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On Architecture


(A deliberately ironic art history lesson from an IT geek)


The basic rules of architecture remained unchanged from the time of Ancient Greece through to about the mid nineteenth century. The canonical text for all architecture was the work of the Roman architect Vitruvus.  For more than two millennia classical architecture was enhanced by famous proponents such as Andrea Palladio, always refining or subtly improving the visual elements and decorative adornments, but never deviating from the fundamental golden rules. The language of architecture was recognized and understood by all architects.


In the late eighteenth century, in spite of the demands of burgeoning cities to produce buildings faster and cheaper, architecture cumulated in a bit of a renaissance as neo classicist ideals started to dominate the arts.


One of the greatest examples of this neo classical period is the Pantheon in Paris. Completed in 1789 the architect Soufflot originally envisaged massive open columns, with light and air an integral component of the aesthetic design. However during construction it was found that the building was not stable, so thick stone walls were constructed, giving the building the atmosphere of a tomb. This is somewhat appropriate since this is now the building�s main function, a far cry from the grand cathedral it was originally intended to be.


When Soufflot was asked how the original design was stability challenged when it was based on principles that had endured for thousands of years. His response was supposedly �How am I supposed to know? I am an architect, not an engineer.� As it has been throughout history engineers are left to fix the mistakes of ignorant architects.


The reason was classical architecture finally failed in the late nineteenth century is that the industrial age had resulted in the availability of new materials which required new techniques. Mass production of high quality steel allowed building to be assembled on site from prefabricated components, rather than building the whole thing from the ground up in place.


A great example of this new style was the Crystal Palace, constructed for the Great  Exhibition in 1851. The Crystal Palace was designed in just 10 days! The finished building was over a mile long and built in months rather than years, which was a feat that was simply impossible using the old stone and mortar based techniques.


Another great example of the advantages of mass production and pre fabrication was the Eiffel Tower, completed in 1889. Constructed as the world�s tallest building it remained so until 1930, and still stands today as one of the world�s most famous buildings.


This was a time of crisis for classical architects, who saw thousands of years of tradition crumbling to irrelevance before their eyes. Naturally they struck back in the only way they knew how, by denigrating the new designs as ugly, dangerous, and as the destruction of all that was meaningful and beautiful in architecture. Of course subsequent generations of architects adapted themselves to the new practices as the neo classical belligerents finally faded into obscurity. The new materials took on a new aesthetic, which became even more admired than the previous neo classical style.


Now with the clarity of hindsight we do not really see the fracture and the massive upheaval that was so prevalent at the time, in fact we tend to view the history of architecture as a natural progression. Not only has architecture not become irrelevant, but with the complexity and scale of contemporary building projects it has become more critical than ever.

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