Among the major visual arts, architecture has always had something of a reputation for being difficult to appreciate. This is not solely because it would seem to require a large degree of professional skill both to design and to understand, at least in a technical sense. Unlike a painting or a sculpture, a building does not tell an easily decipherable narrative or attempt to ‘represent’ some aspect of reality in artistic terms. Rather, the nature of architecture is at least in part utilitarian, serving to shelter various human activities. At the same time, architecture dignifies our daily actions by giving them a distinctive public presence in the form of a building envelope or façade, one that in the case of many historical edifices may present us with a bafflingly complex articulation. In this sense, the busy external appearance of, say, Chartres Cathedral (n° 315) or the Pompidou Centre (n° 716) may indeed prove intimidating to the visitor who encounters them for the first time. In many cases, the means of creation of a given building, including its structural techniques and even its materials, may not be immediately evident or easily comprehended by the casual viewer.
Its stylistic, historical and iconographic points of reference may be obscure and unfamiliar. Should one know, or care, for example, that the colossal Ionic columns fronting the 19th-century British Museum (n° 564) are based on those of the Temple of Athena Polias at Priene from the 4th century BCE? What insight might such an observation give us into the nature of the later edifice? Moreover, the very function of a building may often be inaccessible from a purely visual inspection, especially if its original purpose has been forgotten or has changed over time: what was Stonehenge (n° 191) used for, and what does one do inside a basilica, a pagoda or a martyrium, for instance?
On the other hand, unlike our encounter with a work of art in a museum, we generally experience architecture in a state of distraction: as the German philosopher Walter Benjamin once noted, we do not see and appreciate buildings so much as we simply use them or walk past them or through them. Buildings become invisible to us. This points, however, to the major reason why the study of architecture should never be daunting to the beginner: it is the art we all use every day, and each of us has a lifetime of experience with it. In this sense, as we move from home to office to shopping mall to museum to hotel, we are all architectural experts, formed by a quotidian process of the visual assessment, navigation, tactile engagement and habitation of threedimensional spaces that have been designed by professional builders or architects.
Most of the structures in this book, however, could not be described as everyday. Rather, they are exceptional for various reasons, and on these grounds could be designated as ‘monuments’. (The term ‘monument’ in this context does not refer simply to those constructions of a largely symbolic or commemorative character—the Washington Monument, for example, or London’s Monument to the Great Fire of 1666—but to any building of fundamental architectural distinction.) Here we are largely concerned with edifices that required much time, money, labour and ingenuity in their creation. The architectural historian and theorist Geoffrey Scott wrote that civilisation ‘leaves in architecture its truest, because its most unconscious record’, and it is a truism worth repeating that architecture is inevitably an index of power—secular, religious and economic.
Architecture, by this definition, is represented by large, formal buildings, often of a showy appearance, crafted of permanent materials and dedicated to high purposes. A Greek temple, a Gothic cathedral or a palatial residence like Versailles (n° 468), the Alhambra (n° 49) or White Heron Castle (n° 137) might come to mind. It is clear that the planning and construction of such impressive structures only become feasible with the emergence of large concentrations of wealth and influence, whether in the hands of a single ruler or a ruling caste.
The resulting monuments, whose enduring nature has allowed them to far outlive their designers, patrons and originating cultures, bespeak an ability to marshal and deploy dozens or perhaps even thousands of workers over long periods of time, using forced, salaried or (most rarely) volunteer labour. This is as true of the Great Pyramids of Giza (n° 4) as it is of the latest aweinspiring skyscraper in Beijing or Dubai. Architecture, like history, is created on behalf of those who have prevailed through the wielding of power, those who are able to command the spoils of war and to reap the profits of commerce. As with all such manifestations of power, the great monuments of the world are in this sense more often than not the products of despotic rule, inhumane value systems or an unfair division of resources, and could certainly be condemned as such.
The Victorian art critic John Ruskin, for example, could even launch a contrarian attack on the ancient Greek temples—erstwhile symbols of fledgling democracy, humanistic culture and refined aesthetic sensitivity—as oppressive and dehumanising. Ruskin particularly objected to the Classical buildings’ demand for monotonously repetitive carved ornament (such as mouldings, dentils or capitals), the manufacture of which would seem to have demanded a machine-like subservience on the part of the stonemasons. Even today a visit to the Colosseum in Rome (n° 231) or the great Mesoamerican pyramidtemples (n° 814; n° 821; n° 823) may well arouse uneasy thoughts of the mass slaughter that occurred there over the centuries, if not the backbreaking labour that went into their creation.
The world’s largest church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace (1985-90) in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire, is generally seen as a self-indulgent folly on the part of that impoverished country’s onetime president rather than as an architectural masterpiece of the first order. More often than not, however, and especially in the case of the venerated relics of older civilisations, we have an understandable tendency to set aside the questionable morality of their patronage and simply to appreciate the splendour, mystery and ingenuity of their built creations.
With the passage of time, even the survivals of Nazi architecture, those morally repugnant but undeniably impressive reminders of recent atrocities, have gone some distance towards being the subject of dispassionate academic interest and even a measure of professional (rather than political) admiration from some practising architects, who see in them the evidence of a continuing European debt to the still relevant legacy of Greece and Rome. Ideologically offensive regimes, it can easily be demonstrated, do not automatically produce either good or bad results in architecture, and from a purely aesthetic or technical standpoint the question of politics might even be left out of the discussion altogether—a rationalisation that continues to allow some contemporary architects to work for politically suspect patrons. More generally, as the Maltese architect Richard England has observed: ‘When all is said and done there remains the building.’
To get a better insight into 1000 Monuments of Genius, continue this exciting adventure by clicking on:
Ebook: Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Australia, Amazon French, Amazon German, Amazon Mexico, Amazon Italy, Amazon Spain, Amazon Canada, Amazon Brazil, Amazon Japan, Amazon India, Amazon Netherlands, Parkstone International, Ebook Gallery, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Google, Apple, Overdrive, Scribd,
Bookbeat, Ellibs, 24symbols
Find out more on our The Book collection: