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Architec(ul)ture -- Manifestation of history & culture!

Mary Corning Winslow Black's residence and studio in Monterey, California)

History is a known concept in architecture but what is culture?

According to the oxford dictionary, 'culture' is the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular group of people or society. Culture is the integrated pattern of human knowledge, beliefs, and behavior that are transmitted to succeeding generations. All manners of social, familial, and cultural activities govern the domestic as well as public spaces in society. For instance, we are aware of the gladiatorial combat and wild animal fight culture of Rome, which resulted in the Colosseum, or the conception of Agoras, where people of Greek cities gathered around and made it an assembly space. The cultural projections are pretty solid behind the historic monuments but how do we perceive the present-day built environment through historic/cultural values?

Observing architecture is not a unidirectional approach. There are multiple filters that need to be applied while understanding a space. Famous historic monuments or civilisations are very well documented, which helps us in understanding them beyond the physicalities. But how do we understand or document a built space that we come across in our daily life?

I might not have an exact answer to this but I most definitely have a practice that could be followed. I want to share a recent experience of witnessing architecture from a historic and cultural lens. It was a casual weekend getaway and I decided to explore the tiny town of Monterey on the Pacific Coast.

I am a creature of habit and would never visit a place without reading all about it. Once I am familiar with the place and have a mind-map ready, only then I would head out. To my surprise, Monterey has a rich trade history and some great stories of explorers from Mexico entering the Californian Coast. The town is heavily influenced by Mexican/Spanish culture and it is evident from its vibe. Little cafes on the corner of streets, the use of the term 'Casa' on the plaques of historic homes, the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, the Cannery Row bridges resembling Barcelona's Bishop's bridge, and much more that is just too Spanish to miss.

Amidst the calm ocean-front town, there was this particular residence that made me quite curious. It belonged to Mary Black, a resident of Santa Barbara from 1911 to 1924. While her time there she learned about the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architecture and in 1930 she applied her knowledge in designing her own home and studio in Monterey, California.

The building exhibits a high level of craftsmanship in its exterior finishes and decoration. There is a sumptuous garden courtyard that evokes a strong sense of time and place. The house reflects the creative use of arches, courtyards, form as mass, plain wall surfaces, and clay tile roofs. It also has a full-width cantilevered second-story balcony, covered by the principal roof. The wrought--iron window casing and the wooden balcony balustrades are classic examples of Spanish architecture. There was a dainty fountain in the garden that was visible from the street through a tiny window. That window was like a portal between two separate environments and it gave a peek of the inside utopian world.

Mrs. Black used her artist’s skill at composing both the actual building design and its careful placement between two major historic architectural features, Casa Abrego to the Southeast and Stevenson House to the Northwest. She sited her buildings perpendicular to the long axis of both early adobes to avoid visual competition. Mary C. W. Black is an artist who applied cultural and historical affluence to her studio and residence. Her adobe is one of the greatest examples of Spanish Revival style on the Pacific Coast and I would like to acknowledge her prowess in viewing architecture through the principles of 'History' and 'Culture'.

(Wrought-iron window casing, Wooden balustrades, Landscaping, Dainty windows seen in these images)

As much as we want architecture to just be about the built forms, it is more about the ideas and concepts that form them. People, culture, the consumption of space, and the regional events that take place, play a crucial role in designing the built environment. Andrew Leach, an architectural historian, talks about the questions that need to be asked during the practice of architectural history and they are as follows:

1. What has architecture been?

2. How is architecture made or how has it been made or post-factum, defined, and appropriated? These are clearly theoretical questions as much as they are historical; they concern the disciplinary knowledge of architecture as well as its history. To the extent that these questions can be found in architecture and asked of its past, however, their answers rely on the bodies of evidence available to historians of architecture and the conceptual premises that limit the extent of that evidence. In a nutshell, I would like to say that architecture is the manifestation of culture. And if we are able to identify the historic/cultural evidence, architecture would have definitions beyond the materiality!

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