A History of Architecture

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Spiro Kostof believes that architecture is anything that man does to impose some kind of order on nature, from a prehistoric hut made of sticks to a grouping of houses in a Nepalese village to a Manhattan skyscraper. Architecture makes the difference between the way things are and the way man wants them to be. Within this broad context, everything is fair game. Almost anything piled on something else can be included as long as that something serves some purpose.

Kostof, a professor of architectural history at the University of California at Berkeley, and a former president of the Society of Architectural Historians, is as good as his word. He begins his narrative with a description of the dwellings of a Stone Age community; he then discusses the cave paintings at Lascaux, and considers the four stages of construction at Stonehenge, the most famous of Neolithic monuments. The rest of this impressive book is a chronologically ordered analysis of construction throughout the ages. All the major periods are covered with their principal monuments, most of these illustrated with photographs; in addition, the text is augmented with maps and with original drawings of general site plans and with reconstructions. Kostof not only gives the reader detailed technical descriptions, but he also examines the buildings in terms of their historical and social context, showing how they expressed the values and activities of the times in which they were first constructed and how some were transformed or modified by later ages. His approach, in this sense, is straightforward cultural history. Man is understood through his artifacts, his architecture an example of the vision of those who designed the buildings, of those who commissioned them, and of the myriad technological, economic, and philosophical developments that shaped their structure and use.

Much of Kostof’s previous research has been concerned with Eastern architecture or its influences (Caves of God: The Monastic Environment of Byzantine Cappadocia, 1972; The Orthodox Bapistry of Ravenna, 1965; and The Third Rome, 1870-1950: Traffic and Glory, 1973), but this general survey concentrates primarily on the Western experience. Kostof, though, frequently couples his descriptions with insights into other architectural traditions. Thus, in addition to the usual descriptions of the glories of Greece and Rome, the splendors of the Gothic cathedral, and the wonders of the Italian Renaissance city-state, he describes the stirrings of urban consciousness in Mesopotamia, the place of architecture in the empire of Muhammad, and the construction techniques of the Mayans and the Aztecs. Kostof’s vast and formidable frame of reference, on first impression, might seem gratuitous, yet, invariably he increases the reader’s understanding, providing one with a certain distance to improve a conventional vision. One of his more interesting juxtapositions is medieval Florence with medieval Cairo.

Both cities had their origins in Roman times and, since then, have developed by fits and starts. By the late Middle Ages, Cairo had become a hopeless jumble of all sorts of urban activity. A city with little segregated land use, it had no natural center, no town hall, and no civic square. It was a confusion of crowded and hectic bazaars burrowing their way through the urban fabric—a maze of culs de sac, with no major thoroughfares. In this condition, Cairo remained a prisoner of its backwardness. As Kostof says, the military feudalism that governed the cities of Islam left little room for a municipal organization that safeguarded the public domain; the sanctity of private rights made the emergence of a self-governing city impossible. While Cairo wallowed in its feudal backwardness, deprived of public-spirited municipal organization, Florence was in the throes of a transformation that would leave behind “the elaborately symbolic mind of late Gothic Europe [edging] toward a new age of reason with its concern for the basic dignity of human existence.” Florence, under its powerful city fathers, was in the process of taking charge of its streets and open spaces. The quarters of the city were being woven together, and city officials were setting standards for the formation of balconies and porticoes to the control of street traffic and to the regulation of the composition of paving materials. Laws were passed to establish open spaces, and public-works projects were begun, culminating in the building of a new cathedral, a city hall, a communal granary, and a guild hall.

Kostof believes that cities, and the architecture they contain, are the result of a constant battle between public rights and private interests. How that struggle is resolved ultimately determines the character of the urban environment and also the character of the buildings it contains. The rulers of Florence and Cairo chose different paths of development—the consequences of that choice are plain to see. Yet Kostof is not too helpful in answering why this was so. He says that in the case of the Florentines the reasons are “still not altogether fathomable,” which is a pity, because it would have made a fascinating analysis. One of the hazards of setting the parameters of an inquiry so broadly is that inevitably one is...

(The entire section is 2153 words.)