The definition & meaning of architecture

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Introduction: definitions & meanings

The definition of architecture is defined by more than just glass, steel, and concrete. It is more than simple buildings and the spaces people live in. It is a complex and broad subject that encompasses several interrelated disciplines such as art, design, science, mathematics, business, geography, computer programming and many more.

The definition according to the Dictionary of Architecture and Construction is simply that architecture refers to the art and science of designing and building structures, or large groups of structures, in keeping with aesthetic and functional criteria.

There are many definitions that have been put forward trying to capture the true meaning of architecture, with such dictionary explanations as:   

  • The art and science of designing and organizing spaces, as well as non-building structures. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

  • The art or practice of designing and building structures and especially habitable ones. The Merriam Webster dictionary

  • The art or practice of designing and constructing buildings.The Oxford dictionary

  • The art and practice of designing and making buildings. The Cambridge dictionary

  • Architecture is the art of planning, designing, and constructing buildings. The Collins dictionary

  • The art of building, tasteful application of scientific and traditional rules of good construction to the materials at hand. The Etymology dictionary

  • Architecture is both the process and the product of planning, designing, and constructing buildings or any other structures. Wikipedia

  • The profession of designing buildings, open areas, communities, and other artificial constructions and environments,usually with some regard to aesthetic effect. Architecture often includes design or selection of furnishings and decorations, supervision of construction work, and the examination, restoration, or remodeling of existing buildings. Dictionary.com

  • The study or practice of designing buildings. Macmillan dictionary

  • The discipline dealing with the principles of design and construction and ornamentation of fine buildings. vocabulary.com

  • Architecture is defined as the method of designing and building something into a usable, pleasing form. Your dictionary

…and lastly, a more detailed definition describes architecture as referring to any man-made building or structure; a building style, method, or process; a design for a large area such as a park; a meticulously designed object, a sequential arrangement of data; and the planned design of a given structure.

The purpose of this article is to discuss the deeper meaning in architecture, with the aim of defining the elements of the profession and what they mean.

To ease the process of understanding, we have divided this article into the following sections:     

  1. Introduction: definitions & meanings

  2. Where did architecture come from? 

  3. What can be called architecture? 

  4. What is architecture for you? 

  5. Architectural styles 

  6. What is its purpose? 

  7. What does it do and what is its use? 

  8. Why is architecture important? 

  9. What is beautiful architecture 

  10. What influence architecture?

  11. Definitions of architecture from famous architects 

  12. Types of architecture that are not part of the built environment

Where did architecture come from?    

Theoretical view    

The theory or architecture is broad and far-reaching. The Roman architect Vitruvius wrote the earliest known work on the subject of architecture and its principles in the early 1st century AD.

According to him, a building had to have durability, meaning that it should be able to remain in good condition over time; ultimately meaning that it had to have a purpose; and beauty, meaning that it had to be aesthetically pleasing.    

A more modern concept was suggested by Louis Sullivan, a prominent 19th-century architect who formulated the principle based on the shape of a building relating to the function or purpose it was built.

This concept primarily focused on the function of a building, leaving structural and aesthetic considerations fully dependent on it.   

A new concept was developed in the 20th century, which took into consideration the sustainability of a structure, coining the term sustainable architecture.

A sustainable building is one that is constructed in an environmentally friendly manner, with factors such as sourcing of construction materials, how it impacts its surroundings (both natural and built environments), as well as demands such as waste management and lighting all being taken into consideration.   

History of architecture styles   

Historically, architecture is variable depending on tradition, regions, predominant stylistic trends, and dates, and its definition as we know it is the result of its development through time.

For this reason it is important to identify the key periods in our timeline that have influenced what it means to us today. For a further complete breakdown and description of each style click here.  

Neolithic architecture   

Neolithic architecture defines the architecture of the Neolithic period, which was notable soon after 10,000 BC in South and Southwest Asia. Neolithic people that lived in the Levant, Syria, northern Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Central Asia utilized mud-brick to construct their houses.

The people of Catalhoyuk went a step further, plastering and painting their houses.  

In Sweden, and in some parts of Austria, Neolithic pile dwellings have been excavated, while in Romania, Ukraine, and Moldova, Neolithic settlements consisted of wattle-and-daub structures, with thatched roofs and log floors that were covered in clay.

The Mediterranean Neolithic cultures of Malta are also notable for the elaborate megalithic temples in which they worshipped.   

Ancient Mesopotamia    

The most distinct architecture in Ancient Mesopotamia is the mud-brick buildings and the construction of their religious temples.

A noteworthy religious temple, or ziggurat, is one that was excavated at Ur, which originally stood at 12 meters. It was built under King Ur-Nammu, and it went reconstruction under Nabonidus' rule. 

Ancient Egyptian architecture   

The architecture in Ancient Egypt is characterized by pyramids. The world-renowned pyramids were constructed almost 4,500 years ago.

The pyramids in the Giza complex are the three Great pyramids by Pharaohs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, and the Great Sphinx.  

The pyramids were constructed using low-grade limestone, used in the construction of the pyramid core; fine white limestone used to assemble the outer casing as well as the interior walls; granite for the interior, basalt, and mud bricks.   

Another notable construction in Ancient Egypt is the Temple of Horus, which is situated on the western bank of the Nile in Edfu. It was completed in 57 BC and is one of the most well-preserved shrines in the country.

Its design greatly influenced British architecture, providing the model for Temple Works in Holbeck. 

Greek architecture   

Greek architecture heavily incorporated horizontal beams/lintels, that were initially constructed using wood, however this changed in the late 7th century BCE when they started using stone in their construction.   

Buildings in Ancient Greece were established based on three orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.    

The open-air theatre is another important architectural structure in Ancient Greece, with the earliest ones dating back to 525 BC.

Some notable examples include the Ancient Greek theatres in Delo, Delphi, and Epidaurus.   

The Greeks also utilized marble a lot, especially for their public buildings, which they sourced from Naxos, Paros, and Mt. Pentelicon near Athens.

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Roman architecture   

Although the Romans adopted some aspects of Greek architecture, they developed their own unique construction techniques, which resulted in creative designs such as the basilica, monumental aqueduct, triumphal arch, amphitheatre, granary building, and residential housing block.   

Ancient Romans based their style of architecture on the guidelines established by the classic orders determined by the Greeks as above: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.

They were particularly inspired by the Corinthian, but they did add their own flair, making the Corinthian capital more decorative, case in point the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome (203CE).

The Pantheon is a predominantly Doric temple, with some Ionic architectural features. It was completed in 432 BC, with monolithic columns being used, although they were not structurally necessary.   

Ancient Romans also used marble extensively in their construction, mainly sourcing it from Tuscany.

The Temple of Jupiter was the first all-marble building erected in Rome.

Roman architects also used colored varieties of marble such as yellow Numidian marble from North Africa and purple Phyrgian from Turkey, but since transportation was costly, they reserve it for use in columns and imperial objects.   

Travertine white limestone sourced from quarries near Trivoli were also favored as building materials, along with lime mortar, which they used to produce concrete.

Fired brick/ terracotta was also used due to its durability and versatility.   

Byzantine architecture   

The Byzantine style of architecture prevailed in the eastern half of the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Justinian from 527-565 AD.

However, its influence could still be seen, lasting centuries later until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.   

The design elements that define Byzantine architecture include the extensive use of interior mosaics and the distinctive heightened dome.

The exterior of the building wasn't of great concern. Although Byzantine employed the Classical orders, they progressively shifted to Christian influences.    

Byzantine architecture is a good example of function over form, and its influences can still be seen in Orthodox Christian architecture worldwide.

Materials used to construct the Byzantine buildings were sourced from Roman-era buildings that were desolate, such as the pagan temples.  

The main differences in materials used by the Byzantines included the relatively thicker mortar between their bricks as compared to the Romans.

Furthermore, they did not use a concrete core, which resulted in relatively weaker buildings.

Ashlar stone blocks were also quite popular, while marble was reserved for decorative features (door frames, window frames), columns, and architraves.

Persian architecture   

The vast Persian Empire was renowned for its architectural prowess and art.

Each of the periods in Persia, the Achaemenids, the Elamites, the Parthians, and the Sassanids all played a huge role in influencing the classical Persian architecture.   

The Achaemenids built massive complexes such as palaces with columned audience halls, open column pavilions, square towers, and high terraces.

The entrance of the audience hall of Xerxes I was decked out in double staircases made from enamelled brick.   

The Parthian elements of architecture fully emerged during the Sassanid period, with solid masonry domes, massive barrel-vaulted chambers, and tall columns becoming their staple.

With the fall of the Sassanid Empire, noteworthy religious buildings began to spring up in Iran.  

The new era was additionally ushered in with arts such as mirror work, mosaic work, calligraphy, and stucco work, all of which was incorporated in the architecture.

The period between the 15th and 17th centuries saw the erection of structures such as mosques, mausoleums, palaces, and bazaars, many of which have survived the hand of time.    

Semi-circular and oval-shaped vaults were prevalent in ancient Persian architecture, along with domes which can be observed in the structure of the bazaars and mosques.

Domes were especially widespread during the Safavi period Isfahan, with most of them possessing an outer mosaic surface, greatly enhancing the aesthetic appeal. 

Islamic architecture   

Islamic architecture is often associated with mosques, but it transcends these places of worship, evident in palaces, public buildings, forts, and even tombs.

However, there are some common characteristics that are associated with Islamic architecture.   

Minarets are one of the oldest elements of Islamic architecture, usually found next to mosques. They are the distinctive tower-like structures that feature small windows, a balcony, and an enclosed staircase. Domes are also common in Islamic architecture.

The Dome of the Rock, inspired by Byzantine architecture, was one of the first Islamic buildings to feature this element.

Muqarnas are ornaments that are reminiscent of honeycombs and are used to adorn domes, pendentives, as well as vaults. Different styles of arches are another common element. 

Chinese architecture   

Chinese architecture has remained relatively constant, with wood is commonly used in place of stone, and glazed ceramic tiles being favored as roofing material.

Large complexes such as temples, halls, and gate towers were built on a raised platform that was achieved using compacted earth and faced with brick or stone.   

Many buildings were constructed with regularly spaced timber posts that were reinforced using horizontal cross-beams. The joins in the wooden part were designed to interlock using tendons and mortises, a preemptive strategy against earthquakes.   

Although Chinese architecture did not incorporate domes, there is evidence of arched doorways and vaulted roofs in stone and brick tombs of a number of periods.   

The roof design that projects beyond the building walls in Chinese architecture is may have been intended to protect the wooden columns and their bases from the destruction due to rain exposure.

The interior of the buildings was designed with fewer columns and complex roof structure to create more clear space.   

On the other hand, the exterior of the building was decorated with bright colors, with vermillion paint being applied to pillars and balustrades.

Different parts of the building were painted in different colors: the glazed roof tiles were painted yellow, while decorative parts of the building were painted green. 

It goes without saying that the most famous architectural element of the ancient Chinese is the Great Wall of China, built along the northern borders of China during the reign of Emperor Shi Huang, in the closing decades of the 3rd century BCE.

It was further extended during the Han dynasty using stone and bricks. Other materials used include tampered earth and wood, among others. 

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European architecture   

European is variable and far-reaching, from pre-Renaissance to Baroque elements:  

Gothic architecture   

Classified under medieval architecture, Gothic elements emerged in the Ile de France area during the 11th-12th century.

The distinctive features of Gothic architecture include emphasized verticality, skeletal-like stone structures with massive expanses of glass, pointed olive-shaped arches, sharply pointed spires, flying buttresses, and windows designed with intricately decorated stained glass.

An example of a structure that has incorporated the medieval/gothic is the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.   

Renaissance architecture   

The period of renaissance spread throughout Europe beginning in the 14th century, bringing with it architectural designs that emphasized symmetry, geometry, and proportion.

Renaissance architecture also frequently incorporates semi-circular arches and domes, along with orderly arrangements of columns.    

Florence Cathedral in Italy displays elements of Renaissance, with one of its most famous features being the dome.   

Baroque architecture   

Baroque design elements were observed during the late 16th century in Italy. They are characterized by grandeur, drama, and contrast in lighting.

The most prominent features of Baroque architecture include large open spaces, twisting columns, interiors decorated with materials such as bronze and gilding, and painted artistic images on the walls and ceilings.    

Palace of Versailles in France accurately displays French Baroque architecture, with features such as intricate decoration, dramatic lighting, and ceiling frescoes.   

Art nouveau  

Art nouveau architectural designs are usually defined by features such as geometrical motifs and strong colors. Sagrada Familia building by Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona accurately depicts this style of architecture.   

Postmodern architecture  

Incorporation of postmodernism in architecture was believed to have begun in the 1950s.

Postmodern buildings tend to be highly decorative, with curved forms, asymmetry, and bright colors.

This style of architecture became especially prevalent in the late 1970s, and it continues to influence present-day architecture.   

Architecture today   

The complexity of buildings has significantly increased, since the 1980s.

Issues such as environmental sustainability and green architecture have also become a huge part of architectural design, with concerns such as global warming and environmental pollutions at an all-time high.    

Current design movements such as New Urbanism and New Classical architecture have been readily embraced, yet there is still incorporation of ancient design elements in this new wave of buildings.   

What is the purpose of architecture?  

Architecture exists to serve society and generally improve the quality of life.

Judging from its history, architecture has played a major role in the civilization of human beings, constantly encouraging humans to expand their creativity.

Architecture primarily serves to create a physical environment in which humans can live.

The discipline aspect of architecture facilitates the construction of new forms of knowledge which are meant to enhance and advance architecture itself.

Why is architecture important?    

The importance of architecture is defined by the importance of place.

Architecture whether good or bad creates environments and atmosphere, that in turn evoke positive and negative human feelings and emotions.

Aside from the subjective nature of architecture, its success is measured by the quality of the place it creates, which if accomplished, will be enjoyed and regularly occupied.

We need architecture it in both a physical and emotional sense …in its rawest form, it is essentially a survival tool.

From a practical standpoint:

The built environment heavily relies on architectural designs for structures to be successfully planned and erected.   

The concept of sustainable architecture is important in ensuring that buildings are designed in a manner that doesn't negatively affect the environment.   

The artful design of buildings often results in aesthetically pleasing buildings.    

In its own way, architecture serves as a source of revenue. This is especially true when you consider architectural masterpieces such as the pyramids of Giza, which serve to attract huge droves of tourists.   

Architectural designs are a huge part of history. Over time, architecture has been used to define significant parts of history.   

What is beautiful architecture?

Aesthetic architecture places emphasis on the third principle as formulated by Vitruvius, which is beauty.

This aspect of architecture is concerned with the application of aesthetics to a building.

For an architect to master the philosophy of aesthetics, he/she requires elements such as mass and space, pattern, contrast, symmetry, proportion, decoration, balance, and massing.   

The aesthetic qualities, on the other hand, may be divided into unity, rhythm, scale, proportion, balance, and symmetry.

All these elements can be incorporated into your architectural design to achieve an aesthetically pleasing building. However, beauty really is all about perception, so most architects usually work with their own definition of aesthetic architecture.   

What is the influence of architecture?     

The design of a structure, for example, an office building, may have a significant effect on the productivity of its dwellers.

Consider a glass cladding office building in an extremely hot area, with poor ventilation and windows facing the direction of the glaring sun. The consequent temperature increase within the poorly designed building may have a negative impact on how effective the workers in this building are.

Another point of view is architecture's influence on technology.

In the past, building materials were limited, but as the need to design more sturdy and sustainable structures grew, humans were motivated to start using new materials such as steel.

…The architecture pushed man to discover efficient ways of building.  

Definitions of architecture from famous architects    

Because architecture is a highly subjective field, it means something different for every architect. Here is a large list of how several famous architects have described it over the years:    

  1. "Architecture is a different way of seeing, thinking about, and questioning the world and our place in it." by Thom Mayne 

  2. "Architecture is the art of making sure our buildings fit with how we want to live our lives: the process of manifesting society into the physical world." by Bjarke Ingels    

  3. "Architecture is one of the most powerful deeds that man can imagine." by Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos 

  4. "Architecture is truly an optimistic act." by Nicolai Ouroussoff 

  5. "Architecture is full of hopeless romantics who believe that every small change to the built environment will manifest the aspiration for a better society." by Mark Wigley   

  6. "Architecture is, in essence, a work of nations..."  by John Ruskin  

  7. "Architecture is the truest expression of values andquot; the way we build reflects how we live." by Norman Foster  

  8. "Architecture is not a purely theoretical question. It's the entire art of what is physically possible." by Paul Rudolph    

  9. "Architecture is about bettering conditions: social, environmental, and sometimes even political."  by Arjen Oosterman   

  10. "Architecture is more than the building of an object onto a site: it is the reinvention of the very site itself." by Sean Lally  

  11. "Architecture is language: new designs need to abide by grammatical rules if they do not want to create dissonance with already existing structures." by Prince Charles  

  12. "Architecture is an untapped resource of beautiful stories waiting to be visualized, imagined, and built." by Matthew Hoffman 

  13. "Architecture is all about serving society through design in the built environment." by Kevin J Singh   

  14. "Architecture is a complex effort. It is rare that all forces needed to coincide to make a project proceed to do so at the same time.” by Rem Koolhaas     

  15. "Architecture is an art form that you cannot help but feel. Paintings can be avoided, music can be avoided, even history can be avoided. But architecture can simply never be avoided." by Philippe Daverio  

  16. "Architecture is synonymous with endurance and longevity: long training, long education, long hours, and the eventual long lives of what you create." by Catherine Slessor  

  17. "Architecture is slowly becoming more about public spaces and parks and less about single walled-off phalluses in the horizon which do not engage with the city." by Alissa Walker     

  18. "Architecture is more than just building. It is a way of improving the quality of people's lives." by Dibdo Francis Kr     

  19. "Architecture is a tiny piece in this human equation. However, for those of us in the profession, we believe it has the potential to make a difference, to enrich human experiences, to break the barriers of misunderstanding and to create a beautiful context for all of life's dramas." By  Frank Gehry      

Other types of architecture that are not part of the built environment

There are also other architecture meanings that have nothing to do with the built environment. Here is a summary of a few of them:    

Business architecture   

This is a subdomain enterprise architecture that is involved in developing a blueprint of the enterprise which is used for aligning the operations and requirements of the business with strategic objectives.    

Cognitive architecture   

This is a theoretical discipline that focuses on the structure of the human mind, whether in relation to natural or artificial systems, and the interrelation between the two.   

Computer architecture   

According to computer engineering, computer architecture can be defined as rules that describe how a computer system is supposed to perform tasks.   

Enterprise architecture   

Enterprise architecture basically applies the guiding principles of architecture in how business to manage the execution of their strategies.   

Interior architecture   

The design of the interior aspects of a building   

Naval architecture   

An engineering discipline that focuses on how marine vehicles operate, their design, and development, among other things.   

Landscape architecture   

This is a branch of architecture that exclusively focuses on the design of outdoor public areas, landmarks, and structures in general.   

Network architecture   

This is the framework that determines how a communication network works.   

Software architecture   

This complex branch of architecture deals with the functioning of a software system and its elements, and how they are all integrated.    

System architecture   

This conceptual model aims to define exactly how a system works, and the components that work together to ensure the architecture of the system is functional.    

Architecture is an art form that combines color, texture, surfaces, and edges; expressing ideas and aspiration that reflect who we are as humans.  

Further reading

For some further reading you may want to also look at: