December 8, 2013

MITx: A Global History Of Architecture

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Nearly 3 years ago I wrote about receiving the textbook “A Global History Of Architecture” in return for the use of one of my photos of Pompeii. When I discovered the MIT course given online by one of the authors and using this textbook, I had to signup.

The couse is called A Global History Of Architecture (yes, the same as the textbook), available through EdX and instructed by Mark Jarzombek. EdX is another of the online university course providers, similar to the previously discussed Coursera although with a different (but strangely overlapping) set of universities involved. Other than graphic design, there is very little difference between EdX and Coursera; the manner of instruction, facilities and testing are all largely the same. A student should just signup wherever they find interesting courses.

At 12 weeks this is very long for an online course – 8 weeks of lectures regularly interspersed by 4 weeks with just an exam. The exams barely qualify as such. None took me more than 20 minutes (the notes suggest an hour) to complete the various multiple choice and categorisation questions. Each lecture week includes over 3 hours of video instruction (cut up into roughly 10 minute segments) with mini-tests. However, these videos are not specially made for EdX. They are actual university lectures from MIT – the back of the original students’ heads can sometimes be seen. The lectures are the jewel in this course. Professor Jarzombek presents well and is clearly talking on topics that greatly interest him.

While the topic is nominally architectural history, it is more a general history of the world illuminated with architectural examples (more A History of the World in 100 Objects than Roman Architecture). There is also regular and interesting discussion of trade flows and migration patterns through history and how these promoted the interchange of ideas (memes I suppose). The course suggests many civilisations rose and fell with changing trade routes. For instance, the Khmer Empire centred on modern day Cambodia rose on the southward movement of trade between Europe and China due to climatic changes around 600-1400AD. With the rise of the Mongols the original Silk Route re-established itself and sea based trade diminished along with the fortunes of the Khmer. However, before this happened Indian stonesmiths and architects brought their religions and architectural styles to the booming region. Another example is that statues of Buddha only began to appear once Buddhist monks traveling along trade routes from India to China encountered the Hellenistic (and statue producing) societies in central Asia (remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire). This occurred centuries after the religion was founded.

The course starts with the beginnings of human society and takes two weeks before reaching the first towns and cities of the Middle East. This sets the scene for the nature of the lectures – most time is spent on art, religion, trade and the way people lived. Then this background is used to explain the reasons why, how and where certain buildings are constructed. The mechanics of various religions are particularly important as most buildings that survive over 1000 years (or were written about) held some religious significance. There is also regular discussion of how buildings model certain ideas. The columns of Greek temples supposedly represent forest groves; the peaks of Hindu temples model Mount Meru; the palace at Persepolis is a giant meeting ground (like an ancient convention centre). Sometimes this idea can be quite abstract. Etruscan temples (which along with Greek temples, influenced the Romans) were supposed to model the movement of birds flying through the air.

There is also some discussion of how buildings change over time. Many buildings change usage over time. The Parthenon has been a temple, church, mosque, ruin and tourist site over its 2500 year history. Other buildings grow in importance and are thus modified. Egyptian temples grew in power by adding new parts to the building. Churches and stupas generally can’t be expanded, so instead sites that became more important just built more churches and stupas.

This is a thought-provoking rush through human history from the first societies to colonialism. The course presents history via the forces acting on cultures, unlike the standard tick-tock of historical events. An interesting perspective and certainly worth a viewing of the lectures. You also might learn a little about architecture.

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