How Architecture Reflects Culture

“Architecture, more than any other art form, is a social art and must rest on the social and cultural base of its time and place” (Sykes 110). That is what makes architecture so unique, as it depicts customs and traditions, as well as the peculiarities of worldview of the nation it belongs to. Architectural works show us where people lived, what their attitude to their homes and public places was, which gods they worshipped and how they treated their dead.  Architecture responses to the social factors and depends on the requirements and preferences of the époque. Thus, it provides us with an important source of knowledge of different nations and cultures throughout the history of their development.

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The diverse architectural preferences are the first to catch the eye of a person who studies ancient civilizations and their culture. Why did Egyptians build pyramids, while the Greek preferred rectangular temples? Why ancient Etruscan statues are so different from the Egyptian ones? The answer is, architecture is closely entangled with social life of the nation, its traditions and beliefs. For example, Egyptians believed that ka, the soul, is able to stay in the dead body, which is why it had to be preserved as intact as possible. As a result, they used to pay a lot of attention to burial procedures, mummification, including surgical removal of organs prone to decay etc. The standard tomb type in ancient Egypt was a “mastaba” (Gardner and Kleiner 42), a rectangular stone or brick structure with a burial chamber underneath it. Imhotep, the renowned and legendary ancient architect, was the first to build a royal tomb of the kind - the stepped pyramid for King Djoser - which in fact comprised a set of “mastabas of diminishing size, put one atop another” (43). The pyramids were to become new home of the deceased, which is why they had chambers with food, clothes and anything the deceased may need in the underworld. The whole system of protection, including barriers over the territory, traps and false doors, was designed to protect the deceased and his possessions both from evil spirits and powers, and from thieves.

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In comparison to this Egyptian tradition, the Greeks had the cult of gods rather than that of the spirits of the dead, which determined the construction of massive shrines and temples with high columns, the proportions of which were carefully calculated. Greek architecture may seem simple, though it “primarily depended on clarity and balance” (97). Constant striving for perfection and ideal balance between the internal and external factors (appearance and mind of a person, or exterior and interior in terms of architecture) were characteristic of Greek culture as a whole and influenced all art forms, from pottery to sculpture and architecture. The temples also reflect some other Greek customs concerning the gods: for example, from the construction of shrines it appears that people gathered “outside, not inside” (95), as the altar was situated there, facing the rising sun. The temple itself (except for the early constructions, such as the Temple of Hera I, which had a row of columns inside the temple to support the roof) was to contain the statue of the god it was dedicated to, as for the Greeks such religious buildings belonged to the gods themselves, rather than to humans worshipping them.

As compared to Greek and Egyptian traditions, Etruscan architecture reveals still different values of those who built it. Their attitude towards the deceased seems familiar to that of the Egyptians; solid construction of underground tombs, the vivid example of which is the Tomb of the Reliefs, resembles that of the rock-cut Egyptian mastabas. Etruscan tombs, same as Egyptian, contain everything the spirit may need in his underworld life; moreover, such tombs were designed to look like houses of the living. This fact, however, shows a significant difference between Greek and Etruscan or Egyptian mentality: while the Greeks built their shrines and temples in marble or stone, which let them last till our days, they tended to “bury their dead in simple graves marked by a stele or statue” (147). And Etruscan temples were made or wood or mud, while their burial chambers appeared to be quite long-lasting. It shows the different priorities the nations set in their lives and culture: for the Greeks this priority was divine, for Egyptians or Etruscans it belonged to the spirits of the deceased.

Details in architecture and sculpture reveal other features of diverse mentalities. The Egyptians, for instance, used their “gigantic columns as fields for complicated ornamentation” (97), which was unthinkable for the Greek with their pursuit of balance and perfection. Greek sculptures are also constructed according to the same principle of carefully measured proportions; they were ideally planned and oftentimes comprised godlike stature and muscles, perfectly proportioned faces, beautifully and neatly done hair, elaborate folds of fabric covering the body. Etruscan statues might have been less elaborate than the Greek ones — the attention of the sculptor was focused on the upper half of the body, which left the lower half only schematically expressed — but they were more animated. Their faces were emotional and lively, the hands and arms were depicted in movement, which is even now still an important feature of Italian society. Egyptian sculptures, on the contrary, remained static and simple.   

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Statues and steles also showed different social factors, such as the position of men and women in the society. In the case of Greek art, only men appeared on vases and carvings, while the pictures on the walls or Etruscan burial chambers showed men and women equally, which suggests the existence of quite different attitudes reigning in the society.

In comparison to other works of art, such as paintings or carvings which in ancient times often depicted mythological scenes, architectural works do not only represent tendencies and motifs popular at that time. They reflect the work of mind and create the atmosphere in which people lived.

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