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What we can learn from Historical Books?

Reading books has become more of a ritual for turning in assignments, or serving as a source of reference while working on our design projects. As students of architecture, we find ourselves being forced to pick up certain books that have become a staple for the student body, like D.K. Ching for basic planning or graphics in our first year, Neufert’s Architect’s Data or Time-saver is always with us in the book or e-book form to make sure we follow standards of dimensions in the spaces we create.

When it comes to history and theory classes, we largely ignore the ‘old’ books for reading purposes and stick to finding some lines that we could cite in our assignments and papers and hope that this much would do. We treat them as mere textbooks rather than taking out the time to spend time with one such book that could possibly give us a different kind of insight that cannot be delivered from elsewhere.  

We students stand to benefit tremendously through reading historical books on architecture. Books which are old enough to be considered historical in nature, especially the earliest records of and comments on architecture as a profession. These books have a certain quality to them, a quality that suggests the ideas that were put down in writing were revolutionary at the time. It could inspire us or give us the courage that we have been looking for to work on our own revolutionary ideas. These books possess the initial and most original chain of thoughts about architecture, they can help us understand this field right from its roots, including the kind of skills we require, which cannot be taught at university, only learnt.

Most books written that long ago tend to lay great emphasis on the human condition that we must subject ourselves to in order to become an architect. Rather than just talking about architecture, they also talk about the lifestyle and culture followed during that time. Understanding this approach, we can develop on our approach while dealing with similar problems in our projects. This gives us a holistic learning.  

Historic books in general are considered repositories of solutions already found for problems generally faced in architecture and design. Instead of trying to solve problems we face while designing, we should find answers to them. The books come in handy here. We can either build on the solutions suggested in the books or directly apply them. These books have a scope to be used for general enlightenment instead of being deemed mere textbooks. 

Ten Books on Architecture 

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio  

1st Century BC 

Written by a flourishing architect and engineer in Ancient Rome, these books tell us everything from the understanding of the architect to the skills required and applied in the profession.  

The first book is the most interesting of the lot. It tells us a little and in general about engineering and city planning, the majority is about the education of the architect. From soft to hard skills required to make a project work, as an architect. It establishes the architect as an intellectual person and the profession that requires great respect. 

The Four Books of Architecture  

Andrea Palladio 

1540 AD 

The Four Books of Architecture is a treatise by Palladio, an influential figure in the development of Renaissance architecture, centered around Venice. They are considered the earliest record of illustrated books on classical architecture.  

What one can possibly hope to learn from the book is how to achieve the epitome of aesthetics with just the use of proportions. We all know that the Ancient Greeks used the golden ratio everywhere but we can learn how to use it in our own projects after a little analysis on the illustrations by Palladio and the analysis just needs to be abstracted in ways it suits contemporary architecture. 

On the Art of Building in Ten Books  

Leon Battista Alberti 

1556 AD 

On the Art of Building in Ten Books is by another great architect of the Renaissance, Alberti. Through these books Alberti tries to explain what ‘art of building’ means according to him by categorising the elements of space and architecture into six parts.  

Apart from being an outstanding architect he was a naturalist too. He gives a lot of importance to earth, water and air. He even refers to these natural elements in proper nouns. He gives us pointers on site selection and orientation of the building keeping in mind the climate. He basically outlines a new approach for designing, keeping climate as top priority. This book is more relevant to our times that we realise.  

Seven Lamps of Architecture  

John Ruskin 

1849 AD 

John Ruskin was an art critic and theorist based in the UK. His extended essay called Seven Lamps of Architecture is known for leading the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain and Ireland. He was also considered by many preservationists as the precursor to modern ideas of preservation of buildings. The book discusses seven moral virtues that imbued architecture and craft with meaning and goodness, according to Ruskin. The book was considered rather revolutionary at the time of writing.  

The book is a philosophical take on architecture that can help us produce humanist work by instilling the said moral virtues in us. The writer paints such life in architecture that it would be hard not to consider those values while designing after having read this book. 

The Four Elements of Architecture

Gottfried Semper 

1851 AD 

Semper was a German architect, art critic and professor of architecture. In his book The Four Elements of Architecture, he diagnoses architecture’s origins and tells us that it comes down to four elements namely hearth, platform, roof and its supports. He further talks about how each of these have transformed and how they have come to be adapted to the industrial age. 

This can get us thinking about the absolute origins of architecture, which helps us understand the subject better. Knowing the roots of anything can make sure our progress in the field is based on a strong foothold. 

A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method

366

Sir Banister Fletcher 

1896 AD 

Sir Banister Fletcher was an English architect and architectural historian known best for his work with his father, also an architect, called A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method. The book has been updated to adapt to the various changes faced by society throughout the 20th century.  

This book serves as the first ever record on the topic of the history of architecture. It essentially made the field into whatever it has become today. The categorisation of styles that we are so familiar with today all comes from this book. It contains a lot of schematic diagrams to illustrate concepts. We can hope to understand the basis for such a field by reading this particular book. 

The biggest takeaway from this article and collection of books would be to see all things old in a new light. Our current circumstances are a great opportunity for this since some of us may have more time on our hands than anticipated. By finding a new perspective on texts, we can learn a lot about architecture and a range of other topics.

*Images are not related to :scale. They have been taken from various sources.

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