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.
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.
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