An Idea of Architecture (2) – Focusing on the Fundamentals (An Afterthought on Bronowski’s Film)


Machu Picchu

Restoration of Parthenon

“Architecture appears on all objects.”

Our seminar’s recent viewing of the film The Grain in the Stone of Dr. Jacob Bronowski’s documentary series The Ascent of Men has reminded me about the fundamentals of architecture. By introducing the material characters1 of stone and its application in masonry structure of Inca civilization, Bronowski leads us a historical tour from ancient Greece to the high Gothic era. The comparison and development of the Greek post-lintel system, Roman round arch and Gothic pointed arch with buttress is a lucid analysis about how men construct their monumental structures. The process (evolution) from straight beam to round arch and then from round arch to pointed arch with buttress reveals the improvement of men’s understanding of the material. Each steps of structural development is an endeavor of cumulating our rational understanding of mathematics and physics as well as the empirical experience of engineering and construction. The built results, (the Parthenon, the Pantheon, the Reims Cathedral, etc.) are monumental and autonomous. Despite their religious and political significance, they are monumental because they are built to challenge the limits of the materials; they are autonomous because their forms demonstrate the understanding of the physical characters of the materials and the very honest ways of construction.

The complexity of contemporary architecture requires architect to understand the characters of the project and its context (physical, cultural, political, economical, environmental, etc.).  As I have mentioned in the previous blog piece, I am always interested in searching for answers about “how does one approach and design a contextual and autonomous project so that it can formally better serve its function and convey its embedded cultural, philosophical, spiritual, political, artistic and scientific concepts to people?” What are the fundamental characters (or the keyed parameters) about each project? What are the driving forces that lead us to generate the forms? How can the form be contextual (localized) and autonomous?

The whole world is under the process of globalization. From the food that we eat, to the furniture that we use, a lot of them can be found on the other side of the world. When we skim through an architecture magazine of today, we can see many projects that are so alike. The characters of vernacular is diminishing. How can they be not diminishing? Our construction techniques, design software, and building materials are all similar. As an individual, we know that each one of us is different from others. Can we still find the ways to design each building so that it is unique and autonomous to its context. If we can, I believe we are getting closer to the “timeless way” of building described by Christopher Alexander2. Since what we use in design and construction are similar, maybe it is the time for us to investigate in the earlier stage of architecture, its design process. Can the architecture of design process act as a Cartesian coordinate system to inform us the fundamentals of the project so that we don’t get lost in the labyrinth of creation?

Louis Khan once said, “A great building must begin with the unmeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed and in the end must be unmeasurable.” Focusing on the fundamentals of the design process may be is an alternative way to re-think architecture.

"Structure of Thought" by Mike + Doug Starn

1. Stone is strong for compression and weak for tension.

2. More information can be referred to Alexander’s books The Timeless Way of Building and The Pattern Language.