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Architecture and Civilization

By jamesarcher in Culture
Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 11:54:28 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)
Culture

I recently wrote an article about the relationship between architecture and society that proposes that the relationship between them might be more complex than it seems at first. While it doesn't go into the dry details of architectural theory, it does present an interesting hypothesis.


Around ten thousand years ago, certain cultures -- after having developed new techniques in agriculture and animal husbandry -- were able to give up their nomadic ways in favor of a more sedentary, city-oriented lifestyle. No longer required to wander in search of food, people began to establish more permanent structures than the tents, shacks, and huts they had used previously. These new and revolutionary buildings had to be constructed in a more durable way than were their flimsier predecessors. Thus was born the art of architecture.

Architecture, then, represents not only a change in construction methods, but also in society itself. People began to gather near sources of water, and villages sprang up. Contact between families was more frequent than it had been previously. The concept of a tribe faded into obsolescence, to be replaced with the idea of community. New buildings, gathering places such as town halls, church, etc., were built, representing the transition from competition to cooperation. Architecture did not create civilization, but it is a fundamental aspect of it. Indeed, the word "civilized" itself comes the Latin term for "city" -- which by definition comprises buildings.

It is not far fetched to suppose the existence of direct correlations between society and architecture. One is, after all, an outgrowth of the other. As civilization has changed in the past 300 generations, so has the architecture that has been its skeleton; and yet, as architecture follows essentially the same principles as it did at its inception, so too does society.

The purpose of a building is to provide shelter to those inhabiting it. In addition to this separative function, it also serves to bring people together by allowing them to interact within its walls. It is easy to see how society serves a similar function: It protects us from the "weather" (forces external to the society), while bringing us together with other members of the same society. Furthermore, just as buildings can comprise separate rooms, so too can society comprise a variety of semi-independent groups. The basic functions, therefore, of architecture/society are to separate and to bring together.

Function, however, is impossible to achieve without structure. Society is supported by the same structural components that hold up buildings. Columns, beams, floors, etc., all have direct counterparts in a civilized culture. New developments in engineering have allowed the creation of skyscrapers that reach almost 1,500 feet, while nearly identical social developments have created social structures of unprecedented size. A society as large as the United States, for example, would have been terribly unstable if it was supported by ancient principles of "social architecture," just as the Sears Tower would never have reached its modern height using ancient construction techniques.

The great architects and engineers of civilization are those who, using and elaborating upon existing knowledge of social architecture, have developed "buildings" (social institutions) that are stable and efficient. All buildings eventually collapse -- It is in their nature, just as all social constructions eventually fall -- but that does not make the building a failure. Adolf Hitler, for example, was a brilliant architect. Perhaps his building was ugly, but while it stood it did exactly what a good building should: It separated the people inside from the world outside, and brought its inhabitants together under a single roof.

A primary concern of all architects is the idea of "load," or weight distribution. A structure must be designed such that it remains stable, even as its inhabitants come and go. The upper levels are supported by the lower levels. A good example of the concept of load in social architecture can be seen in the institution of the Presidency, which can be compared to top-floor apartment. This floor is supported by every one underneath it, all the way down to the building's foundations. Every inhabitant brings his or her own furniture and possessions, changing the weight distribution, and yet the well-designed floor still holds. Likewise, we change presidents every few years, each of them bringing their own idiosyncrasies, but the social structure itself remains strong and independent. The United States government is a brilliantly designed building, with a strong hierarchy from the roof to the lobby. While its inhabitants change regularly, the building has stood for over two hundred years.

Buildings also must be designed to account for external loads, such as gravity (the tendency for people in high social positions to fall at a constant acceleration of 9.8 meters per second squared to the status of "has-been"), and wind (social currents that require that a building be either flexible or firm, depending on its size and nature, in order that it does not crumble). Buildings must also be reinforced against earthquakes -- the occasional shaking-up of accepted norms and foundations of civilization.

Where does the layman fall into this architectural scheme? It is the masses, after all, that will make the most use of these buildings. Just as a building's design can greatly affect the efficiency and even satisfaction of those inhabiting it, so too can the architecture of a social institution determine how people react to it. An oppressive work environment, for example, can be as confining as the small cubicles in which it is manifested. Yet the layman seldom examines a structure's architecture in any depth. Just as a chef in a restaurant might accept an awkwardly-designed kitchen and try to make the best of it, we also tend to accept the social structures in which we find ourselves.

Every once in a while, however, an architect comes along with revolutionary ideas. He or she designs structures that, while they may be foreign to our conservative taste in architecture, are nevertheless structurally valid. Frank Lloyd Wright and others were known for their unique but effective designs. Some buildings have been constructed and have gained increasing acceptance by society, such as feminism and racial equality; Others, like Marxism, may remain forever in blueprint form. Few people are willing to tolerate a new and bizarre-looking building in the middle of the city they love to hate, regardless of whether or not the building is designed more effectively than those around it. This may be a discouraging message, but it shouldn't be. After all, it wasn't that long ago that we were all living in tents and huts.

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Are Architecture and Society Fundamentally Related?
o Yes 48%
o No 12%
o Maybe 24%
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Architecture and Civilization | 15 comments (10 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
I'm not sure about your analogy (4.66 / 6) (#5)
by Dacta on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 08:26:23 PM EST

Function, however, is impossible to achieve without structure. Society is supported by the same structural components that hold up buildings. Columns, beams, floors, etc., all have direct counterparts in a civilized culture. New developments in engineering have allowed the creation of skyscrapers that reach almost 1,500 feet, while nearly identical social developments have created social structures of unprecedented size. A society as large as the United States, for example, would have been terribly unstable if it was supported by ancient principles of "social architecture," just as the Sears Tower would never have reached its modern height using ancient construction techniques.

How do you explain things like the Roman Empire, Ancient China and the British Empire? Unless by ancient you actually mean primative, I'd say you analogy is incorrect. All those societies were of comparable size in people (or larger) than the US, and yet they all lasted longer than the US has so far.

Now you may argue that their societies weren't primative at all, and infact were just as advanced as ours, but you can't argue that they weren't ancient.

While this disctinction doesn't seem very important, it undermines you whole comparison.

If we look at ancient civilizations, we see we are exactly the same as them. I have a theroy (which I haven't quite thought through, but I'd like feedback on anyway) that modern civilization has simply substituted technology for ancient slaves. This has moved people who would have been slaves upwards socially, compacting the social strata (as the top rung remains in the same place).

Therefore, we have Marxism (participative democracy) replacing Atheneain democracy (where anyone could walk into the senate and talk) - in theory, anyway. In practice, neither Marxism or Athens worked thet way they were supposed to.

We have US (Presidential) style democracy replacing the Romans Senate/Emporer relationship - where the senate used to appoint the emporer (again, in theory), now the US has the people voting for the president.

Then we have Consitutinal Monachies (The UK, etc), and their relationship to many ancient civilizations (eg, Japan, sort of), where the ruler had only ceramonial power, and a council of elders chosen by some of the people (or a parliment chosen all the people) held the real power.

I'd love to hear people thoughts... Come on, rip it to threads!



You asked for it (4.00 / 1) (#10)
by Rand Race on Fri Jan 05, 2001 at 04:24:01 PM EST

"How do you explain things like the Roman Empire, Ancient China and the British Empire? Unless by ancient you actually mean primative, I'd say you analogy is incorrect. All those societies were of comparable size in people (or larger) than the US, and yet they all lasted longer than the US has so far."

It is highly doubtfull that any of these civilizations, except perhaps the British Empire, had populations as large as the US has now (~280 million). The city of Rome probably topped out at well under two million inhabitants during the Empire (still huge for an ancient city). A pitiance compared to New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago which all have well over ten million inhabitants; much less Tokyo, Peking, or Mexico City which have more than twenty million inhabitants.

"Now you may argue that their societies weren't primative at all, and infact were just as advanced as ours, but you can't argue that they weren't ancient."

Nothing ancient about the British Empire which is not much older than the US and which is over. Call it 1650-1950, 300 years max. Not much compared to Rome (~250BCE -~1450CE, 1700 years) much less China (~500BCE-~1950CE, 2450 years).

"While this disctinction doesn't seem very important, it undermines you whole comparison."

Not really, as advanced as Rome was it still was incapable of supporting cities much bigger than a million people. And very very few of those (Rome and Constantinople).

"If we look at ancient civilizations, we see we are exactly the same as them."

I don't know about that, similarities to Rome are inevitable as we are the inheritors of their civilization, but ancient China was even more inscrutable than modern China. Even the Romans had significantly different mores and social structures than we do (Ever met a patrician? We live in an age where all people are plebs.)

"...that modern civilization has simply substituted technology for ancient slaves."

It's been posited before, and is, in many ways, essentialy correct.

"This has moved people who would have been slaves upwards socially, compacting the social strata (as the top rung remains in the same place)."

I would argue that the top rung has been compacted as well, albeit to a lesser extent. As I mentioned before, we don't really have an aristicracy (patricians) anymore. A plutocracy, sure, but no real hereditary upper class.

"Therefore, we have Marxism (participative democracy) replacing Atheneain democracy (where anyone could walk into the senate and talk) - in theory, anyway. In practice, neither Marxism or Athens worked thet way they were supposed to."

Marxism is an economic theory not a system of governance. Periclean Athens did not have a senate, the whole of the citizen body (probably less than 10,000 people) voted on issues and apointments directly. All citizens had a voice, but only about 1 in 5 inhabitants of Athens were citizens (women, slaves, and those of foreign descent had no voice). Still, you're right that neither one ever worked quite right.

"We have US (Presidential) style democracy replacing the Romans Senate/Emporer relationship - where the senate used to appoint the emporer (again, in theory), now the US has the people voting for the president."

Only a few emporers were ever appointed by the Senate. It was an aberation, not the norm. Through most of the Empire the senate's only contribution to the decision of rule was based on the fact that generals were usually of senatorial rank and most of the Emporers used their millitary power to gain the throne. The US system is actually quite similar to the Roman republic in the way we decide on our officials. The roman people voted for the Consuls (co-rulers with a one year term), but not individualy. Much like the electoral college, roman votes were tallied by tribe (having to do with family and location) and the tribe cast it's vote as a whole. Unlike the electoral college though, while each tribe had an equal voice some were quite a bit smaller and more exclusive than others which gave some citizens much more clout than others. The mass of the poor in Rome belonged to one tribe while the older patrician families had tribes exclusively to themselves (Tribe Cornelius for instance). The senate was not an elected body in Rome (nor was it in early american history) although it was not exclusively patrician.

"Then we have Consitutinal Monachies (The UK, etc), and their relationship to many ancient civilizations (eg, Japan, sort of), where the ruler had only ceramonial power, and a council of elders chosen by some of the people (or a parliment chosen all the people) held the real power."

One could argue that Japan had no ancient civilization since it's culture didn't rise until around the 6th century CE. The hellenic oligarchies of the ancient world (like Carthage) had very little popular input. The councils that ruled in a kings stead were usualy aristocratic and rarely lasted long.

"I'd love to hear people thoughts... Come on, rip it to threads!"

That's "...rip it to shreads". (sorry, couldn't resist ;)


"Question with boldness even the existence of God; because if there be one, He must approve the homage of Reason rather than that of blindfolded Fear." - Thomas Jefferson
[ Parent ]

Some Quibbles (none / 0) (#13)
by Dacta on Sat Jan 06, 2001 at 11:32:01 PM EST

It is highly doubtfull that any of these civilizations, except perhaps the British Empire, had populations as large as the US has now (~280 million). The city of Rome probably topped out at well under two million inhabitants during the Empire (still huge for an ancient city). A pitiance compared to New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago which all have well over ten million inhabitants; much less Tokyo, Peking, or Mexico City which have more than twenty million inhabitants.

While I agree that no ancient cities reached the size of modern cities, I think you are wrong about the population of the empires. I read somewhere that the population of the Roman Empire (including Slaves) reached about 120 million at some stages. This paper (on the proportion of the Roman Empire that was Christian) used a figure of 60 million in 350AD - well into the decline of the size of the empire. Another quote: One estimate of the population of the Roman Empire, from Spain to Asia Minor, in 14 A.D. is 45 million. However, other historians set the figure twice as high, suggesting how imprecise population estimates of early historical periods can be.

While these figures aren't quite as large as a population of 250+ million, the social stuctures need to support a population of 100 million and 250 million aren't greatly different.

I agree with your point about the differnces between Roman values and our value, though - I was more interested in the social structures.

Periclean Athens did not have a senate, the whole of the citizen body (probably less than 10,000 people) voted on issues and apointments directly. All citizens had a voice, but only about 1 in 5 inhabitants of Athens were citizens (women, slaves, and those of foreign descent had no voice).
Okay - I'm not an expert on Greek history. I did think that the whole point of Pericles was that he was the first acknowledged leader of the senate, though. Also, what about those stories about how slaves used to run through the market with a rope dipped in sheeps blood, and whoever was touched had to go the senate and vote on an issue?

As for Rome - yes, the senate didn't directy appoint many emporers - they only ratified whoever had the power by giving them the titles of consul, protector of Rome, etc. However, in the roman constitution (I believe), the senate held the power, and it was only the fact that the emporer usually had control of the army (and the praetorium guard in Rome itself) that meant the emporer held the real power.

As for Japan: yeah, I knew that one had problems - but I couldn't think of a better example off the top of my head.

Thanks for the shread/thread, though ;-)



[ Parent ]
An interesting way of looking at it... (4.33 / 3) (#6)
by vastor on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 08:31:56 PM EST

It's interesting you should discuss this.

A while back I saw a tv show where they discussed the fact that modern houses (in Australia anyway) are made in such a way as to require much more energy for heating/cooling than those built fifty years ago (when there were no airconditioners etc).

Not sure what that would say about society though... Maybe just that it's become preferable to impose your control (via airconditioners etc in the case of houses) rather than to work with your environment to make for both more pleasant and less environmentally destructive possibilities.

The dam building binge probably says something similar....

Your US gov't building is a bit dubious however, while it is still standing I don't know that it's as well maintained as it could be. If anything it suggests stagnation - no building built 200 years ago is likely to satisfy its occupants quite as well as a modern one, if only because of nice modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and the like ;-).



Dam Building (none / 0) (#15)
by Khedak on Sun Jan 07, 2001 at 02:36:23 PM EST

Not sure what that would say about society though... Maybe just that it's become preferable to impose your control (via airconditioners etc in the case of houses) rather than to work with your environment to make for both more pleasant and less environmentally destructive possibilities.

The dam building binge probably says something similar....
<br
Uh, I don't know if this was implicit, but have you considered that if there is both a strong tendency towards housing inefficiency and a strong tendency towards building electrical plants, then maybe the efficiency of housing is being deliberately manipulated so that the energy industry can profit from it? Seems likely to me. But, at the very least, the dam-builders must be really pleased to have such an unexpected windfall.

[ Parent ]
Bricks and Metaphor (4.66 / 3) (#7)
by sinclair on Thu Jan 04, 2001 at 09:31:09 PM EST

Odd. Just yesterday on NPR's All Things Considered, I heard a commentary also about the ties between architecture and society. Check out the segment titled "Bricks and Metaphor" on this page at npr.org.

FWIW, I've noticed the same trend. Take the case of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Madison, Wisconsin. At one end of the street, the Wisconsin State Capitol. In the middle, the City-County Building, a lump of a building so visually unremarkable, I don't think anybody has bothered to put a picture of it on the Web. At the other end of the street, the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a community center for that location, but it was too controversial to build. About 50 years later, the city had architect Tony Putnam re-work the design to turn it into a convention center. (And despite a few attempts at making at a community center, such as Whad'Ya Know?, it's really a convention center.)

It's like a three-block timeline of society and architecture: The grandiose, awe-inspiring seat of state government, the ugly-but-functional city/county government building, and the grandiose design for a public space subverted for a building intended for those with the cash to rent it.

Archaeological nitpick (4.00 / 3) (#9)
by YellowBook on Fri Jan 05, 2001 at 11:38:17 AM EST

Around ten thousand years ago, certain cultures -- after having developed new techniques in agriculture and animal husbandry -- were able to give up their nomadic ways in favor of a more sedentary, city-oriented lifestyle.

Nitpicking time: sedentism usually precedes the development of agriculture or the domestication of animals. In the Levant, the Natufian culture (sorry, I looked for a decent web link, but couldn't find one, try an intro. world prehistory textbook), had an economy based on intensive collection of the wild ancestors of the plants that would eventually be domesticated in that region. Natufians lived in mostly sedentary villages with semi-subterranean pithouses -- a basically permanent type of construction. You could say that the Natufians were "gearing up" for agriculture -- the Natufian period was folllowed by the Neolithic, in which various plants and animals were domesticated. Of course, cities do require agriculture, but even in the Near East, cities postdate both sedentism and agriculture by quite a bit.

A similar situation held in the Late Archaic in eastern North America: lots of people lived in rich enough environments that they could collect wild foods that they could live in one place year-round. Weblink? Here's one for the Poverty Point culture, a regional Late Archaic culture of the southeast U.S. The substantial earthworks at the Poverty Point site are really impressive -- especially when you consider that they were constructed by a nonagricultural society.

Also, there are ethnographic examples of sedentary nonagricultural people -- the natives of the Northwest Coast of North America are the most well-known example. Again, hunter-gatherers in a rich enough environment to develop a sedentary way of life and an elaborate material culture (since they didn't have to lug it all around with them). Architecture: timber longhouses, for example. Here's a link on the Makah nation.

Again, I freely admit that this is a bit nitpicky. But the idea that agriculture is a prerequisite for sedentism (and the elaboration of things like agriculture) is one of those "sticky" memes that lives on from early archaeology and is proving deucedly hard to get rid of.



typo (?) correction (5.00 / 1) (#12)
by YellowBook on Sat Jan 06, 2001 at 05:29:45 PM EST

Obviously (?), the phrase "elaboration of things like agriculture" at the end of the last post should be "elaboration of things like architecture." Thenk yew.



[ Parent ]
Both... (none / 0) (#14)
by Khedak on Sun Jan 07, 2001 at 02:32:03 PM EST

Well, that makes sense too, but he meant that most people believe that agriculture was one of the things necessary for sedentism, when in fact he gives the example of a culture where they became sedentary while still in the collecting phase, before developing agriculture. Architecture also could go there, though, so both sentences would work. I don't know why he chose one over the other. :)

[ Parent ]
er, interesting, but keep trying (3.50 / 2) (#11)
by kumquat on Fri Jan 05, 2001 at 09:56:17 PM EST

As somebody who studied both architecture and sociology, and who currently works at their junction - development & planning - I'd have to say this essay both grossly over-simplifies and seriously misinterprets both fields. An intersting approach that I applaud you for trying, but the whole analogy seems a little forced, and frankly I'm not sure where you're trying to head with it.

You would probably find the writings of Sir Peter Hall very interesting, especially Cities in Civilization. Spiro Kostof would also interest you, I think.

Architecture and Civilization | 15 comments (10 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
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