History of architecture: learning from past to prepare for the future

Ar. Le Corbusier

Le-Corbusier once quoted “Today I am accused of being a revolutionary, yet I confess to having had only one master: the past; and only one discipline: the study of the past.”

I remember drawing birds over the sketch of the Taj-Mahal in my history exam, as I had nothing much to write and something was to be done to kill time. Throughout my course I could not understand why am I taught history and how does it relate to me becoming a good architect. But now I think I know the answer.

We all must agree that architecture should respond to existing lifestyle, climate, art, geographical location, social and economic factors, resources, technology, etc. The moment there is a change in any of these parameters, it should start reflecting in the design. The fine-tuning or correction happens over a period of time and then it becomes a constant, unless, there is any change in the parameters listed above.

The common example I use is our house kitchen. Earlier Indian cooking was elaborate where housewives used to spend most of their time cooking. So, the kitchens were bigger and the food was cooked by sitting on the floor. With changing food habits and fast food culture, now the kitchens are smaller and more compact to facilitate faster cooking. In simple terms, it means, if the function changes, it should change the design, but if it does not then, the change is not required. This holds true with climate, topography, culture etc. Yes, improvisation is necessary and it is not at all obligatory to follow old guidelines.

Golconda Fort. Courtesy of Sujjusajuu

The important thing here is to question why should we shed old rules without even examining how it works, why was it designed in the manner it is now? What were the contemplations? It’s like learning classical singing to become a good singer in any century. Be it now or 500 years prior. No better teacher in this world than our own past. It’s the best case study to comprehend how everything gels and works in a particular space-time. 

Vitthala Temple, Hampi © Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr

How does acoustics work in Golconda fort? What was the construction methodology of temples in Orissa? What is the secret behind columns of  Vitthal temple at Hampi? How as Brihadeshwara temple built? How was the dome of Gol Gumbaz built?

Gol Gumbaz

These were not just miracles but the mere wisdom of our ancestors that could make it possible. Can we replicate the same when science and technology have progressed so much? 

I propose the following amendments:

1. In the first two years of Architecture schooling, History should be the most imperative topic with most of the time spent in learning and documenting old historical monuments. With documentation, students will understand the basics of graphics as well as do in debt analysis of that particular structure which gives them knowledge about how it was conceived and executed. Students should ask why for every aspect of design and should strive to get answers.  This will teach them how to identify and resolve design issues. By doing this, we might not have to create a new branch of sustainable design in our schools. Students will learn how to explore new materials, new technologies and new ideas and finally understand the meaning of Architecture in its purest form.

2. From 3rd Year onwards, students should be taught to study the local historical architecture of the place where the site is located and the design should explain how the inferences are derived from the study and incorporated in the design.  If this is followed, then students will never face problem in designing anywhere in the world.

3. Unfortunately, I graduated in an era where globalisation had taken over and had wiped out the footprints of the past. Looking for a solution, I feel we need to fine-tune our syllabus and connect the broken strands in the DNA of architecture with assumptions and case studies and then bring back the past into mainstream practice. Look at the work of the post-independence era. It was modern yet showed learning from the past. Issues identified were the same, but the solution was different or modernised. 

4. We should start appreciating architecture by experience and not by aesthetics. Aesthetics is important but what is the use of a bike, which looks good but cant move from A to B. It has to have everything. Beauty anyways is in the eyes of the beholder.

Martha Thorne, Executive Director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize

When Martha Thorne (Executive Director of the Pritzker Prize) was asked about how does architecture relate to wider culture, She said, “Without a doubt, architecture is a part of a culture; it has been called the mother of all arts!” It is certainly part of how we see ourselves and part of how we see the world. The unique aspect of architecture is that in its physical incarnation of buildings, it may last for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Architecture is created by people! The most successful architecture goes beyond just being a shed or a box for living… the most important architecture as we look back over history are buildings or environments that have done so much more in a variety of ways- be that innovation in building and construction, or buildings that have pushed the discipline to get us to think about our environment in different ways, or just incredibly beautiful buildings that have lifted the human spirit in addition to housing our activities and our lives.

“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” – Winston Churchill

About the author:SidharthSingh

Siddharth Singh is the principal architect of Green Hat Studio, Pune. Since starting his own practice, he has tasted a fair bit of success since then. Recently he won an award at the prestigious Delhi Architecture Festival Awards 2016.

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