
Unfortunately, these are pretty well made buildings so they will take a long time to crumble, so either we hope move into cheap modern offices (after all who would respect someone who worked in one of those) or we wait. But don’t worry; we have all the time in the universe. But do me a favour will you, next time you are standing in front of these buildings zealously snapping them with your digital camera, just quietly remember why they were built. Then remember the people who built them, and who they built them for.