Architecture is one of the ultimate cultural containers; it both represents and holds firm our society. It is an absolute expression of who we are, our value system, our ideals, our aspirations. It is also the thing that circumscribes our daily lives. In this, I do want to state, I am not being an environmental determinist claiming that architecture makes us who we are. Instead, I am making the opposite claim, that who we are determines our architecture, and that then architecture we create imposes boundaries on us.
Some might argue that art is the true container of culture: it challenges us, it embodies our ideals, it represents, and possibly abstracts, our culture; it stimulates thought and discourse. All of these are true, but the one thing that art lacks is the connection to the practical. By it's very nature, art is an object of ornament, not of function. This is not to say that art is superfluous, it is very necessary, it is just that art exists for it's own sake.
Architecture does not. Architecture straddles the line between the practical necessities of life and the ornament of existence. As Adolph Loos would say, "art should challenge, architecture should be comfortable."
Some might argue the opposite side, that technology is the actual container of culture: it demonstrates our knowledge; it shows our application of that knowledge; it celebrates our achievements; and in some cases, it fundamentally makes life possible. All of these things are true also, but technology lacks the poetic. It is missing an essential element of grace and beauty. Technology is an object of function, not ornament.
Architecture also does not do this. Again, it straddles the line. It embodies the practical knowledge necessary to create buildings, but it also contains the beauty that pure engineering lacks.
Then there are those who would argue that writing, poetry and literature, are the true embodiment of culture, and in that I must agree, they are. However, literature is just another form of architecture, in the sense that both are directly derived from the ancient art of storytelling. (I would like to credit my friend Patrick with the concept that all art has it's root in the telling of stories.) I am not claiming that architecture is constructed poetry or frozen music, merely that the two derive from the same source.
Writing is the architecture of the mind, buildings are the architecture of the physical. They both employ structure, rules, form in the purpose of creating beauty. A poorly crafted poem will collapse under its own weight just as quickly as poorly crafted building.
It is no coincidence that buildings and writings are the primary tools to dissect and understand a past culture. They are the two fundamental sources used in archaeology to reconstruct the past.
To examine the first mode of architecture as a cultural container, I will address how architecture manifests essential aspects of society.
First I would like to discuss how architecture embodies our value systems. As an example, I will look at the development of the kitchen over the last one hundred years and chart how it displays changes in societal roles. I am going to use this time frame, because this is the period after the kitchen developed as a room separate from the main living space, as it had been in colonial times for all but the wealthy. It is also after the kitchen stopped being hidden as the realm of servants for the middle classes, as it was in Victorian times. This period is the time when the gas stove, refrigerator and indoor plumbing transformed the kitchen.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the kitchen was typically a very small room that could only hold a small number of people comfortably. This was true even in houses of the wealthy, as shown in Frank Lloyd Wright's Hollyhock house. Further, the kitchen was relatively isolated from the rest of the house, segregated from the main living spaces by at least doors, if not actually by a butler's pantry.
This design showed the minimal value placed on the kitchen and more importantly, the minimal value of the women doing the cooking. A common observation was "exiling the women to the kitchen." This reflected societal norms of the men retiring to the parlor to discuss important matters, while the women went into the kitchen to work at cleaning up.
In fact, the design of the house showed the sexual segregation typical of society at the time, where the men and the women typically shared space only during the meal, but were separated by the architecture both before and after. And sometimes they were not together even then. In my father's family, if there was not enough space at the table, the women ate in the kitchen. The architecture limited all interaction.
As we moved into the second half of the 20th century, the kitchen began to change. First, the kitchen transformed to celebrate both technological achievement and plenty. While still strictly separated from the rest of the living spaces, it nonetheless began to become more of a focal point for the display of technology; electric stoves, wall ovens, dishwashers, trash compactors, a host of small appliances, supposedly labor saving devices, actually became status symbols to display in a new kitchen. Even though socialization would not occur there, everyone had to see the new stuff in the kitchen and admire the achievement of the family who could afford it.
Additionally, stoves, ovens and refrigerators increased in size to accommodate the more plentiful food that needed to be stored and prepared. To understand this change, I have a bread dish that belonged to my grandmother that she used in the 30's. This dish is small, it can only hold six or eight slices of bread, and those slices would have been cut in half. It was a way to elegantly display a small amount of food. Today, a bread plate would be able to accommodate an entire loaf of French bread, possibly even two.
But the most dramatic shift was the change that began in the 80's and 90's, when cooking moved into the social realm. No longer were women exiled to the kitchen, and segregated from the men, now both sexes mingled and the kitchen became a prime social space. In the shift to the great room concept of the new millennium, the kitchen is now often the main entertaining space in the home.
This shift shows the massive transformation of attitudes. The kitchen has returned to it's Colonial American roots, where the activities of the home revolve around the hearth, now transformed into the island. The change in kitchens shows the change in the values of society, where it is now important for an entire family or a group of friends to share space, even when work is occurring.
My grandmother would never have had her entire family in the kitchen, it wouldn't have been proper because it was a working room. I would never not have my friends in my kitchen, for the same basic reason, it would not be proper, but now because it is the social room. The transformation of the kitchen in the house shows the shift in cultural ideals.
The change in the kitchen also shows a shift in our aspirations. In the days of strictly defined gender roles, rooms had gender determinatives. Certain rooms were for men, most of the house actually, and certain rooms were for women, chiefly the kitchen, sewing room and the kids rooms. At that time, societal aspirations and norms were built around the concept of a man's home is his castle. Our architecture reflected this.
Today, our aspirations are for a non-gender segregated society. We are tearing down the walls of sexism, and in doing so, have torn down the walls around the kitchen. We are reflecting the hope for an equal society through an architectural expression that creates equality in the space. Now the whole family can be together, and work together, in the modern kitchen.
But container has another meaning, it can also mean to hold back; to contain an idea in a limiting sense. To demonstrate this, I will stay with the kitchen. The shift in kitchen design lagged years behind the shift in societal roles, and in fact, it is not fully penetrated even yet because there are still millions of old style kitchens across the country. In a very real sense, the delay in the shift of the physical puts a brake on the shift of the cultural.
In homes where the kitchen still is of the design and has the separation of the old
kitchens, the patterns of life in those houses still reflects the old system of segregation. It may be the man doing the cooking, but regardless, the genders are still separated before and after the meal. Socialization is still fragmented by the spaces.
Even in old houses that have large kitchens, like mine, there is still an odd disjointing, where everyone crowds into the kitchen, so a choice must be made between comfort or standing around the island in the kitchen. There is no ability for everyone to be together, but engaged in different activities as they would be in an open concept house.
In this sense, our architecture also contains culture, by slowing down its transformation. I am not going to claim that this is a good thing or a bad thing, just that the built environment can slow the societal changes, if for no other reason than we cannot afford to rebuild our entire world every time the culture shifts.
I could use countless other architectural examples of this embodiment of culture. You can see it in the change from the corner store to the big box store, the parish church to the large mega-church, the grand civic buildings to the modest office structures that now serve as centers of government. Each of these changes represents a serious shift or evolution of cultural values.
The architecture becomes a lens, magnifying our society. Though our architecture, we can analyze our entire value system and the patterns of our lives. But architecture can also become a prison, locking us into patterns that are no longer valid, but that we are unable to change, because the architecture confines us to the old forms.
We build buildings that fit our lives at the moment, then those buildings shape the patterns of the next generation. It is a cycle that is at once elevating and limiting, and it is a cycle that we must understand.