When I was compiling the “Best Works of Art” lists a few weeks ago, I noticed every once in a while that there would be a building on someone’s list. I was focused on painting and sculpture, so I mostly ignored these references to architecture. Until now.
In some ways, architecture is the crowning achievement of the visual arts, in that it incorporates aspects of painting and sculpture, but within the overall context of designed structure in space, so I decided that architecture needed some lists of its own. As I collected over 20 lists of “Best Buildings” and “Best Architecture”, I found that most of the items on the lists met my common sense notion of architecture: Buildings that people use to live, work, play, worship and learn in. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that the scope of architecture went beyond my original conception. The first obvious exception was bridges – you don’t normally go inside them, like buildings – you travel over them. Yet bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate and the Millau Viaduct are some of the most spectacular architectural achievements of the modern era. But the listers also included the Statue of Liberty and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which I thought of as giant sculptures (in fact, the Statue of Liberty is on my paintings and sculptures list). At least those two items meet my first definition because they are hollow and people can go inside them.
So I revised my working definition of architecture to: Man-made structures that people can go inside, underneath or on top of. But I saw an immediate problem: this definition was too broad: it would make roads, patios, empty refrigerator boxes and even cruise ships and automobiles into architecture. Even more perplexing were two items that turned up on multiple “Best Architecture” lists that didn’t seem to fit any reasonable definition I could come up with: the Great Sphinx of Giza and the giant statues (called “moai”) of Easter Island. You can’t go inside them (unlike the nearby pyramids, for example); you can’t go underneath them and, unlike bridges, they are not designed for people to travel over them.
So I turned to my Internet resources. The online Free Dictionary defines architecture, in part, as: (1) The art and science of designing and erecting buildings; (2) Buildings and other large structures. The first definition is problematic because it excludes not only the Sphinx and the Moai, but also bridges, which are not normally thought of as buildings. But the second definition, while simple, seems to do the trick, especially when we recognize that the word ‘structure’ is related to ‘construct’, which implies a controlling mind and would exclude natural arches or rock formations. One hitch: my new working definition of architecture would include large structures made by animals (non-human animals) – giant termite mounds, for example – but that’s a list for another day.
Here they are,, the new “Best Architecture” lists – with lots of pictures:
Best Architecture of All Time – The Critics’ Picks (in rank order – best buildings first)
Best Architecture of All Time – Chronological (from Stonehenge 2000 BCE to Dubai 2010)