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Architecture and World History


Introduction to the Forum on Architecture and World History

Thomas Mounkhall, Guest Editor


     Buildings are all around us. We live in them, research in them and teach in them. However, very few world historians consider the constructed environment as a legitimate and interesting data base for historical research and disciplinary teaching. All of the authors in this Special Forum basically agree with the notion that architecture, if considered through a world history perspective, can serve as a set of valuable primary documents in stone, wood and metal.

     Many of our extant world history learners, be they college professors doing scholarly research or high school students grappling with a polycentric global history for the first time, are visual learners. What better means to address world history learning for people who learn best through the sense of sight than buildings. Architecture is concrete, no pun intended. It is visual, tactile, challenging and in many ways aesthetically pleasing. This series of articles will serve as an invitation to teachers and students of world history alike to view buildings as rich sources of the global narrative.

     It has been the experience of this writer editor that buildings relate well to all of the core understandings of our field. One can find, for example, a multi-story structure in Buenos Aires, Argentina that is a synthesis of French Second Empire and Post-Classic Spanish designs. However, its polycentric nature is enhanced by the gourmet Italian restaurant on the ground floor. The results of trade diasporas are obvious as one considers a Chinese Buddhist temple dedicated to Quan Yin in the midst of Bangkok. Local, indigenous agency is evident as one studies the western façade of the Cathedral in Oaxaca, Mexico. Both the central bas relief of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the delicately carved flora around the three arched entrances are beautiful testaments to the carving prowess of the Post-Classic Mixtecs.

     Research and teaching world history through architecture can also effectively address the development and refinement of an aesthetic awareness in teachers and learners. Many historic structures are beautiful in their own right and they can serve as models for the appreciation of beauty in all aspects of life. One can sense beauty in the physical presence of the pendentives that support the massive dome of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. The colors on the façade of a Oaxacan rural church and the precise mathematical proportion of an ancient Greek temple on the Italian coast contrast in their uses but they both transmit a sense of timeless beauty across the centuries. If one is aware of the strict separation of public and private space in Muslim cultures, this knowledge greatly enhances the experience of entering an Andalucian style home in Oaxaca City, Mexico. The outside of the structure is almost Quaker like in simplicity—a wall of adobe covered in brightly painted stucco. However, upon entering the family's private space, one sees the blue sky through an open courtyard, one hears the gurgle of a beautiful water fountain and one feels the shade and appreciates the beauty of flowers in the central garden. The potentially fruitful relationship of world history and art history in this context is obvious.

     This forum is a rich collection of essays, all of which directly identify the employment of the built environment as of continuing importance to both scholarly research and learning/teaching tools for world history. To assist in the latter effort, the Forum closes with an essay that draws out those elements of pedagogical theory, world history thinking skills and world history themes and concepts (such as comparative method and polycentrism) that are implied or made explicit by each author.

     The next two articles are focused on the core world history theme of imperialism. Pilar Maria Guerrieri's piece traces the diffusion of Classical Greek and Roman building design as a symbol of Western European imperialism in the modern period. Alexander Mirkovic offers an example of how architecture and art were used to support and justify the existence of the British Empire at its height in the mid-19th Century c .e. A second pair of articles emphasizes one of the seminal thinking skills in the field: the relationship of events over time and space. Ralph Crozier's contribution narrates the history of a structure from the early days of the Russian Revolution and details how it was influenced by events which occurred before, during and after the early days of the Bolshevik takeover. This writer's article focuses on the relationship of significant events in world history from c. 500 b. c. e through the 16th Century c. e. that directly influenced the architectural elements of the great Dominican iglesia and convento of Santo Domingo, Oaxaca City, Mexico. Kimberly Sayre Alexander's analysis of the reactions of a mid-19th Century c. e. New England woman to Qing Chinese architecture in Macao offers is an excellent example of many world historical processes, including the importance of multiple perspectives to the human narrative.


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