Transitions in architecture

Transitions in architecture

In the beginning was the word... or rather, three words: firmitas, utilitas and venustas, meaning durability, functionality and beauty. This was how the Roman architect-author Vitruvius, writing at the beginning of the Christian era, characterised architecture. And for the next 1,500 years or so, architects defined their work by this trichotomy.

In his recent scholarly work, architect and academic Professor Jaimini Mehta re-examines architectural theory, going back all the way to Vitruvius. Marshalling arguments from philosophy, art and science, Mehta posits that architectural thought suffered an epistemological obstacle in the mid-18th century, when civil engineering was sundered from architecture. However, some modern architects have begun the process of tearing down these obstacles. Significantly, these path-breakers still address the original ideals of Modernity. Rather than being Post-Modern, such architecture, he says, is more correctly Post-Rational.

Mehta contends that it was in 1747, when the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees (literally, School of Bridges and Roads) was established in Paris, that the epistemological break in architecture occurred. This seemingly insignificant event gave rise to the new profession of civil engineering, marking its separation from architecture, he says. Architects had thus far been seen as both artists and builders skilled in construction. Now, civil engineers took over the realm of construction, of building, of measurable rationality, while architects were left to deal with the indefinables of taste and custom. According to Mehta, it wasn’t long before architecture was measured and evaluated against engineering using its standards of efficiency, and was found wanting.

 In reaction to this crisis, contemporary 18th century theoreticians constructed a new identity for architecture, seeking to position it as a craft that had reason as its central and guiding force. Thus was born the Rationalist school of architecture. Under the influence of Rationalism, architects began to approach design in a logical, linear fashion, like a problem to be solved. Architecture was positioned and eventually came to be seen solely as a technical activity rather than a design activity. But as Mehta points out, architecture is much more than just the construction of built spaces. It is concerned with the creation of places for people “that respond to their need but also stir their imagination.” It is concerned ultimately with the sublimation of reality, an aim that does not sit comfortably with logic and which does not stem from the structural stability of buildings alone.

Two centuries of its trying to seek validity through rationalisation and utility have exposed the lacunae in the profession’s philosophy and practice. By the mid-20th century, as the author says, “The alienation of man from his environment and inability of architecture to construct a public space were too glaring.”

It took the luminous genius of Louis Kahn to bring about a paradigm shift by breaking through the unconscious obstacle that the sundering of architecture and civil engineering had erected. Projects like the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, the Capital Complex at Dhaka in Bangladesh and the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences in California effectively removed architecture from the realm of science and technology and placed it squarely back in the sphere of art. Mehta hence labels Kahn the first Post-Rational architect.

The book discusses the works of two other modern architects who also seem to be working in this mode. Spanish architect- engineer Santiago Calatrava’s most famous project, the Milwaukee Art Museum, is often described as ‘an architectural and engineering masterpiece’. Hiroshi Naito, architect and professor of civil engineering at Tokyo University, reinterprets traditional Japanese timber construction in a modern context. Both these gifted young men show that architecture can be simultaneously sensuous and rational.

This lucid exploration of architectural theory is elegantly produced with numerous black and white photographs to illustrate points. The book will be of interest to students of architecture and those practitioners who are interested in delving into the philosophical meanings behind their craft and its creations. 

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