In the caves where humanity dared to build

santanu chakravorty | Updated on May 10, 2019

Rocks for roofs: Humans started out by building homes that resembled the nooks of caves. An impression of Bhimbetka Rocks in Madhya Pradesh

Whether it was the first rough-hewn homes that humans built or the many architectural masterpieces down the centuries, the blueprint emerged from caves

Painters and sculptors work with materials — tangible physical objects — to produce lines, shapes, textures, gradations and forms. With these they must convey an idea, sometimes a sense of beauty while also attempting to stir emotion. Much of this can happen instinctively, using cognitive processes that are difficult to comprehend, let alone define or, heaven forbid, measure. But there is another discipline that must deal not only with many of these intellectual issues but also the extreme practicalities of building a house. In architecture, two human instincts — of making and of aesthetics — must negotiate the practical realities of physics, societies and markets.

Caves were among the earliest human dwellings. But another kind of shelter was also common. Imagine a giant rock perched on top of a mountainous landscape. As the sides of the rock slope down they make a wedge-like space, inside which humans could squeeze in and take shelter. Sometimes these spaces would be further carved out by natural erosions — by wind and water — allowing for more room.

As humans huddled under such nooks, they would have begun to wonder about building similar spaces for themselves. Some simple structures, like a wall, would have emerged first. Stack stone upon stone, bind them together with mud and cordon off a space beneath an overhang. You may then have a makeshift room but only if you can find a way to make an opening. What is the problem, you say? It turns out that any opening may cause the wall to collapse. So what would be the ideal shape for an opening?

The next step is where humans begin to wonder about not just building a wall alongside a rock overhang but a set of walls to enclose the space and to make a man-made cave. Beyond the making of a wall, this requires the making of a roof, whose construction is in fact conceptually linked to the making of an opening. How could you stack up stones so that, instead of rising vertically, they can span a horizontal distance? To see the solution to this — one that was arrived at through millennia of intuition, experimentation and mathematics — imagine that you are walking inside a natural cave. Look up and you see that the broad shape of the roof is an arc. This is likely the first insight early humans would have about the ideal shape of a roof — a curved arc.

In the beginning was the arc: (From left) The Sasanian-era Persian monument Taq-e-Kesra , the 16th-century Jor Bangla temple in Bankura and the Notre Dame de Paris. The motivation to make such jewel-like structures had at least one foot in the quest for the beautiful.   -  Wikipedia Commons


Fast-forward and we arrive at numerous buildings of masonry — bricks, stones and mortar. Two issues arose, now that man could build walls, arches and domes: the optimal shape of these arcs, so that they could span the largest distances; and the relative positioning of the elements of buildings — walls, openings such as doorways and windows, pillars, roofs and arches — so that they looked aesthetic. The kings and queens who commissioned such expensive projects would have liked to evoke both a sense of awe — a giant domed roof spanning an enormous distance without any intermediate support — and a sense of ephemeral beauty, which would spread the word of this magnificent creation around the world.

Sometimes the aesthetic positioning of elements would not match with what is best for the structural integrity of the building. Or, perhaps, building a giant dome, one that could be guaranteed to not collapse, would take too much money. Such issues led to the developments of science and art in unison — where available technologies drove the construction of masterpieces as diverse as the Taj Mahal, the Notre Dame and the Bhojeshwar Temple — an incomplete work in Bhojpur, Madhya Pradesh, and a relatively unknown masterpiece in India. As technology advanced, building styles that used massive, solid walls to make imposing structures gave way to more delicate methods. In Europe, these changes first led to the appearance of ‘Gothic’ cathedrals, whose thin spires, pointy arches and skeletal support systems were driven by advances in calculation. Yet, the motivation to make such jewels had at least one foot in the quest for the beautiful.

And on this side of the world, Indian temple traditions developed spires rising into the sky. Imagine trying to construct the spires of these temples even in a smaller, more manageable replica. Just to put the elements together aesthetically would take considerable ability in a variety of highly technical disciplines. To plan a spire that looks beautiful is another matter altogether.

These myriad structural forms may have developed over time and across continents, but underlying them are the principles of science, technology and aesthetics that are deeply connected. Architects took the idea of an arc, first developed to span a horizontal space efficiently, and developed over millennia a variety of forms, arches of various sorts, juggling the often contradictory demands of aesthetics, economics and science to produce a variety of masterpieces. Their roots lie in the caves where humanity first learned to wonder and dared to build. Or was it the other way around?

Santanu Chakraborty   -  BUSINESS LINE


Santanu Chakraborty is a Bengaluru-based engineer, scientist and photographer

Published on May 10, 2019

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