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Systems of Building

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ART AS CRAFT

Art, craftsmanship and technology are three terms that have seldom had meanings as distinct as those they have acquired in the West, and only in the West, since the sixteenth century. It was at that time that painters and sculptors assumed a status superior to that of potters, furniture-makers, metalworkers, embroiderers, weavers and other practitioners of the so-called decorative arts. There is a reminder of the earlier situation, when the arts and crafts were equal, in the word 'masterpiece', which originally signified a work executed by an apprentice as a demonstration of skill in order to gain the rank of 'master' in a guild of craftsmen. Subsequently it was commonly applied to a picture or statue that seemed in some way to surpass others by the same artist or group of artists. In both senses the word implies a value judgement, but one which, until relatively recent times, was based mainly on an assessment of proficiency, or craftsmanship.

The production of any artifact is dependent on both manual skill and technical knowledge. A pottery vessel, a basket or an embroidery, no less than a temple, a painting or a statue, demands the coordination of ideas of form with dexterity of handling and a grasp of the techniques that ensure permanence. In all but the simplest utensils and buildings, however, there is a tension between ends and means, between the idea in the maker s mind and the skill needed to express it and give it form. And this tension gives art, as we understand it, a history different from that of technology. Methods of construction, carving or painting do not supersede one another in the way that a technological invention renders an older device obsolete. They often have significance apart from their function, seen most obviously in the interplay between structural and stylistic - or utilitarian and aesthetic - developments in architecture, including that of our own time.

Systems of Building

There are two basic systems of building (sometimes combined): with uprights supporting horizontal members - post and lintel, also the basis of framed construction - or with walls pierced by openings, sometimes arched. Ancient Egyptian and Greek temples, and nearly all ancient Chinese buildings, are typical examples of post-and-lintel architecture; their walls are merely fillings between uprights. Both the ancient Egyptians and the Greeks were, nevertheless, practitioners of wall architecture as well, especially for defensive purposes. Roofs to provide shelter from the elements could be supported by either system. In post-and-lintel architecture the width of the roof was limited by the length of horizontal members that could be carried by the uprights. If a building was entirely of stone the internal spaces were therefore very restricted. At an early date, and in many different places, it was discovered that a space could be completely enclosed by projecting each course of a wall slightly over that below to form a corbelled vault or dome - as in the Treasury of Atreus, Mycenae, of about 1300 BC (2,56) - though the earliest surviving example, in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland, is much earlier. It dates from about 2600 BC. The adoption of wedge-shaped stones to construct round arches and vaults, already known in ancient Egypt, was exploited by the Romans and later carried a stage further by their invention of concrete. This enabled them to span areas of an extent that was quite unprecedented and for many centuries remained unequalled. For building with concrete was abandoned in the early Christian period although other elements of Roman architecture - the columns and Classical orders and the round arch - were retained, though often in a debased and rudimentary form. In the European Middle Ages the evolution of Gothic architecture introduced a somewhat different system, with piers supporting arches and vaults of stone, as in Roman wall architecture but with the walls reduced to little more than screens, as in post-and-lintel, especially timber-framed, construction. There were radical departures from these basic systems in the twentieth century, with new developments in structural technology and the introduction of new materials, for example metal frames on which 'curtain walls' (see Glossary) can be hung, reinforced concrete shells that eliminate the distinction between walls and coverings, and 'tensile structures' with roofs of plastic webbing freely suspended on cable nets attached to masts and ground anchorages. The majority of buildings throughout the world are, however, still built in traditional ways - or designed to look as if they were.


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