The Dangerous Game of Innovative Architecture

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  When imagining what it must have been like to be a Roman citizen in 126 AD, looking up at the dome of the Pantheon must have appeared quite magical.  Architecture has, since the beginning of civilization, defied the preconceived notions of its time and both literally and metaphorically journeyed forth into the clouds.  Technology has also followed suit, embracing uncharted territory and innovation.  There is no simple line to cross that distinguishes architecture from technology, for the two are deeply intertwined.  I would thus postulate that technology is a component of architecture via materials and forms, and that architecture is a form of technology in regards to its construction of social order.

While the only limit to some forms of art is the imagination, for architecture, that limit has been materials.  University of California, Santa Barbara professor Jeremy White describes the most important characteristics of materials to be strength, weakness, durability and workability.  The two former characteristics help to inform the types of stress the material can endure and whether it is compressive or tensile.  Materials like earth, masonry, and concrete possess high compressive strength but lack the tensile capabilities of wood, steel and other metals.  Each material has held its own unique advantages that have certainly been exploited over the course of human history.  The site of Machu Picchu is not only a testament to the precision techniques of the stonemasons involved, but is also a testament to the strength and permanence of stone.  The same can be said of the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, The Great Wall, and many other landmarks like them.  One of the most often used materials, for good reason, has been wood.  Having both moderate compressive and tensile strength and being highly durable, wood has been the premier material for the Tubu tribe in Africa throughout their existence, used as the structural support in their tents.  The tribe stretches goatskins over the wood, acting as a membrane, and are thus able to assemble and disassemble them as frequently as the need arises.  Steel is the last material to be discussed for the sake of time, and came into widespread use during the Industrial Revolution.  Possessing both high tensile and compressive strength, steel became the material for many modernist architects.  One such architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, blatantly erected the Crown Hall in Chicago using steel girders as the framework, allowing for an entirely undisturbed interior, free of any walls except the glass panels designating space.  This highlights the next important technological component of architecture, and the figurative glue that holds the materials together, the form.

Professor White describes ‘form’ as the assembled configuration of materials, with both technologies acting as limiting factors for one another.  The construction of the dome at the Pantheon would have been impossible without both the development of concrete by the Romans as well as the precise assembly and form work of the architects and laborers.  The secretive nature of guilds and their oral tradition of structural planning in the Middle Ages also highlight the importance of form in relation to materials.  Although rubble may still be considered architecture, the organizational nature of technology provides the literal framework that architecture rests upon, acting as a key component towards the progress of the medium.

Not only is architecture a component of technology, it also exists as a technology via the construction of social order, consisting of social stratification and an assertion of power.  An architect by the name of Walter Gropius describes the new separation, explaining, “building is merely a matter of methods and materials. Architecture implies the mastery of space”.  What Gropius was discussing was not purely the aesthetic nature of space, but rather the meaning of the space as well as the meaning involved in the separation of space.  While it may not have been obvious to outsiders, the reshaping of Paris in the mid 19th century by the urban planner, Georges Eugene Haussmann, created an instantly harsh separation from the haves and have-nots.

By demolishing a wide stretch of housing to create large roadways connecting landmarks in Paris, this instantly displaced many poorer families.  Eventually, the families that lived in the housing next to the streets were displaced as well since they were incapable of paying the steep new fees connected with the area.  While this may have been a more subtly coercive use of social stratification, none are as obvious as what occurred in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1950.  The Group Areas Act essentially segmented the landscape based upon the social order of apartheid.  British imperialists sat at the top, and were placed in an area, buffered by middle-class and lower-class white people, in order to separate them from the Indian and Black people.  The technology of organization expressed itself in the form of architecture by promoting this purposeful arrangement of separation.  The circular nature of the layout in Johannesburg is a testament to the domineering ideology of Jeremy Bentham, explained in his book, Panopticon, written in 1786.

By creating a specific layout of a physical structure, he was able to instill hegemony over the people with the concept of “the inspector.”


By simply making an example of a few people through disciplinary measures and instilling the concept of an all-seeing individual, the architecture is then able to speak for itself and affect the minds of the people around it.  Walter Gropius unwittingly describes this effect that architectural organization, and ultimately domination, has on people, by explaining that it “exercises a settling and civilizing influence on men’s minds”. Technology is the use of different tools and methods of organization in order to solve problems, and Bentham savagely used architecture as the means to accomplish his affliction of social order.  Whether stratification, destruction, and the imposition of architecture on the landscape are a leap forward or a step back is inconsequential.  What is clear is that architecture, via these manipulations, acted as a technology, and brought about its unfortunate desired effects.

Architecture has acted as the springboard of change, destroying the distinction between itself and technology.  Much like a computer, its materials and forms have changed over the course of human history, as have its uses.   Architecture is dynamic in the sense that is constantly being reinterpreted.  Its components are ever-changing, allowing for new designs, and in lieu of its past uses, hopefully new meanings.

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Pantheon painting and Panopticon image courtesy of wikipedia.

Farnsworth House image courtesy of http://www.medill.federicow.com.

Bauhaus image courtesy of history-wiki.wikispaces.com.

Chicago Hall image courtesy of chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress.com.

Haussmann urban planning overview courtesy of www.rolandcollection.com.

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About aflorin8

Simply a friend, biologist, photographer, avid reader, volleyball nut, humanitarian, and man.

5 comments

  1. Claire Kinnan

    An insightful discussion, enjoyed reading this 🙂

  2. Wow. Great post. I never saw the connection between technology and architecture. My favorite line in the piece; “Its components are ever-changing, allowing for new designs, and in lieu of its past uses, hopefully new meanings.”

    Keep up the great posts! I’m always checking for new posts.

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