What is a building and what is it for? At the very beginning of man’s presence on Earth, a building, a shelter, was above all a means of protection against the elements, wild beasts, or possible enemies. It is this function that human constructions, or any other form of more natural housing, have fulfilled for a very long time.
Only buildings intended to perform spiritual or religious functions were of a different design. With the appearance of such constructions arose the notion of aesthetics. Of course, this concept was already, to some extent, applied to housing but it was much rarer. For a long time, human habitation was, above all, characterized by its utilitarian side, namely its solidity and its ability to protect. On the other hand, a more artistic sense was manifested in construction devoted to the sacred; there, human beings began to express themselves more creatively, transcending the merely utilitarian prism applied to domestic constructions. It should be noted that the ‘non-utilitarian’ dimension encouraged aesthetic creativity, although it was by no means an imperative, and even though many objects of common use could already be generously decorated very early in human history. This is why the link between the sacred and artistic or aesthetic creativity seems to prevail when it comes to construction or architecture. Through a construction intended for a religious or spiritual use, man seemed to be invited to achieve this initial idea, purpose or function by means of art. Art seemed to constitute in a concrete, tangible way the building language capable of giving shape to this kind of edifice.
Later on, this language even extended to the non-sacred, non-religious buildings: Firstly, those which were used by royalty, representing the power of the State, secondly, with the increasing sedentarization of man on Earth and the surge of material and financial resources for a greater number, many individuals, not necessarily belonging to the ruling classes of society, started applying aesthetic and artistic criteria to the construction of their houses. This tendency was also driven by the increasing safety of cities.
As a result, the sacred and the artistic or aesthetic were no longer inseparably linked, a development which had a decisive influence on the kind of aesthetics, or artistic value, implemented in the construction. There were suddenly other shapes and other kinds of ornamentation, more related to the earth, to mankind, or even to the owner’s social status, his merits, etc.
In tandem with the aesthetic, ornamental development of construction, building materials also evolved: for a very long time natural products supplied by the earth, or sometimes by the animals, were the dominant source of brute material. Common materials included soil, stone, wood, dried plants such as reed, various herbs, cotton, and sometimes wool or leather. It is only very recently that we have begun to use other materials, whether from the oil or chemical industries. Even natural materials were suddenly subjected to de-naturalizing treatments to guarantee a longer conservation period, to reinforce them, or to ‘embellish’ them.
Finally, location was, for millennia, the primary concern in the construction of houses and other buildings. Location was the number one criterion, which came before everything else. Why? Because the notion of the sacred, omnipresent in the consciousness and life of man until the 19th century, went hand in hand with a form of instinctive wisdom. This wisdom, this instinctive knowledge, led man to choose the places according to the construction to be built, but also according to its use.
Let us say that a temple or a church needed a site whose choice had to be based on certain criteria, and the building of a house on others. With this in mind, the common feature of all forms of construction and habitation was that the chosen site was not to be covered by negative energies, whether generated by underground currents, water, wind or events that had taken place on the spot, in its direct environment.
Modern man most often takes little or even no more account of the criteria which were considered highly important for a man of the past, concerning the choice of the location, the shape, the ornamentation or the building materials. For barely 100 years everything has changed deeply and most of the time, the one and only criterion seems to be based at that moment on money, the cost of location or construction. Is this a valid standard, or does it show that man has lost sight of the more important, more essential criteria?