ARC 331: The Old World and the New

week of

January 9 & 10

Thursday (in-class meeting)

  • Introduction to the course
  • Overview of semester project, field trip, final exam, collaborative outline
  • Technological Determinism
  • British Colonial architecture: north and south, house and church


The Course and its Method

Why does this course have such a long title?

Although this course is routinely referred to by the shorthand "331," it's worth pausing at the start of the semester to think about what it's actually called. Lots of architecture programs, across the country and elsewhere in the world, offer some kind of course that looks at the developments in architecture from about 1750 to right about now. You'll usually find the word "modern" in their titles. But how descriptive is that, really? If "modern" is a synonym for "contemporary," it's not really accurate; if we think of these classes as existing to explain what happened and culminated in the present day alone, that's pretty egotistical. Instead, I have named this course to give it cultural bookends that hopefully remind us that architecture does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is culturally responsive.

I have also chosen two very clearly technologically-rich eras to emphasize the quality of what we often refer to as "progress" (although we really ought to take care with that word, too), in architecture and elsewhere. We often define change in architecture in terms of building technology--the introduction of pozzolana concrete that defines Roman Imperial architecture, or the flying buttress that characterizes French Gothic--but there are plenty of other technologies that play into the development of architecture. One primary example is common to both ends of our timeline: the mid-eighteenth and the early twenty-first centuries both witnessed unprecedented advances in technology that expanded communication across distance. Published books and the internet are inherently different technologies, but they both had a huge impact on architecture. This is just one of the non-material technological ideas we'll look at this semester, to think about the full range of technologies that are embraced by architects at different times and in different places, the impact they have, and their connection with broader cultural currents. Also, who or what is behind the introduction of technological (and other) "influences" in culture and practice? Do people master these technologies, or are they mastered by them?

We will study these ideas across the semester in a series of week-long lessons that unfold more or less chronologically. The themes we address are pretty standard for history of the last 250+ years, but not entirely so, since this course is, of course, written by a human person with a specific viewpoint and beliefs about what should matter most to people studying to become professional architects. Aware of my own agency in this project, and eager to remind us all at every opportunity that history is a creative assessment or interpretation of past events (and not just a string of events that have passed), I invite you all to take part in this process through your own work. Both short weekly assignments and your big semester project will give you the opportunity to engage the past as historians--studying the past, setting priorities, and emphasizing certain elements over others. Sharing the agency of the historian with you, I am also relying to a great degree on a manner of teaching and learning that manifests a number of the ideas that are central to our study.

Welcome to hybrid learning

This course takes the hybrid format of meeting less frequently in a face-to-face classroom, and depending more so on the opportunities of digital technology to access a world of information that is unique to our time and place (and certain to be replaced/expanded in future). While equipping you to construct the class through your contributions to it, it also demands a greater degree of autonomy and self-reliance than a typical class. You are well advised to closely study the description of "weekly workflow" on the home page, and make the following commitments to yourself:

  • Establish a calendar in which you set aside adequate time for this class. Consider both the normal weekly work you'll need to keep up with, as well as the occasional assignments (course outlines, semester project) that will require more time
  • Dedicate a particular place where you can work undisturbed

So important is this planning, here is your first assignment:

  1. Take this survey
  2. Fill out this worksheet (due: Monday at 1 PM, as an email attachment)

Hybrid courses make different demands than traditional courses. Embrace them, and stay responsible to your schedule, and the results will be profound.

learning objectives

At the conclusion of this lesson, you should be able to:

Note: ARC 331 has a list of ten main learning objectives (you'll find them all in the syllabus) that build on the commonly-accepted cognitive domains of knowledge, comprehension, analysis, and evaluation. Early in the material for each individual lesson (which comprises a week's learning), you will see a list of learning objectives that are specific to its themes and content. For this lesson, they are:

  • Identify representative Colonial monuments by name, date, designer/client and location (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Define terminology specific to technique, style and structure in Colonial architecture (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Describe integration of Colonial-era technology (material and non-material) in individual monuments (KNOWLEDGE)
  • Explain differences in stylistic and technological preferences in house and church designs and in relation to culture in the northern and southern British Colonies  (COMPREHENSION)
  • Visually analyze random Colonial buildings to suggest date and place (ANALYSIS)

part 1

Who, or what, determines or constructs history?

History is not a simple matter of collecting a list of facts that happened in The Past. History is the active, present-tense engagement with historical records and ideas that is always conditioned by the current context and individual beliefs and biases.

From this activity, a general narrative emerges and is accepted, and codified, expressing group understanding that explains, and makes sense of, what has happened. A prevailing idea in many architectural (and other) histories privileges the role of technology in architecture and the way it is distinguished in different times and places. Some histories, especially those that draw from the modernist thinking, actually give a kind of agency (the capacity to take action and produce an effect) to technology. Other histories balance this notion, or replace it, with a stronger sense of human action within architectural change.

These approaches represent the basic ideals of technological determinism and social constructivist thought. To understand more about them, first read from one of the leading scholars of the History of Technology, Leo Marx. An excerpt from one of his most important books is included here:

Consider also this cogent presentation by Dr. Martin Hilbert of the University of California at Davis:


Think about these two ways of thinking about history in general, and specifically, as could be applied to any of these main themes we studied in previous classes:

  • From ARC 231:
    • The development of the pagoda in China (based on the Indian stupa precedent)
    • The use of flying buttresses in France
  • From ARC 232:
    • Brunelleschi's design of the dome for Florence Cathedral
    • William Morris's theory of the Arts and Crafts movement

Select one of these four themes as the basis for a discussion forum post that you will find here. Follow the directions on the page to analyze the theme/event in terms of technological determinism and social constructivism.

And now, on to the Old World and its New World Colonies!


part 2

English Houses in Colonial America

The part of the New World that will become the United States was primarily colonized by people from England. Because of the cultural dominance of the English in the history of the United States, we will focus on this group; keep in mind that their patterns of development do not represent the other Europeans (among them, the French, Spanish, and Dutch) who settled here starting in the seventeenth century.

  • For an overview of architectural history up to European colonization of North America, skim Gelernter ch. 1 ("First Civilizations") and ch. 2 ("Cultures Transformed and Transplanted") through page 54
  • For details on British colonization, read pp. 54-64 in Gelernter

Even within the commonalities among the English who settled North American colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, political and religious differences were strong, and generally divided in the north and the south. Reasons for this include the politics and religion that most colonists brought with them, but also the ecological differences that they faced in climates as different as South Carolina and Massachusetts. Even so, they came from a relatively small and temperate country with longstanding and consistent building traditions, which accounts for much of their similarities.

English traditions in England

The video below will take you on a short tour of a typical home for an admittedly elite family who lived in the south of England, and provides a good model for what most British colonists thought of as a house. It represents what we refer to as a  hall and parlor plan (click to access definition & diagram). Make sure you're clear on that description before proceeding.

English Traditions in the Colonies

Keeping in mind that the early Colonial houses that survive represent (by and large) elite dwellings, consider how their residents housed themselves upon arrival in the New World. What remains commonly "English" and what shows a distinction between north and south? What accounts for those differences? Consider two fine seventeenth-century examples: the houses built for Adam Thoroughgood in Virginia and for Parson Capen in Massachusetts.


Either through a series of notes and sketches, through a graph or concept map exercise, think about how consistently "English" is an English house in seventeenth-century North America. Compare and contrast the plans of the Parson Capen House (top) and Adam Thoroughgood House (bottom). Given these plans (and elevation/interior views as you find them) as evidence, how would you define seventeenth-century British Colonial architecture?

Note: plans are not to scale and Thoroughgood House includes later addition of wall that created the central hall.

part 3

Places of Worship in Colonial America

English settlers in the north and south had more in common with the activities of daily life that took place in their residences  than they did when they went to worship. The English Colonies were largely divided between Congregationalists in the north and Anglicans in the south, and their houses of worship tend to reflect this.

  • Review Gelernter on the churches portrayed on p. 58 (St. Luke's) and p. 62 (Old Ship Meetinghouse)


Review the designs of the Old Ship Meetinghouse (Topsfield MA; shown immediately below in its original plan of 1681) and St. Luke's (Smithfield VA; further below). What accounts for the differences between the two in terms of plan, (liturgical) function, and technology (material or non-material)?


Focusing on the technology required to design and build both these places of worship and the houses above, how would you consider Colonial architecture from a technological determinist and/or social constructivist point of view?

additional resources

access outline (currently, this links to the template; the outline will be complete by first group in the near future)

image at the top: St. Luke's Church, Smithfield, Virginia (1682)