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Humans Factors In Architecture

( Originally Published 1910 )

FACING the vast amount of literature on architectural history, it would be almost an impertinence to offer the public another book were it not that so little has been written that may be readily understood and enjoyed by those without technical training.

I have undertaken to discuss this subtle and fascinating expression of human development from the viewpoint of familiar, everyday experience here in our American homes. With the construction and design of the buildings on our own streets in city, town, or village, as examples, we will trace the growth of form and detail back through the ages, learning to read in the familiar things about us the strange but intensely human story of the evolution of architectural styles and to understand their significance in our own lives.

Every American city, and most of our towns, contains examples of all the principal styles or periods in architecture, besides some of no legitimate parentage whatever.

This in itself is a plain exposition of a basic architectural truth, which we will find repeating itself over and over in all phases of the subject. It is that architecture is man's most self-revealing record of his struggle upward from barbarism to the complex civilization of today. It expresses intimately and unerringly his ambitions and ideals, his strength and his weakness, his ignorance and his awakening. The study of architectural progress must for this reason be also the study of human progress. History and this most permanent and all-embracing of the arts are thus most intimately united. There is nothing in architecture, down to the curve of a molding or the proportions of an individual brick, that has not its specific human reason. Often in the case of such trivial details as these we must go back through the centuries to some great crisis in human affairs for that reason.

The polyglot character of American architecture is an excellent example of this general truth. We are a young nation, composite in character, and not yet bound together by any great ties of common tradition. We are made up from all the nations of civilization. The Latin and the Saxon stand cheek by jowl with the Teuton and the Celt, and the progress of amalgamation, though more rapid than ever before in the world's history, has not yet been fast enough to produce anything like complete homogeneity. Our architecture in its odd mixtures of types perfectly reflects this state of things. It is Classic or Gothic, French, German, Spanish, or something else, with no one influence dominant—incohesive and with little continuity of growth.

Architecture, though the aesthetically sensitive may rail at it, is thus a prolific source of historical data, a most comprehensive and interesting text-book of which I shall make frequent use, and shall do my best to interpret simply and, I hope, interestingly.

Accepting, then, the dictum that architecture is a record of man's development, we seek first the basic forces, or motives, in the human advance, so that we may find the primary sources of architectural inspiration. What impelling ambition, in other words, has driven men to the astonishing feats of building that are our heritage ? A little thought gives us a comprehensive answer: Man's first purely human realization was of the value of material possessions, for which he went out into the wilderness to conquer and trade. His next step was the awakening of fear or respect for the mysterious, unaccountable forces of nature, the beginnings of religion, and the voluntary contribution of his finest material possession in the propitiation or glorification of these forces. We will look at this progression somewhat more closely in a few moments, but this gives us the fundamental truth for a basic formula or text which may be expressed thus: Trade subdues the wilderness, and science, with art, builds therein temples to the Ideal.

In pursuit of this idea, let us now step backward through the ages in search of the beginnings of trade, of science, and of idealism, those three primal factors in human development. How did man, in his progress through apehood, come to evolve these three elements of existence that have given us all we have of civilization, including, of course, our legacy of architecture, and on which we depend for all future progress ?

The basis of trade is material possession. It is not impossible to imagine the life of our arboreal ancestors at the time when they first began to value worldly goods. The desire for food was, of course, instinctive, and so apparently was the male's sense of possession of the female. The dawning of a reasoning faculty came a little later. The ape-man's habit of throwing missiles at intruders, from his aerial perch, changes into a habit of retaining in his paw the branch or club he has hereto-fore hurled. A fight or two at close quarters would teach him this. The particular value of a good, heavy, knobby club would soon dawn on him, and he would get into the way of carrying it about with him, or of hiding it in a convenient place.

Later we can imagine that the demand for good clubs became brisk. The most enterprising of the ape-men went out into the wilderness to hunt for them, and acquired a collection, which was prized highly and was constantly raided by neighbors. This subject of clubs, or what not, soon became so interesting that it formed a basis for social intercourse. Clubs were compared and, finally, exchanged---the first commercial transaction.

This possession of a club gave the ape-man confidence to remain longer on the ground, and at last to desert permanently the tree-tops for the more or less strenuous life below. This meant that he must become the protector of his females and young, as conditions held them together for a longer period than heretofore. In this way a new attachment grew, so that when a partner died he felt grief, and unable to comprehend finality evolved the primitive conception of future life.

The need of protection from foes for himself and family and the desire for physical comfort led the ape-man to occupy such caves as he could find. When they were too small, he made enlargements and piled debris around the 'mouth for future protection. In some such incident as this we probably had the birth of science, the constructive application of the reasoning faculties, and of architecture.

This ape-man---he of the bridged nose and straight hair—multiplied his power and comforts by the acquisition of better and more effective weapons, and the continued improvement of his cave along lines suggested in the interchange of ideas with his neighbors and by his own increasing inventiveness. The community grew with the increase of individual power, and with it developed sentiment—the clan spirit. Our newly evolved man became a chief, or king. His sense of importance expanded accordingly, and he began to consider even the great forces of nature as having some direct personal relation to him-self. What they were he did not know, and, naturally enough, he took them for enemies. When he found that his weapons were of no avail against them, he grew more afraid, and invested them with powers and personalities which they did not possess.

Man's next idea was to propitiate the unknown powers, a plan doubtless originating in his domestic experience. Logically his first thought was to offer them food. In order that this should not get into the hands of those for whom it was not intended, and the powers be unappeased, he chose for it a secret place in the forest, open to the sky and as far above the ground as he could raise it with stones. So we have the first altar and the beginning of the church. His visits to this place became more and more ceremonious as his imagination created greater demands of the unknown power, and thus grew the formalism of religious worship.

He also began to give to this power some of his own attributes, and as the young in his growing family imitated him because of his power and leadership, and offered him, through growing affection and respect, the good results which grew from emulation, so he in turn grew to imitate the powers beyond him, offering on his altar the choicest of his possessions.

As the ambition of the younger generation increased because of his example, so the attributes of this mighty unknown power stimulated the man's mental and moral growth. With God man also created idealism.

We find, then, at the very birth of the race, man going abroad among other men, to subdue the wilderness and to trade; and science, the constructive intelligence, building temples for the worship of the ideal.

This may seem an almost childishly confident way of dismissing that mysterious dawn-period of human life which so many great minds have attempted in ponderous tomes to reconstruct for us. Darwin and Haeckel and Muller, among others, devoted the best part of their lives to the synthesis. But it is important here only to indicate that those three elements of our racial life to-day were basic from the first, and have been the threefold thread of our worldly destiny down through the ages.

Trade ambition is the discovering and acquisitive force, science is the constructive capacity that trade ambition calls into being, and idealism is a master passion of the race, and levies tribute of the best from the race in every field. In so doing it begets the creative faculty, which in turn, operating under the inspiration of an ideal with enthusiasm, adds the element of beauty, and the result we call art.

We have traced the beginning of primitive idealism to the worship of the mysterious, the birth of religion, for we find it through all early times the dominant ideal in the production of architecture. Until the fifteenth century of our own era, the great "temples to the ideal" were actually religious edifices. Nevertheless, from earliest times a domestic ideal existed and expressed itself in dwellings, which have been enlarged, improved, and beautified through the ages to this day, as the domestic ideal rose and expanded. Somewhat later came the civic and national ideal in turn, and many others of lesser importance, all of which have called to their glorification the service of science in the creation of special, tributary architecture.

A close parallel to the development of architecture, which we have seen as a graven and structural language, exists in our spoken and written language. A brief examination would show that both languages are created and differentiated in response to the same subtle human forces. The parallel might even be traced historically, from age to age and from country to country, but a mere mention of it here suffices, and it strengthens our premise that architecture is an accurate and readable human document.

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