Architecture Basics - Learn What's What and Who's Who

Lifelong Learning About People, Places, and Things

Woman in wheelchair at the John Hancock Tower and Trinity Church in Boston, Massachusetts

Photo by Huntstock/Getty Images

The basics are simple—architecture is about people, places, and things. A person in a wheelchair (people), in Boston, Massachusetts (places), with the backdrop of the famous 19th century Trinity Church reflected in the glass exterior of a 20th-century skyscraper, the John Hancock Tower (things). This scene is emblematic of basic architecture. Here's an introduction to what you need to know.

People: Designers, Builders, and Users

Birds' nests and beaver dams may look architectural, but these structures are not designed consciously. Those who make architecture and those who use it have made conscious decisions—designing the spaces in which people live and work; setting the requirements for safety, universal design, and new urbanism; and choosing one home over another because of the pleasing way it looks. We all make conscious selections about the environment we build and that has been built for us.

What is an architect? Architects talk about "the built environment," and that covers a lot of territory. Would we have a built environment without people? Is what we build today original, human constructions or simply imitative of what we see around us—using the hidden codes of ancient geometries to create pleasing designs and using bio-mimicry to exploit nature as a guide to green design.

Who are the famous, infamous, and not so well-known architects throughout history? Study the life stories and works—their portfolios—of hundreds of the world's most famous architects and designers. Alphabetically, from the Finnish Alvar Aalto to the Swiss-born Peter Zumthor, find your favorite designer or learn about someone you've never heard of before. Believe it or not, more people have practiced architecture than are famous for it!

Also, study how people use and react toward architecture. Whether we walk down a sidewalk to City Hall or drive home to a cozy bungalow refuge, the environment built for us is our infrastructure. Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to live and prosper in the built environment. Since 1990, architects have led the way enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), making old and new buildings accessible for everyone's use—not just people in wheelchairs. Today, without definitive legislation, architects design for the blind, plan safe spaces for the elderly, and even try to stop climate change with their net-zero energy building designs. Architects can be the agents of change, so they are a good group to get to know and understand.

Places: Where We Build

Architects use the term the built environment because there are just so many places. You don't have to go to Rome or Florence to see great designs, but the architecture in Italy has influenced the Western world since man began building. Travel is a great way to learn about architecture. The casual traveler can experience all kinds of architecture in every country in the world and each state and city in the United States.

From the public architecture of Washington, D.C. to the variety of buildings in California, traveling through the U.S. is a great history lesson when you look at what human beings have built. Where do people live and what do they live in? How did the railroads change architectural styles in America? Learn about the late American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his ideas about organic architecture—plan to visit his studios in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona. Wright's influence will be felt everywhere structures are built, including Arcosanti in Arizona, the vision of Paolo Soleri, one of Wright's students.

The power of place can be everlasting.

Things: Our Built Environment

From Laugier's Primitive Hut to Boston's Trinity Church or the John Hancock Tower, today we think of buildings being the "things" of architecture. Architecture is a visual art, and picture dictionaries for architecture and design provide illustrated definitions for complex ideas like Deconstructivism and Classical Orders. And how do they build? What is adaptive reuse? Where can I find architectural salvage?

Learning architectural styles is a way of learning history—historic architecture periods follow right along with the periods of human civilization. Take a guided tour through architectural history. An architecture timeline leads you to articles, photographs, and Websites that feature great buildings and structures, from prehistoric to modern times. The house style guide to the American home is a journey through the history of the United States. Architecture is memory.

Skyscrapers are the "things" architects design to truly scrape the sky. Which are the tallest buildings in the world? Statistics of the world's tallest buildings are constantly changing as man's engineering is a race to the top, pushing the envelope of what is possible.

The world has many other great buildings and structures, however. Begin your own directory of favorite structures, where they are, and why you like them. They might be great churches and synagogues. Or maybe your focus will be on the great arenas and stadia of the world. Learn about new buildings. Collect facts and photos for the world's most famous buildings, including great bridges, arches, towers, castles, domes, and monuments and memorials that tell stories. Find features and photos for favorite housing styles in North America, from Georgian Colonial up through modern times. You'll find yourself taking a course in residential architecture.

Your starting point to learning about that built environment is to discover great buildings and structures and how they're engineered, learn about famous builders and designers from all over the world, and see how our buildings have changed throughout history—and often because of history. Begin to create your own architectural digest—a starting point to journalize about the built world around you. That's how you learn about architecture.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Gänshirt, Christian. "Tools for Ideas: Introduction to Architectural Design." Basel Switzerland: Walter de Gruyter, 2012. 
  • Oxman, Rivka, and Robert Oxman. "New Structuralism: Design, Engineering and Architectural Technologies." New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2012.  
  • Szokolay, Steven. "Introduction to Architectural Science." London: Routledge, 2012. 
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Your Citation
Craven, Jackie. "Architecture Basics - Learn What's What and Who's Who." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, July 29). Architecture Basics - Learn What's What and Who's Who. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Architecture Basics - Learn What's What and Who's Who." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).