Since the middle of the 20th century and the advent of Structuralism, architecture has been perceived as a system of signs, as a lifeless expression that is isolated from humans, their identity, and their world. There is a creeping cultural irrelevance of architecture that is very problematic and is in direct contrast with the Functionalist Architecture developed in the mid-1930s that is often linked with the ideas of Socialism and Modern Humanism. Even since prehistoric times, architecture has always been about people. The way they used the space determined the way it was designed.
Yamanashi Broadcasting and Press Center (1961–1966) by Kenzo Tange, Yamanashi, Japan: Highlighting an unabashed structural expression of building as a container for social activities rather than formal ideals with the absence of the restrictive ethical, regulatory and humanistic covenants.
Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe, 1929:
The attributes of Functionalist Architecture can be seen in the use of raw materials, elegant sleek lines, and proportional composition to create a tranquil, minimalist, and illuminated space.
Certainly, architecture is analogous to spatial storytelling as it mediates the hitherto human knowledge of the world in the form of a built environment. It is never isolated from the world where it breathes and human beings who have built it for themselves or their fellow mates.
Visualizing our planet without architecture and built environment or even conceiving it as a possibility brings on some very profound thoughts in mind. First and foremost, necessity and security were the two indispensable elements in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of human beings. It was essential for them to shelter their bodies against inclement weather, wild beasts, and human enemies. Next, if the need for shelter did not develop, the species would not have realized the utility of all the materials and resources lying around them like stones, wood, leaves, thatch, water, etc.
Homo sapiens have evolved from hairy fuzzy apes to having comparatively very less body fur. When the bipedal ancestors were living in the forests, they needed their bodies to be protected from searing heat during the day and from cold at night. With the innovation of cave dwellings, clothes, and fire, the body hair receded, removing the unnecessary insulation layer and letting the skin be cooled by sweating. It is extremely complex and immersive to envisage the evolution of the world, humans, and human knowledge if homo sapiens did not have the unique ability to compensate for their challenges with shelter, fire, and clothing.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelters (c. 8000 BCE) from Mesolithic Age:
One of the 760 rock shelters, with paintings from Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Chalcolithic, Early Historic, and Mediaeval Age. It exhibits paintings of humans hunting, holding spears, pregnant women, musical instruments, and men carrying dead animals, etc.
Just like pottery evolved with the advent of agriculture to store grains, trade and mercantilism took a forward leap during the later Vedic times. After the discovery of agriculture and the formation of human civilizations, the human skill set and their mastery over the natural materials lying around them evolved; they simply stopped living in caves and started working on how their dwellings should look. And that is how the science of architecture unfolded. With the development of different civilizations and empires, class inequalities, political trends and rivalries, and the formulation of religion and cults, it became essential to establish power. Here, architecture played an important role. The construction of beautiful majestic palaces, temples and ceremonial plazas became an expression of prowess and grandeur. And even today, architecture is continuously growing and trying to impact humans and their world.
Imagine a hustling city being transformed into a deserted space. After a day of hard work, there will be nowhere to hang out, take some rest, store books, shop, exercise, swim, worship, or play. There is no space for psychological needs, social obligations, or spiritual attributes. There would be no space for cosmopolitanism. The result of this would be anarchy and utter chaos.
Imagine a world with no beauty, no heights, no passion, no realism, no identity, no expression, no awe, no faith, deprived of culture and ancestral inheritance, and without The Divine. Imagine not knowing how the world is put together and not being able to relate your pursuits to the various spaces. Architecture is what brings us together – a place for us, our friends, and our families to gather. Basically, as long as there are human beings and their challenges, there will be architecture in some form or the other, given the intention of architecture to provide sheltered internal space for human occupation.
A world without architecture is Unimaginable. A photograph of Via 57 West, a residential building in NewYork by Bjarke Ingels Group.
Architecture as Spatial Storytelling
Human life and architecture have had a symbiotic or reciprocal relationship in every epoch since they came into existence. Although originally, the need for architecture was as a shelter for human beings against natural forces, architecture has been a storyteller of various events and eras around the world. The parallelism of human history to the history of architecture is justified by the strong material presence of the built environment. Also, it provides the most accurate evidence of societal development.
Human beings record the development of the history of humankind, social and cultural transformations, and the pleasure and miseries of human life using mediums such as art, architecture, written records, language, and music. So, it can be concluded that architecture progresses with the progress in human accomplishments rather than remaining at a standstill as if it belongs to a lifeless world. Buildings and spaces are designed by humans as spatial storytelling. To mediate human knowledge of the world, they employ their bodies as central vehicles to perceive, experience and understand the world. This is the only way that humans and human existence in the world can be understood, revealed, and interpreted. Spatial storytelling or architecture can be understood by analyzing the three common elements contained in the world, humans, and architecture, i.e., materials, configurations, and time.
Architecture as spatial storytelling of historical time: Photographs of Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, which showcases a primary example of Jewish space and its specific engagements with historical time by use of spatial layout and circulation, spatial form and symbolization and spatial qualities of lighting and material. These components construct a tangible, sacred, and cultural artefact; such artefact inherits, preserves, and records Yad Vashem, Modern Jerusalem, and the Nation of Israel and is an ideal physical and spiritual “home” for Jewish people worldwide.
Humans live in a material, temporal and configurative world. The early measuring units were derived from the human body so that buildings were made to human scale. Then they incorporated different configurations to generate different feelings and symbolization. For example, vertical configurations evoke a sense of greatness, brilliance, and defiance of gravity, while horizontal ones bring in the sense of acceptance and rest (Tuan, 1974, p. 28). They noticed the geometric patterns in nature and created abstract spaces in their minds, trying to incorporate feelings, images, and thoughts into tangible material. The result of this is a sculpture or an architectural space or a large planned city. They use various materials for construction to make their designs more user-friendly and achieve a better sensory experience. These materials transform as they age. They fade, rot, and wither, narrating stories from different eras and cultures.
Constructed of meaningful materials, meaningful time, and meaningful configuration, architecture is never autonomous and cannot be reduced to a language (Tschumi, 1996, p. 3). These three elements mediate the human knowledge of the world, humans, and architecture, independently as well as together. Ultimately, architecture is a living thing comprising materials, configuration, and time. Appearing at the very origins of humanity and as a final, creative, and immediate product of human instinct, architecture is an artefact of embodied experience, which is made by people (Le Corbusier, 1926, p. 55), to challenge, intrigue, delight, and amuse them and which resonates with them and their lives (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000, p. 106).
Mise En Abyme
A building is always a container for human life, actions, and agency, but it is also the meaning itself contained. Our planet, i.e. the Earth, is a gigantic space inside another enormously gigantic space, i.e. the Galaxy. While we are living inside some miniature spaces, i.e. our homes, we still reside in a giant outer space. This means that we live in a ferociously compounded interior, and it feels impossible to escape from the spaces which are forever trapped in other spaces. In this sense, every work of architecture is an example of the mise en abyme illusion, which means that every space we occupy is an interior that has no exterior, or rather its exterior is only ever another interior that contains a set of people in space viewing a different set of people occupying another space.
Architecture and Humans as Mise En Abyme, from within and without all at once, representing the Interiorness of the interior of the interior. [The New Yorker Collection/The Cartoon Bank].
Though architecture can be viewed as both an object and an environment, experienced both as interior and exterior – these apparent opposites are continuous, recurring, and embrace the uniformity of the circular loop they are confined in. It is just the viewpoint, both within and without architecture, that animates our outlook. In this manner, human existence can also be seen from different angles and relative to different things, askance.
Although it can be concluded that human existence would not have been possible without the development of shelters, and there is no clear roadmap to approach things otherwise, still it cannot be denied that there is a microscopic possibility of extreme adaptation of humans to the environmental factors without shelters and their subsequent cycle of life. It’s about seeing and trying to understand human existence and architecture from within and without, all at once. This as-well is a mise en abyme.
Nevertheless, 2022 is where human society is right now, alive, living in building made by them, sitting on the couch, sipping coffee, and reading the spine-chilling reports that maybe they are right on the track to global collapse or extinction, in the most horrible way, due to their own actions and inactions, pondering upon where they went wrong.
- Tuan, Y., 1974. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes and Values. Journal of Leisure Research, 6(4), p.28.
- Tschumi, B., 1996. Architecture and Disjunction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Le Corbusier and Charles-Edouard, J., 1926. Vers Une Architecture. Paris.
- Hooper-Greenhill, E., 2000. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture. Routledge, London.
- Yamanashi Broadcasting and Press Center (1961–1966) by Kenzo Tange, Yamanashi, Japan: Highlighting an unabashed structural expression of building as a container for social activities rather than formal ideals with the absence of the restrictive ethical, regulatory and humanistic covenants.
@ Jacome / Flickr
- Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe, 1929: The attributes of Functionalist Architecture can be seen in the use of raw materials, elegant sleek lines, and proportional composition to create a tranquil, minimalist, and illuminated space.
@ Maciek Jeżyk
- Bhimbetka Rock Shelters (c. 8000 BCE) from Mesolithic Age: One of the 760 rock shelters, with paintings from Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Chalcolithic, Early Historic, and Mediaeval Age. It exhibits paintings of humans hunting, holding spears, pregnant women, musical instruments, and men carrying dead animals, etc
- Uxmal Maya Archeological Site: Majestic Palaces and Temples as expressions of wealth and power in the Mayas.
@ Dennis K. Johnson / Getty Images
- The imagination of a world with ‘The Divine’
- The imagination of a world without ‘The Divine’
- A world without architecture is Unimaginable. A photograph of Via 57 West, a residential building in NewYork by Bjarke Ingels Group.
@ Iwaan Baan
- Architecture as spatial storytelling of historical time: Photographs of Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum which showcases a primary example of Jewish space and its specific engagements with historical time by use of spatial layout and circulation, spatial form and symbolization, and spatial qualities of lighting and material. These components construct a tangible, sacred, and cultural artifact; such artifact inherits, preserves, and records Yad Vashem, Modern Jerusalem, and the Nation of Israel and is an ideal physical and spiritual “home” for Jewish people worldwide.
- Northeast bird’s-eye view of the museum campus
- Interior view of the terrace, looking outwards
- Interior view of the light-filled central corridor and Barriers, filled with artifacts on the floor
@ Timothy Hursley
- Architecture and Humans as Mise En Abyme, from within and without all at once, representing the Interiorness of the interior of the interior.
@ Edward Steed, The New Yorker, December 15, 2014. [The New Yorker Collection/The Cartoon Bank]