Friday, 3 April 2020

Architecture: A testament to human imagination and possibility

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Architecture and what it means to humankind

Architecture is a testament to the human imagination and sense of possibility. Living through momentous times can prompt many of us to think in a big-picture way about humanity’s achievements, what we have overcome, and our innate desire to leave a legacy for future generations. Architecture produced by civilizations since the beginning of recorded history (and, some would argue, even earlier than that) taps into the human desire to create something beautiful, meaningful and functional, expressing the values of a society.

The architecture of great civilizations

What architecture tells us about ancient civilizations: The architecture of ancient civilizations provides insights into the daily lives, belief systems, hierarchies, and aspirations of their people, as well as a sense of connection. Just look at the universal trend of leaving graffiti on ancient landmarks to get a sense of the human impulse to bear witness to the architecture created by great civilizations, and to leave our mark upon it. Seeing Roman graffiti on ancient Egyptian monuments reminds us that the people who lived 2000 years ago were like us in many essential ways.

Next time you go to a concert, remember the Greeks: Greek architecture is among the most distinctive in the world, with its wide columns, focus on symmetry, and aspects of ancient Greek mythology serving as decoration. Arguably the masterpieces of Greek architecture are temples built for worship of their pantheon, or the stadiums and theaters designed for competitions and plays. The ancient Greeks adapted temple design for their own use, but amphitheaters and stadiums were entirely their own innovation and among their unique contributions to world culture. To this day, many modern-day stadiums and similar structures are still modeled upon their design.

Phoenician architecture developed because of trade: The Phoenicians were dependent on sea trade, and this is reflected in their architecture. Recent excavations show that the Phoenicians constructed artificial harbors with rectangular docks carved out of natural rock. They were also known for fortifying their cities, building large dams, bridges, and gated walls. However, much of their construction was done in wood, which did not stand the test of time. What does remain? Stone temples, walls, and shrines, which can still be seen in cities like Beirut and Jerusalem.

Mayans and their “secular” buildings: Ancient Maya architecture made no particular distinction between religious and non-religious buildings. But Maya pyramids are rich in meaning and symbolism, consisting of nine exterior levels that represented the levels of the Maya underworld. Their palaces boasted intricate lattice work, and were also designed to visually depict the Maya view of the cosmos. Maya ballcourts were often deliberately positioned between the (symbolic) celestial and underworlds, while two teams would play the ballgame of Mesoamerica, competing to bounce a rubber ball through a single ring without the use of hands or feet. The stakes of this game were high, as losers could be sacrificed to the gods.

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History of architecture

Architecture is an expression of values, and so its history is essentially a roadmap of the values and principles prized by social groups at different points in time.

The Renaissance era put a premium on proportion and symmetry: Architects working in 15th century Italy developed and followed a design principle that combined mathematical precision with a strong aesthetic sensibility. They were guided by theories of rationality and realism, according to WideWalls. It was through the use of pillars and facades, like those seen in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and Villa Rotonda, near Venice, that the prevailing cultural values of order and logic were visually displayed. These well proportioned buildings were reminiscent of earlier styles of classical architecture that relied upon the use of columns to balance natural errors in human sight. This was all underpinned by a desire for order and rationality, as was ingrained in Ancient Greek and Roman cultures, according to ThoughtCo.

Other movements preferred ornamental playfulness: A less disciplined and dogmatic approach to design can be seen in the 17th century Baroque architecture of France and Italy, as well as contemporary architectural movements like Neomodernism. Baroque style is known for its decorative extravagance. It shows a cultural transition from the overtly rational style of its Renaissance-era predecessor to a more playful and leisurely view of the world, according to WideWalls. The Palace of Versailles in France, which is embellished with dramatic ornaments and bold accents, embodies this reactive cultural evolution.

Some were rebels with a cause: Contemporary Neomodernist works like Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Centre in Azerbaijan and Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao are less concerned with Modernist concepts of functionalism than pushing the bounds of technologically-driven “freeform design,” according to ThoughtCo.

And some reached for the skies: Ancient and Gothic architects held religion as a focal point in the buildings they constructed. So they built upwards, towards the source of their worship. The towering pyramids of Giza were among other things a bid to construct a passage to the skies, to be closer to the gods. Putting the sacred at the center of construction was also a priority in 12th century Europe, where Gothic architecture, like the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, also stretched to new heights.

Similar approaches can span thousands of years. The Gothic architecture of the 12th-16th centuries may seem a world away from the architecture of ancient Egypt, but in the case of each, their sacred constructions took considerable resources and top priority, leaving very few traces of civic buildings from either era, according to WideWalls. Gothic cathedrals displayed colorful interior decorations through stained glass and inscribed with descriptive images, while ancient Egypt’s monuments were decorated with elaborate hieroglyphs.

What makes a building stand the test of time? There are no hard and fast rules, but a solid shape, materials that will endure, shelter and maintenance all play a role.

The pyramid is king — and we’re not just talking about the Giza pyramids. The Teotihuacan pyramids northeast of Mexico City also constitute some of the most well-preserved architectural constructions of all time. Their origins still belong to the mists of time however, according to National Geographic.

Materials make all the difference. The Easter Island statues (moai) are mostly carved from compressed volcanic ash, and are believed to have been carved between the years of 1250 and 1500. The Rapa Nui people believe that the moai represent their ancestors, and that they are imbued with living power. The statues have weathered the sun, wind and rain for hundreds of years, but experts warn they are being eroded gradually.

And nature can be put to good use. The remarkable ancient city of Petra is famous for its rock-cut architecture, which has preserved tombs and temples that date back to around 300 BC. Not only is it Jordan’s most famous archaeological site, but also an example of one of the world’s first water management systems, according to UNESCO.

While some architecture has endured, some has been transformed. The ancient Roman Pantheon was originally built as a Roman temple in about 126 AD. Unlike many Roman temples and buildings that have fallen into ruin, the Pantheon exists today because the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave it to Pope Boniface the IV in 608 AD, and it has been used as a church ever since.

Architecture: what is the cost and is it worth it?

Good design doesn’t mean bad economics: While investing in design might carry some extra costs, it’s a mistake to assume that these yield no economic benefits. The intangible wins of great design — be they improving productivity in workplaces, saving energy, or just simply creating a mentally stable population — can lead to bns in annual savings. In the US alone, the “economic value could be nearly $200 billion a year,” Lance Hosey, who authored The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design, writes for ArchDaily.

This makes a lot of sense: Elaborately and intelligently designed urban spaces not only reflect how rich a place is, but can also drive economic prosperity, says FORM Architecture Engineering. There’s a fine balance to be found between beauty and effectiveness. Buildings can be “beautiful and inspiring but … also durable and adaptable enough to retain their value over a long time.” This approach to design helps build what the Canada-based designer calls financial, human, and environmental capital.

Architects deserve a lot of credit: Besides promoting sound economics and a decent quality of life, great architecture creates a sense of spatial balance and “help[s] bring balance to people's lives,” says one blog post by DesignBlendz. Design innovation also reminds us of how far we’ve progressed, from huts and clay houses to spiraling structures.

A shining example of this theory at work is the Danish city of Aarhus. Aarhus’ municipality has had an official architectural policy in place since 2012, with a mission to become renowned for the quality of its contemporary architecture and urban space design. One of the city’s earlier projects, ‘The Iceberg’, is a unique seaside housing project that was both “high-impact” and economically efficient.

Creating space and a sense of place: why architecture matters

The design of a city and its architecture impacts its citizens on many levels, affecting mental health, community integration, and even levels of crime, according to BBC Future. Urban cities need to keep in mind two things to make sure the people who live in them are at their happiest: Fostering a sense of community and helping people navigate their surroundings. Urban designers and psychologists are increasingly working together to get these two things right, in an unprecedented collaboration that aims to reduce social stress and encourage social interaction in cities.

“Neuro-architecture” aims to calm and stimulate. Adding benches to public spaces, creating greener environments and changing the layout of buildings to make them easier to navigate are some of the design techniques that are intended to provide a better experience for people.

Defining “placemaking”: The importance of placemaking can be taken to extremes by overzealous developers who charge a premium for real estate that promises to transform your life. But there’s clear evidence that feeling a sense of ownership and belonging within a physical environment has benefits for human health and wellbeing. Placemaking is a way to create identity for a city, say some architects. This could be done by adding monuments and statues that celebrate collective memories, adding new works of architecture that showcase contemporary techniques, or renovating historic buildings to make sure they are preserved.

The architecture of today and tomorrow

So what are the architectural achievements that future generations will marvel at? We’ve rounded up a few of our favorites.

Neri Oxman’s Silk Pavilion II: The Pavilion is an ongoing project led by Canadian-Israeli Architect and MIT professor Neri Oxman, that is seeking to more sustainably utilize silkworms in the construction of objects, products, and buildings. The project draws on technology, biology and engineering expertise to bring forth sustainable construction solutions.

Ronald Rael’s Cabin of Curiosities: UC Berkeley Associate Professor of Architecture Ronald Rael’s “Cabin of Curiosities” is a livable, environmentally friendly 3D printed structure located in Oakland, California that was completed in 2018. The cabin is remarkable for the relative speed of construction if it is to be recreated and the interior is made from a translucent corn based bioplastic.

Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center: The 100k sqf Heydar Aliyev Center constructed in 2013 by star Iraqi-English Architect Zaha Hadid’s Zaha Hadid Architects is intended to be the center of Azerbaijan's cultural activities. Its bold and futuristic Neo-Modernist style falls in stark contrast to the Soviet architecture that is prevalent throughout the rest of the country.

New York City High Line: A 1.45 mile elevated public park constructed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro on abandoned train tracks through New York City’s Meatpacking and West Chelsea gallery neighborhoods in 2009. The reclaimed space is now home to a Hudson riverside park that has seen greenification and public space made available.

Snøhetta’s Alexandria Library: The USD 230 mn Alexandria Library reconstruction project was officially completed in 2001 by Norwegian firm Snøhetta. The 80k sqm building has the capacity to carry up to 8 mn books and holds 11 floors designated for rare books, lectures and cultural events.

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