Data is often viewed as a contemporary architectural phenomenon, emerging with digital technology and the internet. However, data has always played a crucial role in architectural history. From the earliest civilisations to the present, architects have utilised data for design and construction coordination, decision justification, and creation of enduring structures.
The earliest examples of data in architectural history can be traced back to ancient times. Architects relied on simple tools and techniques to measure and document environmental details during this period. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, used a unit of measurement known as the cubit when designing and constructing significant structures like pyramids and temples. The cubit, determined by the forearm length from the elbow to the middle finger's tip, ensured precise proportioning and alignment of each building component.
Likewise, the ancient Greeks employed advanced mathematical principles to construct temples and other public edifices. Architects like Pythagoras and Euclid devised intricate systems of geometry and proportion, leading to structures with flawless symmetry and balance. In Greek society, specific numbers were believed to link architecture with nature and spirituality. Vitruvius suggested that the proportions observed in the human body were sufficient for architects to create the perfect building. Consequently, throughout antiquity, data in the form of numbers, ratios and measurements associated architecture with human experiences, nature, and the cosmos.
In today's world, digital technology has revolutionised the use of data by architects. They can now use advanced software to model designs in three dimensions, enabling them to explore various options and test ideas before construction. Additionally, sensors and other state-of-the-art technologies allow them to gather real-time data on building performance, optimising energy efficiency and indoor air quality. However, in these instances, the data is mostly non-human, consisting of pulses, signals, bits, and numbers representing mechanical and electrical observations rather than human sensory experiences.
The history of architecture is deeply intertwined with data. From the earliest civilisations to the modern era, it has transitioned from human-centred measurements and considerations of shelter and social interaction to non-human sensing driven by economic desires for efficiency and control. Architects have always used data to inform their designs, but is it serving our best interests today? While tools and techniques evolve, the fundamental role of data in architecture - connecting design to human experience and reality - should endure. As we look to the future, the increasing importance of data in shaping tomorrow's buildings and cities calls for a more profound consideration.