The importance of architecture lies in how it connects the past and the future, as well as man and his environment.
The raw material of architecture is, above all, space. To a certain extent, space is imaginary. Its meaning rests in our perception of it. We are compelled to organize space within our realms of familiarity and hence give it meaning.
Architecture is the art of drawing frontiers; between inside and outside, the private and the public. Architectural design merges art and mathematics and limits creativity within the rules of functionality – and possibility. Vitruvius laid down the basic principles of architecture in Rome during the first century BC. These virtues – firmitas (durability), utilitas (utility) and venustas (beauty) – marked the beginning of design theory. They underpin the responsibility of an architect to go beyond aesthetics without reducing a building to a mere instrument.To use a platonic term, architecture places itself as “μεταξύ” (metaxu), that is, “in-between”. A building is neither simply a work of construction nor purely a work of art.
By looking at the financial aspect of architecture, we can see this tension in play. Housing, the spaces that most people live and die in, has been built with cost-effectiveness as its primary objective. Today, increasingly so, ecological considerations are vital. Urban planning has come to the fore to meet the needs of the population. It is a belief system which developed societies have subscribed to, to create practically minded cities, equip with the necessary structure and amenities for a contented population. The problem with this approach is that it often thinks on too large a scale and forgets the individual, human aspect. People need to be provided for in a less tangible way – through beauty. Because of the ubiquity of this kind of controlled architecture, we are at risk from losing sight of the importance of aesthetical variety in our man-made landscape.
Buildings that have stood the test of time, whilst redesign and reconstruction surrounds them, tend to be the most grandiose and extraordinary. These would now be considered reckless kind of building projects which, were it not for the ridiculousness of their patrons, our environment would look quite different. We would not have these gems, reminders of a time that was, if their patrons did not believe in preserving their power in something more durable than human flesh. The Taj Mahal is an example of this.
Architecture has a symbiotic relationship with the society that lives within and alongside it. We draw meaning from the way cultures of antiquity lived and functioned from the way their buildings were designed and constructed – like the pyramids for example. Buildings are constructed to reflect the needs and the nature of society. But architecture can have the power to instigate this change, too. The construction of our cities is also the construction of our culture and our outlook; it tries to define what it describes. Le Corbusier, and his contribution to modernism, had a utopian idea of living collectively at its heart: he espoused an egalitarian ideology. The design of the White House in Washington DC was very carefully considered. The young American government was forging a national identity, not just a residence. Its design is based on the mathematical and simple aesthetics of the Ancient Greeks – so far removed from the frippery of the crumbling autocracies of 18th century Europe.
Architecture is a melting pot of different concerns: financial, practical, societal, cultural, artistic and mathematical. Our relationship with our self-made surroundings reflects and defines the way we live – which is constantly changing.