World Cultures General Glossary
Architecture

   Human language so pervades our world and suffuses our world view that it is practically invisble. We don't think about words and language, but naturally assume that it somehow corresponds with the world. So much so, it surprises us when non-native speakers can't understand us. We watch a science fiction film and are not surprised—in fact, we don't even notice—when aliens speak perfect English.

Architecture occupies a similar place in human consciousness; the configuration and manipulation of materials to enclose and control empty space is universal to all human cultures. Not only that, human "building" pervades every aspect of the human world in the same way language does. From the most crowded, modern urban areas to small, isolated communities of hunter-gatherer tribes, human life constantly encounters, builds, and modifies human arrangement of space.

   Like language, architecture is difficult to define, if not impossible. One can certainly point to it: there's a building, see, that's architecture. You can do the same for language, that is, you can point to a sentence: see, that's language. But you really haven't defined anything. Picking the obvious isn't good enough. Let's pursue the language metaphor a little bit further. What you're looking at now is language; that's clear enough. What about the pictures at the top of this page? Are they language? They do just about everything language does. Facial gestures: language or not? Now extend that to architecture. Look at the building around you: there's no question you're looking at architecture. But what about the desk which your computer is sitting on? Is that architecture? What if you dug a hole, filled it with wood, and started a fire? Is that architecture? Like a building, a fire-hole and a desk are human refashionings of raw materials, they are both designed, they both serve some function, they enclose or order space in some way. So architecture is more than just erecting fancy buildings, it is a process that underlies the intersection between humans and the world and humans and the empty space they live in.

   So let's begin with a working definition of "architecture":

Architecture is the human organization of empty space.

This definition is very deceptive in its simplicity. From this base, we can build several corollaries:
  • Animals, including human beings, are faced with empty space that is filled only with natural objects. This space becomes familiar to individual animals and individual communities, and most animals modify the natural objects around them in order to use empty space for some purpose (for instance, for shelter, i.e., a beaver lodge or a human house) or to define the organization of space (for instance, boundaries, i.e., a dog leaving a scent mark on a post, or a human fence). This is the biological basis of architecture. Architecture, like language, is something we share with other animals, but like language, human architecture is far more complex and probably far more riddled with meaning than animal architecture.
  • When you really think about it, this definition means that more than just buildings can be included under the heading "architecture." This is probably true: it includes desks, cooking instruments, the way you organize your room (or don't organize your room), even clothing. All of these involve defining a space meaningfully and communicating that definition to others.
  • In order to organize empty space, humans need to predetermine that organization, that is, they need some idea of how things should be located in space. Therefore, all architecture begins with world view, that is, it begins with a culture's sense of how objects and actions are organized in the world. Notice I stress objects and actions: architecture has as its principle function organizing the space of human actions: eating, cooking, speaking, praying, etc. More than anything else, the language of architecture is permeated with a culture's sense of what humans should do, where they should do it, when they should do it, how important it is, and how these actions relate to the rest of the community, the material world, and the supernatural world. Read that last sentence a second time. All architecture communicates to the members of a community the meaning of their actions, that is, how their actions relate to the rest of the human, material, and spiritual worlds.
  • The definition means that architecture can be "read," that is, you can discover how a culture organizes itself socially, materially, and metaphysically. Architecture is like a book that a culture "writes" for other members of that culture; it is a culture talking to itself about the meaning and organization of the life of that culture. So looking at architecture isn't about pretty buildings, it's about understanding world view. This also means that whenever a member of a culture looks at a work of architecture, they understand that it has meaning and that this meaning governs their actions and understanding of the world.

Richard Hooker



World Cultures

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-3-97