Skip to main content

Ancient Architecture and the Human Need to Construct

Humans have been building homes and structures for centuries. Ancient buildings give us hints into cultural and religious motives of those who built before us. So, is it in our nature to construct?


There’s often a distinction drawn between ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’. A colony of beavers builds a dam to create a still pond in which they can construct a secure lodge to live in. Humans build a dam – admittedly on a far larger scale – and produce reservoirs to provide drinking water for their own settlements. One is generally considered to be natural behaviour while the other will be described as man-made – as if human beings are no longer part of the natural world.

But is it in our own nature to construct things? Are humans built to build and if so, where will this take us in the future?


Ancient architecture and a brief history of buildings

We’ve all heard of so-called cavemen and there’s certainly plenty of evidence that early humans made use of naturally formed shelters such as caves. We don’t know exactly when humans first started constructing their own shelters because the simplest structures – tents, bivouacs and simple huts made of sticks and hides – don’t leave a trace. What we know is pretty much based on supposition and observing the way nomadic people still live in remote parts of the world.

There is, however, plenty of evidence of building, and many preserved structures remain from the Neolithic era or New Stone Age. From pit huts constructed largely of mammoth bones to artificial islands known as crannogs, we were building structures to protect us from the elements, predators, and other people.


Reconstructed crannog from the Iron Age on Loch Tay in Scotland, UK.


Now, new crannog structures are popular places to stay during vacation.

Dating back to around 3000 BC, Skara Brae in the Orkneys is Europe’s most complete Neolithic village, with the stone houses incorporating stone furniture, middens for waste, hearths, and stone furniture. The village also had a sophisticated drainage system. The remains of even older settlements have been discovered in modern-day Turkey, Syria and Iraq.


Cities and the ‘built environment’

One common thread in the development of permanent structures was the switch from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian or agricultural lifestyle. As people quite literally put down roots, they started building more ambitious structures and gathering in greater numbers. This gave rise to the first cities and what would later be termed the built environment.

Bringing large numbers of human beings together inevitably creates problems, from social issues such as violence to the possibilities of epidemics taking hold. A built environment with some thought behind it can also be beneficial to health and social cohesion, however. Hippodamus of Miletus used grid plans to develop Greek cities in the 5th Century BC and is known as the ‘father of urban planning.’ Roman cities had public bathhouses and aqueducts bringing in fresh water that was piped into public drinking fountains. Throughout history, there have always been innovators working to make communities better and more efficient.

In our more recent history, as infrastructure has grown, there have been those who have worked and campaigned for our towns and cities to work for the benefit of all. Mindy Fullilove, who is currently a professor of Urban Policy and Health at The New School in New York, has proposed the 'whole city concept'.

In this video, Fullilove discusses the concept of facing disasters in poor communities and how the inequality amongst neighborhoods affects an entire society. Her research suggests that you must have the whole community in mind when rebuilding one city. “What we need for public health are ecologically-sensitive and equitable programs that support the whole city and give all of us a chance to live in a kind and beautiful place,” she said.


Mindy Fullilove: The whole city concept from PopTech on Vimeo.


Bigger, taller, better

We’ve already mentioned some of the earliest habitation types and villages. These were built primarily with practical applications in mind, and features such as the Skara Brae drainage system demonstrate some surprisingly sophisticated solutions to practical problems. Not every structure we build has an obvious function, however, and some go beyond mere necessity to have a wider social, cultural or religious meaning.

We’re still not sure exactly what Stonehenge was intended for, but even today, it’s a massively imposing and impressive structure. It was built in stages, with the first wooden ‘totem-pole-like’ posts in the immediate area erected in the Mesolithic period, between 8500 and 7000 BC. The familiar sarsen and bluestone henge went up in about 2500 BC and, whatever the exact function of the complex, there’s little doubting that it would have declared the power and importance of its builders and custodians.

Similarly, the Great Pyramid of Giza and other pyramids were built to reflect the glory of the pharaohs whose bodies they housed. According to the story, the Tower of Babel saw mankind punished for trying to build a tower capable of reaching the heavens. Some modern scholars believe it may refer to known historical structures such as the Great Ziggurat of Ur.

From the Taj Mahal to the Eiffel Tower to The Shard in London, grand structures have always captured the human imagination and modern skyscrapers now dwarf their predecessors. The world’s current tallest building is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Standing at 828 metres – considerably more than double the height of one-time champion the Empire State Building.


Burj Khalifa in Dubai has been the world’s largest building since 2008.


Looking to the future

Dubai has a reputation for grand designs, and that passion doesn’t look set to fade away any time soon. Architect David Fisher has plans for a giant rotating skyscraper in the city but Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Tower will be the world’s tallest building when finished and China will have 21 of the world’s 50 tallest buildings by 2020. Some visionaries are even looking beyond earthbound structures and designing buildings to be used by future colonists of Mars.

Well before we started to settle in permanent communities, human beings have built homes and other structures to meet their growing needs. Many of these have served practical purposes such as offering shelter but, as our building capabilities grew, so did our communities. Sometimes it seems that the main answer to why a particular building was built – either in modern times or in antiquity – was simply ‘because we could.’

We don’t carry shells around on our backs and we’re not very good at digging burrows (at least not without machinery). We need to build to escape the elements, but it seems that construction sometimes also speaks to something deep inside us. If humans are built to build, then it will be fascinating to see where our capabilities take us next.