Architecture has been around for centuries, existing as a constant of our physical world, alongside mankind. The cavemen, as the name plainly suggests, needed to take cover from the natural phenomena of their surroundings, thus looking for shelter from tempest, for a safe place to lie down and rest during vulnerable times. It could be argued that these shelters, although carved by nature and merely utilized by man, were the first representation of architecture in its rudimentary form, for the most important function they responded to: the overall need for safety. But as historical proof goes to show, simply satisfying an instinctual calling would not be enough, even for cavemen, and soon there came the need to embellish the shelter and leave imprints of one’s personal touch, through cave paintings - evidence, not solely of existence, but of character too. Hence, it is only when character comes into play, that we are drawn into the abstract notion of architecture, thus to the metaphysical side of life.
Moving forward to a more recent example, life in the Roman Empire, as shown in significant remnants of the past - such as architecture and art forms, exuded a lust for life, like few other moments in history. Here, every habit called for its own ritual and every mundane practice became a celebration of life: bathing, having meals, and even death. This translated to architecture, both as a need for a dedicated space and as a catalyst for certain atmospheres and feelings. Such places, as baths, temples, and forums, housed functions that responded to the basic needs, but their shapes, contours, and character catered to a more volatile urge: being pleasing to the eye. Therefore, architecture can be seen as stage design for a play, it exists only for as long as there is a form of life around, to interact with it, to shape it, and to identify with it. Still, where is this border, between the two components of design: the objective side fueled by need and the abstract notion derived from feeling? And how does one grasp it?
In this vein, it is worth to consider the starting point of the interaction between man and object, not only from a historical standpoint, but by bringing the analysis closer to a more personally relatable timeline, thus closer to human scale. Consequently, from a very young age, people unknowingly embark on a life-long journey to discover the world through an array of sensors, making connections between shapes, colors and behaviors, oftentimes by attributing feelings to certain physical states and qualities. In short, we react to what surrounds us and, therefore, we give meaning accordingly, which only goes to sustain the concept of our attachment to things and places. Sometimes, even the most ordinary buildings and spaces can attain immeasurable value, by the meaning invested in them through accumulation and time. Thus, memory can be defined as one of the most important means through which the metaphysical side of architecture can be reached and probably even measured.
Why is it important to care for history, heritage and tradition? An immediate response might be that, by looking at the bigger picture, comprised of an array of elements, both old and new, one could determine one’s true nature, as if gazing through the looking glass. On account of this, experiencing architecture could be compared to a double edged sword, or to a rather cyclic event. Not only do human behaviour and demands shape the outline of our cities, but the reverse is true, simultaneously. We, as a collective, are both influenced and influence, in return, the shape of our spaces, contributing to the memorial aspect of design, a multi-layered experience comprised of characters, events, and attitudes. Therefore, in this day and age of technological advancements and breakthroughs, it is important to be gentle to our heritage, to preserve, and to take into account the unique context surrounding a future insertion, with the purpose of keeping the local memory alive. To make a point for the present argument, the more a man identifies with the character of a space, the greater the positive effect it garners. This only goes to further solidify the point that memory could be regarded as a main component of the metaphysical side of architectural design, and that it could be used as a tool to help improve the link between human response and created space.
According to the American author Z. Ziglar, “We build our character from the bricks of habit we pile up day by day”, an observation that could easily be applied to this situation, in order to explain the meaning of memory in the context of architecture. Therefore, with every new building, with every additional space we design, we add to and reinvent this delicate side of architecture, and only by caring for the past and taking it into account in our more recent endeavors, will we manage to deliver designs that are complementary to the more abstract component of life – the human “eye”.
Furthermore, apart from the concept of memory, there could be a second factor coming into play here: synergy. Defined by the experts as a result, which is always greater than “the sum of its parts”, this culmination of efforts, if we could call it that, can be compared to a harmonious pinnacle, a symphony of different aspects coming together to form something superior. Having stated that, a few questions arise. Why are we attracted to things within the golden ratio, for instance? Do proportions play such a crucial part in the way our brains are wired to respond to certain stimuli? As, for example, the superior schools of architecture or visual arts teach us, there is truth in placing the emphasis on getting the right proportions in design, to create a pleasing experience for the eye, and sometimes even for ergonomic purposes. And it is generally acknowledged, not only in architecture and art, but in all aspects of life, that harmony is worth pursuing.
Having established the fact that proportions are indeed important, what could be said about finding the right balance when it comes to how different parts of a project interact? A building, for instance, is a sum of contributing factors, such as: structure, materials, relationship with natural light, the logic and quality of its spaces, etc. All of these create an ambiance, an impression on the individuals it comes in contact with, thus subscribing to the metaphysical side of architecture, alongside memory. When creating a new design, having analysed the site and the surrounding context, one tries to formulate the best response to that particular situation, by taking into account objective factors, such as: sunlight, orientation, site limitations, functions, materials. But is paying attention only to this array of elements enough to be called architecture? The answer is no, designing goes beyond the objective side of the spectrum, as previously exposed above. It is here, where synergy finds its place, in the fine-tuning of light and shadow, high and low, cold or warm, deep or shallow. And maybe the architect is not required pick one aspect out of each category, maybe the optimal answer is right in the middle, where it is most pleasing for all eyes.
As stated by Adolf Loos, “Architecture arouses sentiments in man. The architect's task, therefore, is to make those sentiments more precise” further solidifies the theories stated above, that simply designing, based on a series of objective factors, is not nearly enough. Consequently, it is highly necessary for the architect to embrace the lengthy process of designing, through trial and error, until the right result comes to life, one where the whole is superior to the sum of its components.
All things considered, reaching a superior quality of design, by tending to its most human side, the metaphysical dimension, is the most valuable aspect of this endeavour. To support this, the architect, using both the power of recollection through memory, and the right ensemble of proportions through synergy, could enter the abstract realm of metaphysics, and thus bring the design closer to human scale, maybe even to the basic principle of things.
Ioana-Bianca Sarealbă, a 23 years old from Brașov, Romania. She currently lives in Bucharest, where she is a 5th year architecture student, at the “Ion Mincu” University of Architecture and Urban Planning.