What is the significance of architectural ideas? The question begs the question of which architectural ideas should be considered in the first place. While it may be true that there have been a huge number of architectural ideas since the beginning of human civilization, it is important to limit the question at hand. At the least, what can be done is to appropriately categorize architectural ideas according to their chronology. In doing so, we are confining ourselves to a more specific and easier task.
There is little reason to doubt that earlier architectural ideas have influenced the more contemporary ones. Theories on how buildings are to be designed have long existed, perhaps as early as the time when human beings began to first conceptualize their dwellings and their places for worship and other social activities. For the most part, early civilizations had to consider their needs and means. They had to reflect on building structures for the sake of providing shelter, security and a place of worship. They also had to consider their level of architectural skills and the materials available during the time. These basic considerations for early architectural ideas are significant for the people back then since their needs and means limit what they can design and actually build which, as a consequence, delineate the characteristics of their architectural designs.
In his De Architectura, Vitruvius provides one of the few surviving earliest examples of architectural designs. He suggests that good buildings should have three basic characteristics—durability, utility, and beauty (Pellecchia, p. 378). Apparently, these three precepts have remained integral to modern architectural ideas. Thus, it is only fitting to say that these ideas are significant inasmuch as they have set in motion a well-established standard in envisioning the designs of buildings regardless of certain sizes and scopes. More importantly, these foundations for architectural ideas give rise to more complex yet more specific approaches in designing buildings according to the balance between these basic precepts. For instance, an architect may give more preference to utility over beauty without having to abandon the latter completely. Another architect may focus more on the aesthetics of the building without neglecting the durability of the structure. There are other influential architects in earlier times—such as Leon Battista Alberti and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, among others—but it is sufficient to say that their contributions in terms of architectural ideas can never be denied.
However, that is not to say that new architectural ideas have not materialized in more recent years, or that architects are simply confined to the ideas of the earlier generations. For example, the American architect Louis Sullivan who is considered to be the “father of modernism” once suggested that form follows function (“Louis Sullivan and the Architecture of Free Enterprise,” p. 42). It has been an overriding force in 20th century architectural designs, influencing architects to take more consideration of the practical use of buildings rather than their aesthetics. The general direction of architecture at that time became more focused on the intended function of buildings, thereby relegating its aesthetic aspects to a lesser degree of importance. Buildings were designed according to how they will serve their purpose, or how they will address the primary intention behind their construction. A museum in New York, for instance, will have to be designed based on how a museum ought to function and not on how the structure will stand visually appealing to its visitors.
The “form follows function” approach stands in direct contrast to the idea prevalent during the 19th century that architectural design should bestow more significance to aesthetics. John Ruskin, for instance, proclaims that a building is not strictly a product of architectural ideas if it is not adorned in certain respects (Bliss, p. 37). Thus, an office building will not only have to serve its purpose. Rather, it will also have to be appealing to the senses of its occupants. The shape of the building will not only have to be sufficient enough in order to accommodate the target number of occupants. It will also have to be ornamented with figures on its topmost floor, or its windows will also have to be visually appealing when viewed from a certain distance. This formidable clash between architectural ideas only signifies the fact that each idea belonging to a certain generation is presumably significant first within that generation and second to the generations which later used that idea as a platform for other architectural ideas. This observation is clearly manifested in the way 19th and 20th century architectural ideas stand in opposite ends. They contradict each other in terms of approach but subsequent generations of architects may have found their own ways to strike a balance between the two. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the primary concern for each of these generations is on the nature per se of the architectural design.
In more recent times, the idea that architectural designs should follow the concept of “sustainability” reflects the notion that these designs should also take into consideration the prevailing social and environmental conditions (Watson, p. 121). Much of what can be called “sustainable buildings” is designed in such a way that they minimize environmental hazards or that they promote an ecologically friendly environment. This type of architectural idea is significant today since it directly addresses major environmental concerns including the use of natural resources. For example, the use of wind turbines and solar panels in providing electricity to modern buildings can help lessen the demand for electricity derived from coal-powered electric plants. Also, designing buildings with larger glass windows allows for sunlight to penetrate and provide the light, thereby reducing the need for light bulbs during the day. In essence, the approach places great premium on the environmental effects of architectural designs, from lighting fixtures to the materials used in the ornamentation of the structure. With the continuous depletion of the planet’s natural resources and the unending threats to the environment, sustainable architectural designs significantly help in reducing the environmental dangers. If the proper allocation of “earth-friendly” materials for the aesthetic construction of a building reaches a global scale, there is reason to believe that the present environmental problems will be addressed in the long run with far-reaching benefits.
As it can be observed, architectural ideas belonging to certain generations reflect the respective social conditions and aesthetic interpretations in those times. Looking back, the early architectural ideas still have their influence on contemporary designs. Architects still have to consider the durability, utility, and the beauty of the designs of their buildings, without which buildings will be devoid of use, will disintegrate faster and put thousands of lives in grave peril, and will look as though they are sore to the eyes so much so that they fail to inspire those who dwell in them. Architects will also have to reflect on whether or not they have to put form over function, or the other way around, especially with regard to the very intention of why the structure needs to be constructed. Ideas in the field of architecture can truly survive great lengths of time precisely because they remain significant not only for those who lived those ideas during their time but also for those architects today who seek inspiration. One architectural idea may give rise to another. Or an architectural idea being criticized for its preference for function over form may result to yet another idea harmonizing function and form into a single design. At any rate, it can be said that the significance of architectural designs rests on their application. If they hardly apply to any immediate need, they may lose their influence and eventually become mere footnotes in the annals of the history of architecture.