Artists, architects and engineers collaborate. Your head tilts back, eyes widen, jaw drops. You swallow hard and stand anchored to the spot in awe and marvel at the masterpiece at the foot of which you are standing.

MEGAN SCHOEMAN

Artists, architects and engineers collaborate. Your head tilts back, eyes widen, jaw drops. You swallow hard and stand anchored to the spot in awe and marvel at the masterpiece at the foot of which you are standing.

The visual appeal in buildings specifically, is something with which man has busied himself for thousands of years. From ancient Greek amphitheatres to medieval castles to Roman aqueducts to Egyptian pyramids – each great age had its own interpretation of what was aesthetically pleasing.

But cathedrals were in a league of their own. Especially those tucked away all over Europe. Those decorated with exquisite stained glass windows through which coloured rays of sunlight filter and artworks, by some of the most renowned artists of all time, that took a lifetime to complete.

Today we don’t need to journey to Europe or the centre of a city in search of architectural wonders. Nor do we need to spend lifetimes to decorate public spaces. “All around us men are building their modern cathedrals – malls, airports, stadiums, casinos,” says entertainer, Nataniël. “It’s all about intimidation.”

Senior lecturer in architecture at UP, Derick de Bruyn, explains the element of intimidation as “corporate modernism”. This is the use of buildings as “a tool to express power,” he says. “Everyone wants to outdo each other,.”

The global competition to build the tallest buildings in the world is a clear example of corporate modernism. Since the invention of the elevator in the late 1800s, buildings have shot up as symbols of power and wealth. Prominent skyscrapers like the Empire State Building, first mushroomed on Manhattan Island in America. But soon strong contenders followed: the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, Taipei 101 in Taiwan and most recently, Dubai’s king skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa.

The practicality of taller buildings is also obvious. In a shrinking world, space is limited. Therefore, it is more effectively utilised in skyscrapers.

However, the height of a building is not always most important. “It’s all about fashion,” says third-year BSc Interior Architecture student, Lara Pollastrini. “Like Tuscan houses. They’re not designed for people, they are designed for fashion.”

But fashion changes constantly in any environment. This can be seen in the difference between Northgate shopping centre and Menlyn Park. Mr de Bruyn singles shopping centres out as examples of our “modern cathedrals”. It is in these “places of worship” that the materialistic religion of fashion is followed by shopaholics and fashionistas.

Another modern religion is that of sport. Passionate supporters gather in stadiums to support their team or country. The competition and rivalry is almost equivalent to religious warfare. But, Mr de Bruyn describes the event, rather than the building, as architecture. When the “public participate in a communicative thing” it is “architectural poetry”.

For what is a church without its people? If a building is not used, what is the point of its existence? Mr de Bruyn explains how buildings are designed to be useful to people. He says, “It’s more about meaning and appropriation than aesthetics.” This means that if a building is only aesthetically pleasing, it is meaningless. It needs to be practical. By “appropriating” a place or space, you make it your own. He uses the analogy of a kitchen to clarify his point. Each person finds different ways of structuring their kitchen in a way that works for them. This is done by arranging the contents in a certain way, without changing the physical layout of the kitchen.

Thus buildings hold as much meaning as what we give them. Nataniël says of our modern cathedrals, “We create them and then we’re scared of them.”

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