On history

I feel as if I should write about history. I’ve just finished my school year, which included three courses on the history of architecture and interior design, and clearly there should be plenty to say, but no one period, building, interior, or piece of furniture inspired me to click on “write post.” When I look back at the entire year, however, I realize that the three courses did give me something valuable – a stronger sense that the “modern” life of today is not the be-all end-all, but is just another instant in the continuously developing story of humankind. Clearly, this is not a novel idea, but what’s new for me is that history now seems quite real and exciting.

But back to history and how I came to appreciate it.

History is one of those subjects that is either completely engrossing or totally boring. When I was in high school, I hated it. I don’t even remember my teachers, which probably means they were not very skilled, but I do remember how deadly dull the textbooks and the curriculum were – strings of dates, military events, political leaders, all presented in stilted, repetitive language. It was not a story of how life was; it was a list of the political-military conquests of white men. Not that this can’t be interesting, but it’s certainly not the whole picture and I couldn’t identify.

College offered better exposure to history through sociology, anthropology, Shakespeare, and music and art history courses and, since then, I’ve periodically delved into various history topics. Still, I kept thinking I didn’t like history based on that old high school dread.

This school year I took History I, History II, and Modern Architecture, the first two of which were required. I expected to have to trudge through these courses, but I was surprised to find that I actually loved all of them. Each class seemed to supply a piece of a puzzle. What that puzzle was was initially unclear, but now I can see it – it’s the story of the continuum of human development and how we fit into it.

History I began with ancient Egypt, a culture whose art and architecture reflected complex notions of religion and social hierarchy. The class progressed through Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, and into the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe, focusing on what life was like in those times and how the architecture responded. The story of the development of human civilization is entangled in the structures and art of these cultures. I was struck by the exponentially increasing pace of advancement as I studied each culture. Ancient Egyptian culture lasted thousands of years – the Industrial Revolution has been going on a mere two hundred. It’s dizzying.

History II covered the 18th and 19th centuries and was more about furniture than architecture. I kind of hit the wall during this class as the chairs, commodes, and tables all began to look alike to me, but what they revealed about the progression of thought, economics, craftsmanship, urban development, technology, and social and artistic attitudes in the 18th and 19th centuries provided a great background to understanding contemporary times. These centuries were the precursors to the Modern Era in so many ways and having studied this progression, I now have a greater appreciation for that period of history and its impact on our lives today.

Modern Architecture covered architectural history from the mid-19th century to the present. The course helped me understand the who, what, when, where, and why of the forms and lines used in architecture today. Going back to the beginning of various modern styles and learning what was happening in the world at large and the social pressures to which the designers responded has made me see modern work in a new light. These modern buildings are not just structures; they embody the thoughts, emotions, and technology not only of their designers but also of the times during which they were built.

Ultimately, history is about understanding our place in time and why life is the way it is today. Today is merely a continuation of yesterday, and tomorrow will simply be the next step. In a sense, nothing is new – everything has a past, be it technological or inspiration of line or form. It’s understanding these links with past societies, thoughts, designs, and people that make history so important and give us a vision for the future.

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