Sunday, April 30, 2017

Architecture & Shelter: All Architecture is Shelter

hunter-gatherer type shelter
It is universally understood that the fundamental basic human needs are food, shelter, and clothing. History offers numerous examples of peoples that have that have been deprived of one, or a combination of these needs. Whatever that causes, the results were, and are still, pretty bleak - starvation, exposure, disease. The importance of these basic human needs should not be underestimated. Although these basic needs are all interconnected, I am attempting to remove one of the needs, shelter, for further examination. 

On to the connection with architecture. Conventional wisdom is that while architecture shelters, that is only part of the story. The late architect and theoretician Philip Johnson was quoted as saying "All architecture is shelter, all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space." 

Ziggurat at Ur
Architecture has obvious connections to shelter. Architecture shelters. It protects us from the elements. Early hunter-gatherers viewed their shelters quite simply. They were quickly-built temporary constructs of easily gathered materials that allowed an escape rain, snow, and wind. When the berries were picked or the wild herds moved on, so did the hunter-gatherers, there shelters simply abandoned.

As agrarinan societies developed it was no longer necessary for shelter to be temporary. Early societies began to grow well beyond small tribes and the shelters that were constructed could be more perminent. These new societies permitted specialized roles for its citizens which led to specialized buildings. Agricultural buildings, Sacred buildings, civic buildings and palaces emerged. They began to understand that these buildings could do more that provide shelter. If manipulated in the correct manner, they could raise their spirits. These new building types began to take on increasing importance to their societies. They still sheltered, but they did much more. At some point they became, in Johnson's words, "great architecture." 

The Wynn, LasVega
At some point architects began to all but abandon the need for shelter in their desire to design "great architecture." The need for basic shelter, however, still exists. While the $3.3 billion Wynn hotel is an example of great architecture, according to Johnson's definition, but we must not kid ourselves into thinking that it is an appropriate type of shelter for humanity. It is shelter for the 1%. For architects to truly impact the world, we must address the basic need for shelter for the other 99%. I do believe that we are starting to make inroads. This first became apparent to me after the profession's general embrace of Cameron's Sinclair's book "Design Like You Give a Damn." It also seems to me that the newest members of our profession have a deeper understanding of the power of architecture, and a desire to use it, than most of our form obsessed starchitects. We are starting to see examples of interesting examples of basic shelter coming out of creative design firms around the world. It is to humanity's betterment to see that trend continue and accelerate.


Reflecting on my writing of this post, it seemed somewhat ironic that I am only now writing about the connection to the basic need that is most closely akin to architecture. I have written several posts on the connections between food and architecture and a couple on the connection between clothing and architecture. Another seemingly obvious topic about which I have failed to write is of the connection between architecture and space. That will be the topic of the next post, Shaping Space.

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