Monday, September 6, 2010

Architecture: how it reflects history and culture

How do people build in your world?

In my post about building materials, I started by bringing up the links between architecture and environment/setting. In this post I'm going to talk about the links between architecture and history. The buildings you choose to put in your world will tell readers (and the people of your world) about the history of these people and their civilization.

When we were in Europe we went to the city of Aosta in Italy. This city, we learned, was once called Augusta Praetoria, and was the place where Roman troops stopped for the winter before invading Gaul. It's been the center of its region since then. You wouldn't necessarily know this just by glancing at it from the highway, but if you walk into the town, it's hard to miss. Augustus' Arch, the Praetorian Gate, the Roman Theater... all are easy to access. The theater was great because it had a modern theater built right beside the ancient, crumbling one. Very cool - but that wasn't the most impressive part.

Aosta has a cathedral, built in the 11th century and remodeled a bit in the 15th and 16th centuries. It rises majestically above the roofs of the town - and that's all you see if you just walk by. If you go in, however, you can find the entrance of the church that was built before it, in the 3rd century. The cathedral was built right over the top of the old church, but the arches are still there, the columns and the carved capitals that were made in the years 200. If you then walk out of the cathedral and around the corner, you'll find the entrance to the Roman forum. Yes, the Roman forum is underneath the 3rd century church - and it's huge. It's this gigantic corridor of stone arches, now lit by electric light, and seeming way too huge to exist underneath two other buildings this far underground. I wish I could show you a photograph - but really you should go and see it with your own eyes. This gives the town the sense of permanence that I described in my post about building materials. It is set in stones more than two thousand years old.

How many fantasy or science fiction worlds do you know which have this kind of history reflected in their architecture? My answer would be, not as many as I'd like.

Just in case you're concerned that I'm suggesting everyone create modern Italy in their fictional worlds, that's not it at all. Paris is full of the architecture of other times, even down to the crypts underneath the city. Kyoto, Japan is similar, ranging from the ultra-modern to the ancient.

Kyoto is an interesting example because of the fact that their primary building material is wood, not stone. You can walk through the streets and see modern vending machines just ten feet away from the entrance to a small city shrine or temple. You can park your car (not that I ever had one) in the lot and walk in to see the temple of Sanjusangendo, originally built in the 12th century and containing more than a thousand statues carved in the 12th and 13th centuries. You can go visit the Kiyomizu temple, and then read about it in The Tale of Genji and realize that it wasn't new even in the year 1000, but was built back in the 8th century.

Ok, so at this point I'd like to ask another question. What kind of place doesn't have old buildings? There are several possibilities.

1. A place where people build structures that could potentially be permanent, but where some historical event has destroyed all structures over a certain age.

Tokyo is rather like this. It suffered the Great Kanto Earthquake, and then the carpet-bombings of World War II... and as a result, all of the oldest buildings date from a particular (more modern) era. In a case like this, it's important to consider what kind of impact a very destructive event will have on culture, and what less tangible evidence will be available in the mental states of the population.

2. A place where building materials are quickly broken down by the elements.

Jungle dwellings might well be like this. In this case, other evidence of human history might be available, like tools or artifacts of various types.

3. A place where the population is nomadic.

If the population is nomadic, then habitations have to be light enough to be carried. They may or may not be made from durable enough materials to be recognized as human tools/structures long after they have been abandoned.

4. A place where the cultural paradigm calls for constant renewal.

This is certainly a possibility. However, I can't see that it would make much sense for extremely durable architecture (stone, for example) to coexist with such a cultural paradigm. It would be much more likely to be present in a place where building materials broke down relatively quickly.

5. A place that has only recently become inhabited by humans.

Architecture in a place like this would probably be either made with local materials or with imported materials, but all more or less in the same architectural style, since everything would be built at the same time. Still, this lack of history is in itself a sort of history - indicating that the people are recent arrivals.

I'm sure there are other reasons why older architecture might not endure, but at this point I think it's worth pointing something out: the presence of architecture means something - and the absence of architecture also means something. So if you're creating a society and they don't have any old architecture, no problem - but make sure there's a good societal reason why it's not there. Think about where history is preserved in your society - in behaviors, in stories or written records, in artifacts or in buildings. What kinds of historical events might have influenced this world? In what kind of contexts might evidence of that history be available for discovery?

It's worth thinking about - and on that note, I think I'll include this link to some photos by Sergey Larenkov, which overlay images from World War II on images of the very same buildings from 2010.


  1. In my SF stories I positively avoid architecture (I seem to become a cliché magnet). In my contemporary thrillers, I love to make the City / Town and it's buildings one of the main characters - easy, of course, because I can look at / hear / smell them.
    Fascinating post - really made me think. Ta.

  2. Gary, thanks for your comment! I agree that making up architecture from scratch can be a daunting task. I'm glad you can make it work for you in your work in other genres.

  3. My friend Angie suggested the following link, which has information about city planner Daniel Burnham - you may find it interesting.

  4. 1. A place where people build structures that could potentially be permanent, but where some historical event has destroyed all structures over a certain age.

    I saw that when I went to Darwin a few years ago. There was a building with a sign designating it as "historic", even though it was only built in the 1960s. That puzzled me for a moment, until I remembered that Christmas Day 1974 was when Cyclone Tracy destroyed pretty much the entire city. So there, anything pre-Cyclone IS historic.

    P.S. Just Googled Tracy to get the facts right. Found a photo of three steel girders that are set like some surreal sculpture in the grounds of Casuarina College. They look like pretzels. The "sculptor" was Tracy.

  5. That is actually a really, really good point. Funnily enough, I've obeyed this more in my rustic setting, Rosentia Island, then in the urban port city - which is more than a little silly. This'll help me make my port city seem all the more realistic. Thanks!

  6. No problem, Shannon - I'm glad I could be of help!

  7. One of the things that has struck me about architecture around the world is the interconnectedness of several different issues. For example, structures are frequently made out of the materials at hand. The US and Canada have abundant timber resources, which has allowed many residential buildings (whether individual homes or apartment complexes) to be made out of wood, whereas virtually all homes in Korea and Singapore today are made out of concrete. There is not enough wood in these countries to satisfy modern housing demand. (Although, ironically, up through a couple decades ago, wooden homes were much more prevalent in Singapore with the kampong-style houses; these were wooden houses on stilts that cooled the house from underneath. My wife lived in that type of house when she was a child.)

    Available land is another issue; urban density in Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong is very high. What is known as "landed property" here is extremely expensive because the land itself is in short supply for any type of building. Most landed property here looks like townhouse complexes (two or three story structures that share common walls), and yet the prices for such homes are well over a million dollars each. (Some apartments and condominiums are getting near that range as well.) As a result, housing for the majority of the population tends to be in enormous towers of apartments. (Singapore apartment blocks tend to be 10-25 stories tall; I saw some blocks in Korea that must have been 40-50 stories tall, and I hear that Hong Kong has blocks that are of a similar height.)

    A consequence of the building materials is that emergency services like fire departments vary in size and need. In the US, because homes and apartment complexes are wooden structures, fire is a greater risk. Fire departments tend to be larger there than in Asia, and the trucks are larger there as well. Here, fire departments are not as busy. Fires, when there are any, only consume interior furnishings as the shell of the structure remains. I used to pass by one Korean fire department building on the way to work every day and I never saw any activity there in the entire year I lived there. In Singapore, the fire departments are slightly more busy, but the large fire trucks so common in the US are rare here. Instead, Singapore often uses a smaller vehicle, somewhat like an open air humvee, called a Red Rhino.

    Anyway, my point is that in focusing on any world building, whether architecture or washing machines and dryers ;) , related issues are often affected by the choices made, sometimes in ways that may not be apparent at first.