One can truly never understand any time period beyond the ones he has experienced first hand. We might hear of earlier eras from our elders, but these stories will always be secondhand experiences to us. These time periods were experienced by another. Their perspective changes the particulars, filters out some and making others more potent. Furthermore, knowledge of the past gained this way is limited to only those that are alive. Any time period beyond the that has no living witnesses.
All historical knowledge beyond that comes from cultural artifacts. Some societies leave behind writings we can republish and read, art we can put up and view in galleries, and plays that can be recast and reproduced in modern theaters. In some ways, this is superior to having an actual witness relate the past to you. One can experience these works of art, assuming they are well preserved, in precisely the same way the people of past did. The universal methods and motifs great works of art utilize are just as effective on us now as they were then. How they are used tells us what values and ideals were important to the author and society that produced them.
In the same way that traveling to a foreign country can teach you of their culture, consuming art can be just as effective. One might not be able to travel to the past, but one can still read an ancient novel. Comparing and contrasting the societies of the past with the current is valuable, even if the work of art is from a culture that you are familiar with in the present. It allows you to get a sense of what has survived from the past as well as what has been lost. The bits of ourselves that we see in bygone eras can help us identify what is important in our own.
One of the most overlooked connections to the past is through architecture. Just as these ancient works of art can portray the people who created them, buildings can act as this sort of cultural mirror as well. Architecture has always lived in half in the realm of the practical and half in the realm of the expressive. Each building stands as both a testament to the designer who made it and the person he was designing it for. In this way, architecture can actually tell us just as much, if not more, about the societies of the past as any art form or archeology.
Architecture is one of the most enduring and present forms of the past. Every city in the world has buildings that are centuries, if not millenia, old. Many of them have been in use during all that time. People continue to live and work in buildings designed and made by a society long gone in their everyday lives. The use of these buildings is hard to misinterpret. A castle is clearly designed with defense in mind and an opera house is unmistakably for performers and audiences. In many cases, these buildings are the only tangible mark of their society still in use. The concrete, wood, marble, and stone was all harvested and cut by their hands. The technology, craftsmanship, and methodology required to erect it was all possessed by the society that produced the building.
However, there are some very strong limitations one should keep in mind when viewing architecture from a historical perspective. Not all buildings are equal. Some are built to last while others, by their very nature, are only temporary. Some buildings are made to be seen and are kept at the center of public life. Others are solely meant to fulfill a singular purpose and thereby abandoned. The most famous and longest lasting examples we have of architecture are the former type of buildings. We only see the buildings that were made to last from periods long ago. As such, our opinion on these cultures has an inherent bias to them if when we base it on these buildings. While we might stand in awe of buildings such as the pyramids in Egypt, The Parthenon in Athens, or Stonehenge in England today, these all had a very distinct and important use in their own time. They were not built for us to view them as tourist attractions now. Their original meaning can only be fully understood within the historical context of the societies that used them.
These buildings have survived due to their significance to the society in which they were built. They were built in important and sacred places. There was no expense spared in building them. They used the best and most durable materials available. They provide a timeless sense of style through their grandeur and impracticality for daily use. If they were co-opted for use by later societies, they would have been worn out or changed beyond recognition. What we get instead is a sort of time capsule and window into the societies that made them.
Perhaps, this is where their true value lies. Even though they were built them to last and as a testament to their religions, they were only used for this purpose for a short part of their life time. Their “second life” as a cultural artifact affects far more people than their original purpose.
When one considers this, an interesting question emerges: what modern buildings would survive into the future in our own society? Many of the buildings considered architecturally significant today were built for practical reasons. Skyscrapers, government buildings, and bridges all require an immense amount of upkeep to keep them in a durable state. They are made from glass that is easily broken and must be washed every few months. Reinforced concrete provides a stable base but it is nothing more than the skeleton of the building. Strip away all of the aesthetic materials from modern constructions and you would see it as plain, austere, and ugly. This has been the case in architecture ever since the late 19th century.
There have been a few interesting exceptions to this trends since then. Most notable were the architecture of the fascist movements in Europe in the 20th century. The head architect of the Third Reich, Albert Speer, explicitly made this one of the goals of his work. In a paper titled “Die Ruinenwerttheorie”, he describes the value he sees in designing buildings in such a way that they would “age gracefully”. Originating in Late-Romantic ideals, Speer notes that buildings are eventually, not matter what precautions are taken, are doomed to disrepair. The society they were built for is not permanent. Once the people are gone that used it, the building will fall into ruin. It is an eventuality that entropy will take is course. The only way that the architect can combat this, in his view, was to design buildings in such a way that limits this decay.
The most famous application of this theory can be found in his design of the 1936 Berlin Olympiastadion. It is replete with Traditional German and Classical Greek motifs. The primary support came from stone pillars quarried in Germany. Steel and modern materials were used but they were unessential to the support of building. The building would stand even if every scrap of steel rusted and every bit of glass shattered. The building was open and clear, allowing for natural lighting to penetrate to deep within the inner part of the structure. It was built in such a way that it supported all of the events the 1936 Olympics required but still retained a “monumental” style.
The stadium, unlike so much of the architecture in Germany from this period, remained relatively untouched by war. Away from the city center, it was protected from the bombing that ravaged most of Berlin. It was neither important enough strategically or symbolically for it to be a major target for destruction. While many other buildings of this nature were completely transformed by the war effort, the German government was able to repurpose it into a bunker, an arms factory, and a radio station without touching many of its distinctive qualities. Its durability made it one of the most important buildings in the post-war era Berlin. It was quickly reopened to be used for recreation and sports and remains so to this day. Despite some major renovations throughout the years, it retains much of the original design and grandeur it had when it first opened.
The fact that the Olympiastadion survived some of the harshest times in the 20th century is a testament to its design and the philosophy behind its construction. Despite the billions of dollars thrown at new construction projects at cities all around the world, very few of them are resilient or notable enough to survive the ravages of time. Buildings like this provide an invaluable link to the past in ways that no other form can. It goes to show that no matter the era something is made in, diligence and dedication to higher values can survive and be remembered. As cities crumble and time changes all, the very few that live up to this high standard will be passed on to future generations of admirers.