Data is often considered a modern phenomenon in architecture, which has only emerged with the rise of digital technology and the internet. However, the truth is that data has always been an important part of architectural history. From the earliest civilisations to the modern era, architects have used data to coordinate design and construction, justify decisions, and create structures that stand the test of time.
The earliest forms of data in architectural history date back to ancient times, when architects used rudimentary tools and techniques to measure and record information about their surroundings. For example, the ancient Egyptians used a system of measurements called cubits to design and build monumental structures, such as the pyramids and temples. The cubit was based on the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, and it was used to ensure that each building component was precisely proportioned and aligned.
Similarly, the ancient Greeks used sophisticated mathematical principles to create temples and other public buildings. Architects such as Pythagoras and Euclid developed complex systems of geometry and proportion that were used to create structures with perfect symmetry and balance. In Greek culture, certain numbers were thought to connect architecture to nature and the divine. Vitruvius proposed that the ratios found in the human body were all architects needed to produce the ideal building. Across ancient use, data in numbers, ratios and measurements connected architecture to human experience, nature and the cosmos.
In the modern era, digital technology has transformed how architects use data. Today, architects can use sophisticated software programs to model their designs in three dimensions, allowing them to explore different options and test their ideas before construction begins. They can also use sensors and other advanced technologies to collect real-time data about the performance of buildings, allowing them to optimise energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and other key factors. However, in these examples, the data is predominantly non-human; they are pulses, signals, bits and numbers representing mechanical and electrical observation rather than human sensory reality.
The history of architecture is a history of data. In parallel, the history of architecture is a history of a transition from human-centred measurement and concerns of shelter, survival and social interaction to non-human sensing and detection driven by economic desires for efficiency, comparison and control. From the earliest civilisations to the modern era, architects have used data to inform their designs, but today is it working in our best interests? Tools and techniques will evolve, but the fundamental importance of data in architecture should remain the same, to connect architecture to human experience and reality. As we look to the future, it is clear that we need a deeper consideration of data as it increasingly plays a critical role in shaping the buildings and cities of tomorrow.