I. Some Previous Experiences
As mentioned above, I have had an opportunity to utilize architecture in courses on photography in the past. I have found that presenting this broad view does not constitute an insurmountable task. By treating it as a unique discipline, full advantage of its newness can stimulate interest and catalyze the imagination. I have found that this approach makes it exciting for them. They were capable of designing and making things. The practical skills involved in these projects provided a rationale for struggling with the more difficult concepts. Their encounter with the concepts of history, space, and the issues of building elements and functions, and the urban context challenged their abilities and fired their creativity. Certainly some of the concepts eluded them. But as they faced the uncertainty of the future they became in some way architects of it. They changed and were changed by the spaces they encountered. They built imaginary cities and castles in the air. In this way they were not unlike some architects who recognize the essential spirit of utopia, the ideal, or romance in their creations. They hope they have created a monument or ruin or simply made a place that is truly inhabitable, demanding a visit and a return.
When speaking with others about what art is, one often hears this statement, “I don’t know what it is or what it’s all about, but I know what I like.” Immediately, we confront limitations in ourselves. By exploring rather than ignoring the multivalent nature of architecture, these limits can be expanded upon and elaborated. When the question of what we mean by architecture is raised, any one of us might respond that it is buildings or particular buildings. One might add that it is old buildings or choose to limit the category to large, beautiful, historic, public, or important buildings. In utilizing these modifiers we are engaged in a process of applying both quantitative and qualitative values to our concept of architecture and its relationship to buildings.
Defining architecture, or applying values to it, is difficult and relative. This is true for architects as well as for ourselves. We or they might all agree that it is the art of building. But what conceptual categories and technical activities describe this art of building? It is both a product (a concrete material object that occupies and encloses space) and a process (a series of events in time, both in designing, building, and experiencing it). We must conclude that architecture is a big word. It covers a lot of space and spans the limits of time. Our definition of it is always challenging and changing.
In the writings of architects and in those of architectural historians and critics, we find the profession itself engaged in a debate as to whether it is a building science or a creative and expressive art. The sides are often determined by the origin of architecture within a university’s development. Some architecture schools trace their origin in their school of engineering, while others began in its school of art. Within the latter category there is a further division of those who emphasize historical and theoretical considerations and those who stress design alternatives; whether architecture should be orthodox composition or expressive creation. Within these extremes alternatives proliferate.
A Note on History
When one looks at buildings in New Haven and throughout the United States, one is not faced merely with the hundreds of years that people have erected permanent structures on this continent. Because of the numerous revivals from earlier European traditions, one confronts the spectrum of thousands of years of constructing permanent shelter and monuments. Couple this with the fact of the traditions of Primitive, Pre-Columbian, Indian, and Asian architecture, and one must admit that the task seems insurmountable.
In this essay I will choose to make only one comparison. It will not be my purpose to identify and master all the variations and sometimes subtle characteristics of the building art. What I propose to do is to provide a contemporary view of how history by recalling cultural values can provide a deeper meaning to spaces. When viewing buildings that represent the traditional vernacular styles of construction and ornamentation, they will be noted and pointed out. The major historical consideration is the differences and similarities that exist between these styles and that of the Modern or International Style. The similarities lie in the persistence of universal forms and the continuity that exists in building elements that is universal and the maintenance of principles of proportion. What characterizes their differences is their technology and motivational principles and impulses.
The traditional styles, while employing various methods of masonry and stone construction and deploying differing styles of narrative and detail, strive to express higher cultural values of ideology and order. This is apparent in the use of ornamentation and in the hierarchical arrangement of rooms and spaces in buildings. The Modern movement represents a departure from previous methods of construction necessitated by the introduction of new materials such as steel and concrete. These methods have also given a new use to glass, almost altering our ideas of wall and window. Modern architecture, as visible products of culture, express form as a result of the buildings function rather than any religious, social, or political values. Ornamentation is absent and any reference to regional qualities are removed. The building often aspires to expressing the image of the machine. This is arrived at by following a careful list of the buildings program (a series of activities to take place in the building and the allocation of space for these activities). While the traditional styles respect qualitative values, the Modern stresses quantitative ones, almost reducing them to the maximization of space utilization and minimizing cost.
This transition from orthodox vernacular expression to what was believed to be creative composition began in this century and had virtually triumphed until recently. Though a lot of the craftsmanship is lost and the labor intensive technology would be considered prohibitive, some architects, designers, and citizens have opened the debate within the profession about the need for recognizable cultural and symbolic codes within future buildings.