Why Study History?
Architecture students are usually disenchanted at the thought of having to take courses like Physics, Mathematics, Structures, Surveying, etc. For people like me who were just thankful to finally be free from Chemistry, I couldn’t care less about any of the other “unnecessary baggage” I’d have to add to an already unbelievable workload. Some people didn’t take this as well. So pained were they on discovering that they’d have to take a class in Architectural History nearly every semester from our second year that they would exclaim, “Why in the name of all things sane should I be reading about people and buildings that existed hundreds of years before my grandparents were born?” The frustration grew worse when we started memorizing dates with the suffixes BC and AD, learning to sketch ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian masterpieces and learning all those long Italians names (Gianlorenzo Bernini, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Ballá…see what I mean?)
However, I have come to discover that studying History doesn’t just give you edge over your friends so you can leave them feeling totally floored at the end of a conversation. I believe there’s more to Architectural History than just people, places and dates. History in a nutshell is a record of what is done, what is said and what thought- a record of the past is. History of Architecture, therefore, is a branch of Architecture concerned with recording and analyzing built forms of a period of time in the life or development of a people or place. Why is History a part of an architect’s formal training? Below are a few of the reasons I believe Architectural History and it’s study are important to architects and architects-in-training:
History corrects, amends, improves and directs.
“We have need of history in its entirety, not to fall back into it, but to see if we can escape it. For a people to be without History, or to be ignorant of its history, is as for a man to be without memory—condemned forever to make the same discoveries that have been made in the past, invent the same techniques, wrestle with the same problems, commit the same errors; and
condemned, too, to forfeit the rich pleasures of recollection.”
–Henry Steele Commager (1902 - 1998)
As the saying goes, “it is good to learn from your mistakes, but it is better to learn from the mistakes of others. Most of the problems Nigeria faces today are due to the fact that History has been disregarded by the government and by the people. We fail to realize that improvement/ advancement is built on or through lessons learnt from the past. It is not surprising countries like the China are among the leading developed nations in the world today- because they cherish their past and cultural heritage. Even with the rate of technological advancement, these nations still find ways to incorporate their art and culture (and consequently ancient architecture) into new innovations. Par example, what would “china-town” be without They do not totally abandon “old” materials or building techniques as is the common practice in Nigeria, but look for ways to improve them. History also provides direction as it prevents us from venturing on a proverbial ‘wild goose chase’, in search of something entirely new, something that has never been done before, instead of first seeking to improve what already is.
Reflecting on how people in ancient times achieved so much with so little ought to leave just about anyone astounded. The hanging gardens of Babylon, the Pantheon, the Parthenon, the Burj Al Arab etc. are examples of monuments that defied the speculations of skeptics and critics. Studying these great masterpieces, you become convinced that nothing is a big enough excuse to dub an idea “impossible.” Watching a documentary on how the Parthenon (ancient Greece) was designed and constructed during History class one day, you could just read the looks on our faces that we were absolutely stunned at how at every stage, when a challenge came up, they would find a way to work around it without significant alterations to the initial idea. The same goes the Burj Al Arab, amongst others, through which I came to understand the import of Theory of Structures as a course. It shows that the architect must at least know something about everything and everything about something.
“We're dying from not knowing and not understanding our past.”
Jacques Bainville (1879 - 1936)
French journalist and historian.
I would never have discovered Nigeria’s own “architectural diversity”. Before taking a course in Nigerian Traditional Architecture, I had only heard the word ‘diversity’ in the context of culture (food, dressing, language etc.) but after being taught about Vernacular Architecture, my mind was opened to how different tribes have developed their own different architectural styles. I am now not only aware that people in rural areas live in huts/ mud houses but understand the “how, why and where” of certain building forms I must have seen but never really paid attention to.
In close, here are few other thoughts on History and its importance:
The supreme purpose of history is a better world.
Herbert Hoover (1874 - 1964)
History has no rubbish heap.
Attributed to Louis Blake Duff (1878 - 1959)
Canadian journalist and writer.
It is ignorance that causes most mistakes. The man who sits here ought to know his American history, at least.
Attributed to Harry S. Truman (1884 - 1972)
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.
Robert Kennedy (1925 - 1968)
I believe that history has shape, order, and meaning; that exceptional men, as much as economic forces, produce change; and that passé abstractions like beauty, nobility, and greatness have a shifting but continuing validity.
Camille Paglia (1947 - )
U.S. academic and author.
History, too, has its uses, such as the provision of a 'usable' past.
Edward W. Bennett
History, in illuminating the past, illuminates the present, and in illuminating the present, illuminates the future.
Benjamin Cardozo (1870 - 1938)
U.S. Supreme Court justice.
History is the torch that is meant to illuminate the past to guard us against the repetition of our mistakes of other days. We cannot join in the rewriting of history to make it conform to our comfort and convenience.
Attributed to Claude Gernade Bowers (1878 - 1958)
U.S. historian, journalist, and diplomat.