A thought experiment: how would I teach the history of architecture?
Where would I start?
And how would I make it different and better than before?
I love the "Crash Course" series on YouTube, created by the vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green. I used to watch the World History obsessively, and now I've been watching the History of Science, which is another fantastic series. I love how engaging and exciting the short videos are, and they pack such excellent information in a very digestible way. Each episode is like a "gateway" to understanding the topic further, but it gives a very good foundational basis to each time period/subject matter. The "thought bubble" interruptions and excellent animations also keep the mind from wandering.
I feel like their show began as a reaction against history class stereotypes -- long, boring, and full of rote memorization of unnecessary peoples and places. The vlogbrothers seem to recognize that in today's world, educators have to compete with a host of other media to keep students focused - television, video games, and even TikTok. As such, they were able to compete with those media by making equally compelling content, and by doing so revolutionize education, much like their peers Khan Academy or even Extra Credit. (Side note, How I Built This recently released an episode on Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy. I highly recommend you check it out.)
Why Crash Course Architecture?
When it comes to architecture --- where should we even begin, with over thousands of years of history? How can we make it engaging and meaningful, and fit for a 21st century audience? Architectural history is one of my favorite subjects in college, and I really wish it can become more mainstream, within architectural education and even in the general public. There are so many interesting stories and anecdotes involved in architectural history, and it explains so much about modern society and how we live today. (Think of studying architecture as an archaeology of recent human history, and how it reveals the slow evolution of human society and culture.) Perusing the great history books and monographs at the Cornell Fine Arts library was like time-traveling across the globe, engaging with different societies and learning from elders. How can we democratize this knowledge to make more people care about these stories, and by extension their own environments?
If we give people the language and knowledge to describe their built environment, they will come to demand more from designers, architects, builders, and public officials. (See How to Make an Attractive City) Over time, this will elevate the quality of architecture and address the larger societal and quality-of-life issues that buildings represent. Because architecture is a public, highly visible art with a comparably long shelf life, it belongs to everyone --- and not just folks in big cities, universities, western countries, or the wealthy.
Any history text or series must have an overarching theme, or an editorial agenda. What do I want folks to get out of the series? My "Crash Course History of Architecture" would center around three themes: technology, power, and the human scale.
- Technology: Architecture is a means to shape the environment.
- Power: Architecture is an expression of cultural, political, and economical forces in a civilization.
- Human Scale: Architecture is a negotiation between Man and Nature and then Man and Machine.
Technology. Unlike the hypermarketed image of architecture as an "individualistic, exclusive art form", I want to present architecture as one of humanity's breakthrough innovations, spanning the time between the discovery of fire and the first modern computer. Just like the scientific disciplines, it is driven by teamwork, collaboration, and the exchange of knowledge. The practical need for shelter, coupled with countless creative and scientific breakthroughs, drove centuries of architectural and engineering marvels. Architecture curates and disseminates technology. (See this American short story on smart homes)
Power. Due to the highly public and capital-intensive nature of building, architecture is also a physical record of the dominant powers and concerns of a society. For centuries, its space-shaping potential have been utilized as a political and economic tool, promoting the agendas of those in and with power. Architecture represents political space and is therefore always contestable and controversial. (See protest and architecture).
Human Scale. The most important thing to understand about architecture is that it is profoundly human-centric, or "pro-human". As a human invention it always places people first, whether that means the dimension of doors or city zoning codes. Architecture started out as a dialogue between humans and nature. By nature, I mean climate and weather, but I also mean the gods, spirits and metaphysical forces that control the natural environment. (This dialogue produced the great Ziggurats of Mesopotamia, as well as the delicate Shinto Shrines of Japan.) Later on, as humans developed more and more tools to "master" nature, architecture became a mediator between us and the machines we created; we now coexist with automobiles, computers, and the internet infrastructure. Today, we face the twin existential threats of climate change and artificial intelligence, and architecture's role will be to help people adapt to these challenges.
I have created a brief, early outline of about 20 episodes, roughly mirroring major developments in world history -- from early human settlements to today -- but specifically targeting architectural themes. You can imagine it as supplementary materials to World History, or as a major subsection of Art History dedicated to architecture. In making this outline, I have tried to move away from a "Great Man" history of the discipline, defined by individual geniuses, and towards a more systems-based, high-level view of the field defined by geography and movements.
Disclaimer note: I am aware that this course outline dedicates many episodes to western architecture, and specifically European developments, such as the Renaissance and the War of Styles. As such, it may come across as having a western or American bias. I am fully open to amending the outline to include more diverse content, such as dedicated episodes devoted to Chinese, Japanese, Pre-Columbian American, Malian (The Great Mosque of Djenné is awesometacular) and Indian architecture. The course may even be retitled to a "History of Western Architecture", though I want to strive for a more global perspective. Comments and suggestions are welcomed.
- Early Settlements: Çatalhöyük & Other Dwellings
- The Middle East: Water, Worship, and Monuments
- India, China, and Japan: Hierarchy and Harmony
- Ancient Greece: Color, Cities, and Proportion
- Roman Antiquities: Bureaucracy and Engineering
- Islamic Architecture: Faith, Trade, and Mathematics
- Gothic Architecture and the Church
- The Italian Renaissance & Baroque
- Enlightenment Monuments: Boullée & Ledoux
- Brave New World: The Americas and the Atlantic Trade
- Neoclassicism: Empire and Colonization
- War of Styles: 19th Century European Industrialization
- City Beautiful: The Rise of Urban Planning
- Modernism in the 20th Century: Skyscrapers, Airplanes, & Automobiles
- Globalization 1.0: Modernism in the Americas, Asia, and Africa
- Radical Modernism: Counterculture, Brutalism and Other Developments
- The Sustainability Movement: LEED, Green Fighting Machine
- Postmodernism: Consumption and Spectacle
- Globalization 2.0: Urbanization in the 21st Century
- Computational Design & Digital Twins
- Potential Side Quest: Venice - I really want a bonus episode just talking about Venice, because I love Venice. I think it can be placed between Ep. 7 (Gothic Architecture) and Ep. 8 (Italian Renaissance).
Further References & Education Strategies
We now understand why the history of architecture is important, and what exactly we will talk about. So, how can the series go beyond the video format and make a real-world difference? I have laid out some strategies of teaching and engaging viewers who may want more information, so that hopefully the series materials will stick and inspire.
- Start Local
- Celebrate the Stories behind the Buildings
- Create a Design Foundation
- Construct Meaningful Design Arguments