Architecture as a product of culture, history, science, technology, economics, society, religion, and state




A journey through five thousand years of architecture and urban planning in the Western world



All rights are reserved to Hila Berliner.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, or copied in any form or by any means without the prior permission of Hila Berliner


Each generation writes its autobiography in the buildings it creates.

Louis Mumford

Friday, September 2, 2011


This   book is intended for architects, scholars, art history students, the   travelers in the West who want to know the background of the buildings   that they encounter along their way, and the general public who wants to   expand its knowledge base.

The   intention of the book is to describe the history of architecture and   urban planning, while examining the unique characteristics of the   various periods and the background on which the various styles have grown.

Studying   architecture requires a comprehensive view of the building, which is   examining its historical, religious, social, and functional aspects; for   beyond useful purposes the construction of buildings reflects the   scientific, religious, social and philosophical worldview of each   period.

The   building is a visual symbol of the idea that it represents. For   example, many churches are built in the shape of a cross – the symbol of   Christianity. During the early Christian centuries, the Romanesque and   Gothic periods, almost every part of the church had a defined meaning,   as a visual symbol of abstract values. For   example, pillars in the church, often represent the apostles of  Christ.  Architecture provides a direct means of expressing views of different cultures about the structure of the world.

       Discussing architecture is also indirectly discussing the cosmos. A   reflection of the approaches to cosmology is already to be found in   Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian architecture. The stairs in the   Ziggurat (step-shaped pyramid temple)   in   Mesopotamia symbolize the gods who represent the planets, and the   pyramids in Egypt relate to sun worship and to its  "movement" in the   sky.

During   Antiquity and Renaissance the world is perceived as harmonic, and this   approach is also reflected in buildings. In ritual buildings the   dome symbolizes the sky, while the floor symbolizes the earth. The   Baroque period, during which the elliptical path of planets was   discovered, a wide oval-shaped architecture was in use. So today, the   universe is perceived as a product of Big Bang, and the Deconstructive   architecture looks like expressing a bang.

"In fact, since the beginning of things to the Christian architecture of the 15th   century, architecture is the great book of mankind, man's primary  means  to express the various stages of his development, whether by  power or  spirit. Architecture began like writing. It started as  alphabet. A stone  was placed and became a letter, and each letter  became a hieroglyph. Above every hieroglyph was placed a group of ideas as a capital above a column… Later they created words. They put one stone on another…  Eventually, they wrote books… Traditions bore symbols, and disappeared below them, like a tree under its foliage. All these symbols, believed by humanity, grew, multiplied, and became increasingly complex. Monuments had not enough room to contain them… Architecture, indeed, developed with human thought.

    It   became a giant with a thousand heads and a thousand arms, and   established eternally predictably and vibrantly all this floating   symbolismThe  pillar which is the  letter, the arch which is the syllable, the pyramid  which is the word,  were moved simultaneously by the law of geometry and  by the law of  poetry…

They   gathered and intertwined, organized together, rose, fell, clustered on   the ground and piled up to the sky, until they dictated the general  idea  of the time.  

Wonderful books, which were also wonderful buildings ... Every religious symbol and human thought is a page in this huge book."

Victor Hugo  (Translation: Hila Berliner).

Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris, 1891. © Flammarion ©

Besides dealing with structures, architecture deals with words. Since Vitruvius (1st   century BCE) to the present day, architects accompanied their work  with  writing. By presenting their theories, they glorified their name  in an  attempt to ensure their place in history. The written word  reaches a  wider audience, and often survives longer than structures.  However,  buildings, monuments, cities and roads, are more accessible  than the  written word. A large crowd sees them, and they leave their  mark in the  memories of many.

Buildings have significance and they pass messages, just as our clothing or the interior design of our homes pass on messages about our personalities.

During   each period, architecture carries different messages. For example, in   the 1930s cubic forms of the international style marked functionality   and flexibility, while a hundred years earlier, when styles of the past   were revived, a simple cubic form was irrelevant.

A   repeating phenomenon in the history of architecture as well as in the   history of art is the oscillation between opposites: between  rationalism  and emotion, the imitation of nature and its absence,  decoration and  pure forms. During classical Greek times, the rational  approach was  dominant, while during the Hellenistic times following it,  emotion was  dominant. Medieval churches built by the Cistercian order  were stern and  devoid of decorations in response to the churches   built by the order of Cluny, which were rich in sculptural  decorations.  Rational forms and harmonies that characterized the style  of the  Renaissance transformed during the Baroque times into dynamic  curving  shapes. The heavy male Baroque transformed into a light female  Rococo,  which in turn gave way to a conservative rational  Neoclassicism.  Neoclassicism was pushed aside by the Romantic style,  which is based on a  feeling of longing for all distant places and  times. Thus, the Romantic  style was   replaced by universal uniform Modernist style, which strived to break   from the past. The uniformity that characterized the universal  Modernist  style was replaced by a pluralistic approach, expressed in   Postmodernism and deconstructivism.

            The language of architecture  includes professional terms and words that one should be familiar with in order to  understand architecture,  which   is why the first chapter of this book is devoted to the language of   architecture. The purpose of this chapter is to present a general   background to architecture and to clarify architectural concepts.

For the convenience of the readers a glossary is brought at the end of   the book. The chapters in the book are laid out in chronological order   of architectural periods and styles, in order to help understanding  the  influence of each period on those following  it.                       
   It should be noted, however, that classification of historical periods   is to some extent arbitrary. There are styles, which are more dominant in some areas, and less dominant in others. There are styles prevailing for a long time in one area and during shorter periods in other areas. For   example, in countries to the north of the Alps a dominant Gothic style   lasted longer than in Italy. Renaissance style, in contrast, was   dominant in Italy, and remained there for a longer period than elsewhere.

The   book includes chapters dealing with Mesopotamian and Ancient Egyptian   architecture, though its title restricts it to engage in the Western   world only. This is because of the major influence of the Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian architecture on Western architecture.

The   chapters dealing with Greek and Roman architecture are particularly   important and basic, since ancient elements repeated throughout the   history of architecture. Being familiar with these periods is essential   to understanding the following periods.

Baroque   and Rococo architecture appear in separate chapters, although they are   frequently viewed together under the title "Baroque."  This separation is intended to emphasize the differences between the two styles, although they have many common elements.

To   understand Modernist architecture in the larger context of art  history,  relationship between Modernist painting and Modernist  architecture is  displayed in a separate chapter. The word "modernist"  is used in order  to  avoid   the word "modern" which indicates current period. This distinction is   required, since today we live in an age where the style called   deconstructivism is dominant, and its concept is contrary to the style   which was called at the time "modern". 

At   the beginning of each chapter is presented a historical background,   followed by a religious background as far as it is relevant to the style   that is discussed in that chapter. This is necessary because   architecture is emerging from the circumstances that affect the style.  

The   most significant buildings throughout the history of architecture were   edifices for religious worship - temples and churches. These   were dominant as long as religious faith was dominant in human life.   During periods of increased importance of the rulers, the architecture   of royal palaces was prominent.

Today,   when economic power takes the place of religion in the life of the   individual and society, dominant buildings are skyscrapers reflecting   economic power.

The   last section of each chapter is devoted to city planning during the   period discussed in that chapter, because we should refer to the   buildings in the context of which they appear - usually urban landscape.

The   final chapter in the book is devoted to the skyscrapers in New York  and  examines buildings as an inseparable part of an ensemble of a city.   Thus, an example of the connection between the two main issues, which   the book is about - architecture, and city planning, is displayed.                                                                       

New   York - the first city that was perceived as a city of skyscrapers –  has  served as a source of inspiration for architects when planning   buildings in densely populated cities.

At   the end of the book are a bibliography and a list of websites used for writing the book. This can help the readers broaden their knowledge.

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