Architecture The Art That Documents Human History

When you plan a trip to a strange city or country, how do you plan your itinerary? When you go to France you have to see the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de’ Triomphe In Rome you have to see the Colluseum and the Trevi Fountain, in London its Westminster and London Bridge. In Cairo it is the Pyramids, in Cambodia it is Angkor Wat, in India it is the Taj Mahal and in Dubai it is without a doubt the Burj Khalifi.

As long as man has lived and tamed the environment, dwellings, communal places, places of worship, monuments and structures have been designed, either to serve as a safe space from the elements, a place of community of spiritual significance or as a celebration of a victory.

It is widely believed that prostitution is the oldest profession on this planet but it is not….

The two oldest professions on this planet are builders and toolmakers. Both these professions were born out of a necessity to survive and became so specialised to the end of the Stone Age that specific individuals started to either construct or manufacture for their clan or group. One of the oldest man-made structures is the Megalithic Temples on the Mediterranean island of Malta dating back to 3000 or 2500 BC older than Stonehenge or the Pyramids. But there are well-designed, well-thought out structures that date even older than that.

The Essence of Architecture

The word “Architect” has different roots – Greek, Latin, Old French and Old English, all roots of the word are high crafter or master builder. Some of the builders and toolmakers where better than others, taking on apprentices and becoming masters at their craft, ultimately by the middle ages, to proof one’s craft or art by producing a master piece was the ultimate goal into becoming a master yourself.

The spaces these basic structures created, was secondary to the initial need for shelter. It was becoming a living space as result of need for shelter.

We can argue the exact order of professions all we want but the point here is very simple: All the first humans where architects by necessity, some were just more successful then others. These “architects” had to learn and be aware of the elements in their area to be able to build and maybe improve their structures. Then they had to learn about the weather and the seasons, to be able and pre-empt the basic requirements of what is needed. At the heart of architecture is the need to know everything of everything, from materials to engineering principles to social interactions and people skills to basic common sense.

In that sense it is very much like wine making. You have to know your terroir to craft not only a drinkable but also a representative, honest wine.

South African Heritage

Here we are thousands of years away from the humans that built Stonehenge and the Megalithic Temples or Skara Brae, but we are still fighting gravity and building from fossils fuels. Have we evolved as much as we think?

As you could deduct from the statement above you would agree that architects has evolved substantially over the past million years but there remains a few basic principles so raw that it is easily overlooked. Architects by their very nature create shelter and space but by default also interpret, project and document the evolution of humans over time.

Architects have become the social equivalent of the elephant in the room. Take them away and the room has al of a sudden become just an empty space. Architects do not need to justify their existence. Architecture truly is, if you’ll pardon the expression, the foundation of civilization.

How do I contextualise the above statements for South Africa where I am a practicing architect?

In South Africa we have a wonderful spicy mix of cultures, interpreting space in so many ways it boggles the mind. Yes in some cases too much spice is bad for the tummy and when you get used to too much spice it becomes bland yet again. The metaphorical elephant in the room is then not novel anymore, it just a spicy elephant in the room.

The successful South African Architect had to become so socially aware that their social insights have become second to none. Taking into consideration the plethora of cultures and histories all mixed up in our architectural history, the history of our country itself embodied in our structures, monuments and memorials, the richness of our diversity offers a rare breed of architectural mind set. Not only have the South African architect become a socially sensitive mind, he or she has also gifted with a harvest of exceptional architectural heritage to find inspiration in documenting the future.