Basic Elements Of Architecture

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Places can be identified by a range of basic elements: defined areas of ground, walls, platforms, columns, roof, door...

Now that we have sorted out a working definition of architecture and its fundamental purpose—conceptual organisation, and identification of place—we can begin to look at the 'materials' that are available to us in doing architecture.

These are not the physical materials of building—bricks and mortar, glass, timber, etc.— but the conceptual elements of architecture. And they should be considered not as objects in themselves, but in the ways in which they contribute to the identification (or making) of places.

In physical terms the primary elements of architecture are the conditions within which it operates (which have already been mentioned). Principally these include: the ground, which is the datum to which most products of architecture relate; the space above that surface, which is the medium that architecture moulds into places; gravity; light; and time (few examples of architecture can be experienced as a whole all at one time; processes of discovery, approach, entry, exploration, memory, etc. are usually involved).

Within these conditions the architect has a palette of conceptual materials with which to work. It cannot be said that the following list is complete, but at the most basic level this palette includes:

defined area of ground

The definition of an area of ground is fundamental to the identification of many if not most types of place. It may be no more than a clearing in the forest, or it may be a pitch laid out for a football game. It may be small, or it may stretch to the horizon. It need not be rectangular in shape, nor need it be level. It need not have a precise boundary but may, at its edges, blend into the surroundings.

raised area, or platform

A raised platform creates a level horizontal surface lifted above the natural ground. It may be high or low. It may be large—a stage or terrace; it may be medium-sized—a table or altar; it may be small—a step or shelf.

lowered area, or pit

A pit is formed by excavation of the ground's surface. It creates a place which is below the natural level of the ground. It may be a grave, or a trap, or even provide space for a subterranean house. It might be a sunken garden, or perhaps a swimming pool.

A marker identifies a particular place in the most basic way. It does so by occupying the spot and by standing out from the surroundings. It may be a tombstone, or a flag on a golf course; it might be a church steeple, or a multistorey office block.

focus

The word focus is the Latin for hearth. In architecture it can mean any element upon which concentration is brought to bear. This might be a fireplace, but it could also be an altar, a throne, a work of art, even a distant mountain.

barrier barrier

A barrier divides one place from another. It could be a wall; but it might also be a fence, or a hedge. It could even be a dyke or a moat, or just the psychological barrier of a line on the floor.

roof, or canopy

The roof divides a place from the forces of the sky, sheltering it from sun or rain. In so doing, a roof also implies a defined area of ground beneath it. A roof can be as small as a beam over a doorway, or as big as a vault over a football stadium.

Because of gravity a roof needs support. This could be provided by walls, but it could be by.

supporting posts, or columns needs support. This could be provided by walls, but it could be by.

supporting posts, or columns

and which allow passage of light and air.

Other basic architectural elements which identify places include:

path

Historically, a more recent basic element is the glass wall, which is a barrier physically but not visually.

Another is the suspension rod or cable, which can support a platform or roof, but which also depends literally upon a structural support above.

.a place along which one moves; which might be straight, or trace an irregular route across the ground surface avoiding obstacles.

A path might also be inclined: as a ramp, a stair, or even a ladder. It might be formally laid out, or merely defined by use—a line of wear across the countryside.

openings

.. .doorways through which one may pass from one place to another, but which are also places in their own right; and windows through which one can look,

Another is the suspension rod or cable, which can support a platform or roof, but which also depends literally upon a structural support above.

Basic elements such as these can be combined to create rudimentary architectural forms. Sometimes these combined elements have names of their own, for example:

An ancient Greek temple consists of some of these basic elements, used in a clear and direct way to identify the place of a god.

A bridge is a path, over a barrier; a platform; it can also be a roof.

Barriers can be combined to form an enclosure, which defines an area by putting a wall around it.

Walls and a roof create a cell, defining a place separated from everywhere else.

An ancient Greek temple consists of some of these basic elements, used in a clear and direct way to identify the place of a god.

The building stands on a platform, and consists of walls which define a cell, which is surrounded by columns. The columns together with the walls of the cell support the roof. The cell is entered through a door-

And giving a roof the supporting columns it needs, creates an aedicule (right).

These basic elements and rudimentary forms recur again and again in the examples in this book. They are used in architecture of all times and regions of the world.

References for Greek temples:

A.W.Lawrence—Greek Architecture, 1957.

D.S.Robertson—Greek and Roman Architecture, 1971.

References for Greek temples:

A.W.Lawrence—Greek Architecture, 1957.

D.S.Robertson—Greek and Roman Architecture, 1971.

References for Villa Mairea:

Richard Weston—Villa Mairea, in the Buildings in Detail series, 1992.

Richard Weston—Alvar Aalto, 1995.

way, outside of which is a small platform in the form of an altar. Such a temple, often sited on a hill, as a whole acts as a marker, which can be seen from far away. Together, the platform, walls, columns, roof, altar, identify the place of the god, who is represented by the carved statue within.

More complex and subtle works of architecture are also composed of basic elements.

This is the ground floor plan of the Villa Mairea, a house designed by the Finnish architects Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino, and built in 1939.

Although it is not drawn in three dimensions, you can see that the places which constitute the house are defined by the basic elements of wall, floor, roof, column, defined area, pit (the swimming pool), and so on. Some places—the approach to the main entrance (indicated by an arrow) for example, and the covered area between the main house and the sauna—are identified by roofs (shown as dotted lines) supported by slender columns. Some places are identified by particular floor materials, timber, stone, grass, etc. Some places are divided by low walls (not hatched), others by full-height walls (hatched), or by glass walls.

Architecture is not just as easy as knowing the basic elements. A large portion of its subtlety lies in how they are put together. In language, knowing all the words in the dictionary wouldn't necessarily make one a great novelist. Having a good vocabulary does however give greater choice and accuracy when one wants to say something. In architecture knowing the basic elements is only the very first step, but knowing them gives one a choice of how to give identity to places in appropriate ways.

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