Architecture is the art and science of designing buildings. A wider definition would include within its scope the design of the total built environment, from the macro level of town planning, urban design and landscape to the microlevel of furniture and product design. Architecture, equally importantly, also refers to the product of such a design.
According to the earliest surviving work on the subject, Vitruvius' "On Architecture", good building should have Beauty (Venustas), Firmness (Firmitas) and Utility (Utilitas); architecture can be said to be a balance and coordination among these three elements, with no one overpowering the others. A modern day definition sees architecture as addressing functional, aesthetic and psychological considerations. However, looked at another way, function itself is seen as encompassing all criteria, including aesthetic and psychological ones.
Architecture is a multi-disciplinary field, including within its fold mathematics, science, art, technology, social sciences, politics, history, philosophy, and so on. In Vitruvius' words, "Architecture is a science, arising out of many other sciences, and adorned with much and varied learning: by the help of which a judgment is formed of those works which are the result of other arts". He adds that an architect should be well versed in fields such as music, astronomy, etc., Philosophy is a particular favourite, in fact one frequently refers to the philosophy of each architect when one means the approach. Rationalism, empiricism, structuralism, poststructuralism and phenomenology are some directions from philosophy influencing architecture.
The importance of theory in informing practice cannot be overemphasised, though many architects shun theory. Vitruvius continues "Practice and theory are its parents. Practice is the frequent and continued contemplation of the mode of executing any given work, or of the mere operation of the hands, for the conversion of the material in the best and readiest way. Theory is the result of that reasoning which demonstrates and explains that the material wrought has been so converted as to answer the end proposed. Wherefore the mere practical architect is not able to assign sufficient reasons for the forms he adopts; and the theoretic architect also fails, grasping the shadow instead of the substance. He who is theoretic as well as practical, is therefore doubly armed; able not only to prove the propriety of his design, but equally so to carry it into execution."
The difference between architecture and building is a subject matter that has engaged the attention of many. According to Nikolaus Pevsner, European historian of the early 20th century, " A bicycle shed is a building, Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture". In current thinking, the division is not too clear. Bernard Rudofsky's famous book "Architecture without architects" consolidated a whole range of structures designed by ordinary people into the realm of architecture. The further back in history one goes, the greater is the consensus on what architecture is or is not, possibly because time is an efficient filter. If like Vitruvius we consider architecture as good building, then does it mean that bad architecture does not exist? To resolve this dilemma, especially with the increasing number of buildings in the world today, architecture can also be defined as what an architect does. This would then place the emphasis on the evolution of architecture and the architect.
Architecture first evolved out of the dynamics between needs (conducive environmental conditions, security, etc.,) and means (available building materials and construction technology). Prehistoric and primitive architecture constitute this early stage. As humans progressed and knowledge began to be formalised through oral traditions and practices, architecture evolved into a craft. Here there is first a process of trial and error, and later improvisation or replication of a successful trial. The architect is not the sole important figure, he is merely part of a continuing tradition. What is termed as Vernacular architecture today falls under this mode and still continues to be produced in many parts of the world.
Early human settlements were essentially rural. As surplus of production began to occur, rural societies transformed into urban ones. The complexity of buildings and their types increased. General civil construction such as roads and bridges began to be built. Many new building types such as schools, hospitals, recreational facilities emerged. Religious architecture retained its primacy in most societies. Architectural styles developed and texts on architecture began to be written. These became canons to be followed in important works, especially religious architecture. Some examples of canons are the works of Vitruvius and Vaastu Shastra in ancient India. In Europe in the Classical and Medieval periods, buildings were not attributed to specific individual architects who remained anonymous. Guilds were formed by craftsmen to organise their trade.
With the Renaissance and its emphasis on the individual and humanity rather than religion, and with all its attendant progess and achievements, a new chapter began. Buildings were ascribed to specific architects- Michaelangelo, Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, the cult of the individual had begun. But there was no dividing line between artist, architect and engineer, or any of the related vocations. At this stage, it was still possible for an artist to design a bridge as the level of structural calculations involved were within the scope of the generalist.
With the consolidation of knowledge in scientific fields such as engineering and the rise of new materials and technology, the architect began to lose ground on the technical aspects of building. He therefore cornered for himself another playing field - that of aesthetics. There was the rise of the 'gentleman architect' who usually dealt with wealthy clients and concentrated predominantly on visual qualities, usually derived from historical prototypes. In the 19th century Ecole des Beaux Arts in France, the training was towards producing quick sketch schemes involving beautiful drawings without much emphasis on context.
Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution laid open the door for mass consumption and aesthetics started becoming a criterion even for the middle class as ornamented products, once within the province of expensive craftmanship, became cheaper under machine production. Such products lacked the beauty and honesty associated with the expression of the process in the product.
The dissatisfaction with such a general situation at the turn of the twentieth century gave rise to many new lines of thought that in architecture served as precursors to Modern Architecture. Notable among these is the Deutshe Werkbund, formed in 1907 to produce better quality machine made objects. The rise of the profession of industrial design is usually placed here. Following this lead, the Bauhaus school, founded in Germany in 1919, consciously rejected history and looked at architecture as a synthesis of art, craft and technology.
When Modern architecture first began to be practiced, it was an avante garde movement with moral, philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings. Truth was sought by rejecting history and turning to function as generation of form. Architects became prominent figures and were termed masters. Later modern architecture moved into the realm of mass production due to its simplicity and economy.
However, a reductive quality began to be perceived in modern architecture by the general public from the 1960s. Some reasons cited for this are its lack of meaning, sterility, ugliness, uniformity and psychological effects.
The architectural profession responded to this partly by attempting a more populist architecture at the visual level, even if at the expense of sacrificing depth for shallowness, a direction called Postmodernism. Robert Venturi's contention that a "decorated shed'(an ordinary building which is functionally designed inside and embellished on the outside) was better than a " duck"(a building in which the whole form and its function are considered together) gives an idea of this approach.
Another part of the profession, and also some non-architects, responded by going to what they considered the root of the problem. They felt that architecture was not a personal philosophical or aesthetic pursuit by individualists, rather it had to consider everyday needs of people and use technology to give a livable environment. The Design Methodology Movement involving people such as Chris Jones, Christopher Alexander started searching for a more inclusive process of design in order to lead to a better product. Extensive studies on areas such as behavioural, environmental and social sciences were done and started informing the design process.
As many other concerns began to be recognised and complexity of buildings began to increase in terms of aspects such as services, architecture started becoming more multi-disciplinary than ever. Architecture now required a team of professionals in its making, an architect being one among the many, sometimes the leader, sometimes not. This is the state of the profession today. However, individuality is still cherished and sought for in the design of buildings seen as cultural symbols-the museum or fine arts centre has become a showcase for new experiments in style, today Deconstructivism, tomorrow maybe something else.
Buildings are the most visible productions of man ever. However, most of them are still designed by people themselves or masons as in developing countries, or through standardised production as in developed countries. The architect remains at the fringes of building production. The skills of the architect are sought only in complex building types or those seen as cultural and political symbols. And this is what the public perceives as architecture. The role of the architect, though changing, has not been central and never autonomous. There is always a dialogue between society and the architect. And what results from this dialogue can be termed architecture- as a product and as a discipline.