Buildings can be the most expensive things that civilizations produce. They can absorb any amount of effort and money if they are to compete with
the great buildings of rivals, and of the past. It might seem misguided to try to outdo others when the costs are so high, but no one remembers the
civilizations that took such a decision, at least not in architectural history. By contrast civilizations such as ancient Egypt and Rome, which built
extravagantly, seem unavoidable. The imperishable buildings seem to go hand in hand with an imperishable reputation, which has always been the
appeal of monuments for the powerful. When enough time has passed, all human achievements can seem fragile, and Shelley’s famous poem
Ozymandias shows both the attraction of the monumental and also how delusory its promise of everlasting glory can be. One of the things that
matters about architecture is how it gives us clues to what really mattered to rulers of the past. Another thing is how it makes it possible for us, the
living, to live in certain ways, and to demonstrate to each other and ourselves what it is that we really care about, as individuals and as a society.
Different civilizations strike different balances between what seems to be owed to the living, and going beyond immediate needs in order to make
things that build a reputation in posterity.
What this very short introduction tries to do is to explain how architecture goes about doing what it does. Buildings keep us warm and dry, and are
closely involved in the practicalities of living, but ‘architecture’ always has a cultural dimension to it, if we choose to pay attention to it. Chapter 1 is
about how buildings are involved with our sense of who we are. Chapter 2 looks at the way in which buildings are made to look like one another, so
that they carry the right sort of messages to those ‘in the know’ in a particular culture. Chapter 3 considers what it is that makes some works of
architecture come to be more culturally important than others.
List of illustrations
1 Buildings have meaning
2 Growth of the Western tradition
3 How buildings become great