The Fourth Dimension Of Architecture

Most people think primarily in two dimensions…that is to say flat. However, it is reasonable to say that the world is changing so fast that many more people think in three dimensions than ever before.

The basic architectural education teaches the need to think in three dimensions. That skill is an absolute necessity to enable the creation of three-dimensional design. However, it is not easy to do. The individuals who can actually think in three dimensions are gifted and highly skilled.

Thinking in three dimensions means you can conceive of the floor plan of a building and simultaneously think of the height and the massing of the building. Once this skill is developed, it becomes impossible to think otherwise. For instance, maps no longer are flat.

My lovely wife is adroit at using maps. I am very grateful for that skill as she has always been the navigator on our family trips. However, a three-dimensional thinker sees a map with all of the topography of rolling hills, river valleys, and mountain ranges.

Understanding maps in two dimensions is a skill that not many people have mastered. Add to that skill the third dimension and you create a literally overwhelming chore for most.

In other words, you not only see the street map, but in your minds eye you can also see the relative heights of the buildings. You have the ability to “see” topography such as the mountains in front of you before you can actually see them.

The ability of three-dimensional thinking is an incredible gift. However, as a raw gift it cannot produce architecture. We must develop that gift into a finely honed skill to the point of it being second nature. That is one of the fundamentals of architectural education.

However, there is a fourth dimension to the creation of architecture. We do not often articulate it because it gets lost in the turmoil of our everyday lives. That dimension is, of course, time. In a way, the fourth dimension is the most important. However, we tend to give minimal thought to it.

If we tend to give time in architecture little thought, does that not imply it is of little relevance? I believe the answer is “no.” I also believe the primary reason we give little thought to time is that it is incredibly complex.

For example, time is extremely important in terms of the longevity of fabricated materials used in construction. An architect must consider longevity of materials so that the construction details contribute toward preserving those materials, and thus the investment made, in the construction. That sounds like a simple issue to resolve, but it is not.

Here is another example. Over time, our human lives change. That means we have different needs over time. That means the architect must make decisions about the many elements of the building in relationship to its future use over time.

In other words, must a building be so specialized in its use that it will have a potentially finite lifespan? Conversely, must a particular building serve many varying needs that its use must be flexible? Must the design enable changes in the future with little effort?

Here is a third example. The esthetic impact of a building will change over time because our human sensibilities change as our cultures evolve. Therefore, architects are constantly seeking to create a sense of timelessness in their designs.

Here is a fourth example. What came before us in time? What is the historical background of our current efforts? Are we adding to an original that “must be preserved”? What is our responsibility to respect the past? What are we leaving to future generations we will never know?

So, to answer the original simple question of this blog title…architecture has at least four dimensions…but who knows what is yet to come?


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