Within my work in art history, I particularly love to explore architectural styles from all over the world. Studying ancient and medieval architecture in my first semester of college was a big part of why I decided to become an art history student to begin with. In some ways, I think architecture history is even more fascinating than the history of smaller-scale arts like painting and sculpture. (And you guys know I like those a lot!) In this post, I’ll give you three major reasons why I think architecture is worth studying. Although most of these points could also be said about every other kind of art, I think they’re especially applicable when it comes to architecture.
Architecture is meant to be used.
Pretty much every work of architecture had a direct function in mind when it was created. (A few might be purely symbolic, like a memorial.) The same can definitely not be said of art. While I think we can all agree that every artwork is created for some purpose, even if it’s just to lift the spirits of the people who see it, a great many exist for the exclusive purpose of being looked at on one level or another. That’s not a bad thing, but in my opinion, there’s something to be said for the fact that architecture is specifically designed to be used – for living, working, gathering, worshiping, etc. This means that every aspect of architecture provides intimate details about life as it took place within it.
Architecture tells us about the societies who created it.
Continuing from the above, architecture can give us precious insights into many aspects of the society or culture that created it. Things like the types of buildings most common, how they were laid out, their internal and external features, the materials and techniques used to build and decorate them, and their overall aesthetics can show what a culture needed and valued, how it behaved, and the technologies it had at its disposal. For example, the buildings of the medieval Islamic world show those cultures’ masterful engineering capabilities, the layout of the Gothic church demonstrates the needs of medieval pilgrimage culture, and the classical proportions of Italian Renaissance architecture reveal the value that culture placed in looking back to the classical past. Sure, works of art can do much the same thing, but architecture puts it on a much grander and more public scale.
It’s not at all uncommon to find historic buildings – even very old ones – that are still standing and being used today. They may continue to serve their original function (like a place of worship that still holds services), adopt a new function (a palace that’s now a hotel), or carry on as a museum or landmark. It’s a lot harder to replace an entire building than a smaller artwork, so architectural structures often get adapted and remodeled throughout their lives, making them cross-sections of history within a single space. Regardless of the specifics, the fact that we can still walk through and use centuries-old buildings lets us literally walk in the footsteps of people who’ve come before us. To me, the experiential aspect of architecture is what makes it come alive.
As you guys probably know by now, I find myself strongly attracted to art history as a way of connecting to the past, and really nothing does that better than architecture. And that’s a big part of why I love it so much.
Check out my art guides series to understand major architectural styles.