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The history of architecture stretches back many thousands of years, long before the term 'architect' was coined.

It is all terribly confusing. When did architects emerge in Britain?

Was it when the medieval 'master-masons' fell off their perches, or were they really architects too, as John Harvey's English Mediaeval Architects: A Biographical Dictionary Down to 1550 has it?

Was it when John Shute used 'architect' for the first time recorded in English in a book of 1563, or when in about 1487 the Bishop of Durham, John Shirwood, scrawled architectus qui in a margin next to the earliest Renaissance account of an architect's duties in his one-year-old first edition of Alberti's De Re Aedificatoria?

It may help if we could first defi ne 'architecture' reasonably well. As with defining 'art', it is almost impossible to gauge the line past which 'architecture' leaves the pragmatism required of mere 'building' and represents a conscious and controlled aesthetic resolution. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner proposed that a bicycle shed is a building, whereas Lincoln Cathedral is a work of architecture. But what if the bicycle shed were made in fine materials, metals and glass, by a master like Calatrava?

What about Shuhei Endo's Cyclestation M in Japan - surely that is architecture? Conversely, Lincoln Cathedral is an accumulation of disparate visions over several centuries - so can it hold together as a single work of architecture? Yet it must be architecture, obviously far more than a bike shed in emotional terms, but logically it has the potential to be less so.

So the definition of architecture is a shifting, relative one.

Many ancient structures bear obvious sophistications, so I hold that architects were around well before the term 'architect' was coined.

Most nouns are applied to things which already exist in a happy state of anonymity, which are then labelled in our instinctive drive to quantify, catalogue and arrange the world into a simplistic picture which we can readily communicate. Species, genuses, and RIBA memberships help to form reassuringly identifiable groups.

'What do you do?' 'I'm an architect.' 'Ah, I see.' Do we see? What should we expect the archetypal architect to do? From the outset, the architect's fundamental ability would seem to be conceptual, especially of structures that satisfy a functional purpose, while using skill in the twin disciplines of formal and spatial design, and ideally also managing the interrelationship of materials and finishes. So an architect is basically a creature of imagination, who sculpts essays in useful forms and spaces. But what about the more technical demands of structure and refined working details? That too, perhaps, but it didn't seem to matter to celebrated fantasist architects such as Boullée, nor even to formal innovators such as James Stirling (at least in his early work).

William Beckford's collapsed Georgian Gothic pile at Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire has never been relegated from the distinction of 'architecture' despite James Wyatt's structural ineptitude, and today there's no sign of change in university architectural curricula, which tend to avoid building sites.

Can you be an architect solely on paper? Of course.

'Ah, Leonardo's marvellous designs for palaces, houses, and especially the important centralised churches. All written up in Pedretti's Leonardo Architetto. What? Actually built? No! Gosh - imagine if they were?' Sometimes, it is preferable for posterity to specialise in the inception and outline design stages.

Now, fair enough, real buildings involve structural physics and have to beat the weather, but we all know that structural engineers are involved to stop architects getting carried away, and that most of the drafting of downpipes is done by minions.

Cut all else away and, at the heart of it all - that precious 5 per cent of the project - lies the architect's masterplan. Though it could well be realised by other hands, the lasting credit usually remains with the visionary sketcher who might be rather more concerned with capturing the zeitgeist than the rainwater.

So I'd say the practice of architecture, and the necessary vision of an architect, are as old as arranging rocks. For example, someone must have planned each of the distinct phases of Stonehenge. Three thousand or so years ago the outer ring of 30 sarsen stones and 30 lintels (each representing a rational 12 degrees of a circle) was conceived. The stone selected then had to be quarried with necessarily communicable specifications - whether scratched into bark, scored on to leather, or somehow committed to memory - to relate the intended form and scale.

Using this information, each monolith was painstakingly shaped with gentle curves to maintain the circularity of the basic concept, then hauled from 100 miles away, up a hillside into its perennially fascinating geometrical interrelationship with the 59 others, all to a predetermined orientation. (We don't know if it was ever finished but that's immaterial. It is architecture. ) Now, it may be true that some form of authority had to approve any and each of these ancient schemes - but the simpler the design, the more probable that it was the product of clear thinking. Harmoniously designed buildings were usually the product of a single mind. And for fine concepts of any historical - or prehistorical - era, for real or imagined buildings, the instigator might as well be regarded as an architect.

Some of the earliest recorded artisans on earth are architects. What is known of the earliest architects as personalities?

Famously, Mesopotamian ziggurats and Egyptian pyramids manifested sophistication in form, meaning and engineering, and the Egyptian Imhotep is credited with the revelation of stacking mastabas (platforms) into a pyramidal form for King Djoser's tomb at Saqqara (c2700 BC). But much belongs to myth:

Daedalus (meaning 'the skilful one') was reportedly the architect of the labyrinth of Crete, following the plan of an Egyptian tomb.

Kings, tombs, palaces: from the outset, architects were to realise the most prestigious commissions. The ultimate building type must be the temple; how can a god be suitably represented by feeble mortals? The imaginative solution was to charge a divinely appointed king with the task - or more realistically, give him the credit. Thus, King Solomon is the great biblical architect, who acknowledged divine instruction on the dimensions and arrangements of his temple (Kings, 5-6).

Now, we come to the name 'architect'. The chosen word echoes down the ages, ultimately from Greece, when Herodotus uses architekton in the Fifth Century BC. Chambers' Dictionary of Etymology explains: 'architect n. 1563, borrowed from Middle French architecte, possibly influenced by Italian architetto, from Latin architectus, from Greek architékt - n chief builder (archichief + tékt n - builder) So, the ancient Greeks thought of an architect as a 'chief builder' (some dictionaries propose 'arch builder', with obvious room for confusion). What do we know of Greek architects?

There are quite a few references to their names and work in heroic literature, incised slabs and the hearsay of Roman historians.

Some Greek architects were builders and craftsmen:

Pheidias (490-430 BC), sculptor of the Parthenon friezes, was charged by Pericles to be superintendent of all the rebuilding work on the Acropolis. But the general situation is not at all clear-cut, as architects usually took charge of all the planning, engineering and building on a project.

Plato, in his Politicus, suggested that architects contributed knowledge rather than craftsmanship and that the best architects cost 20 times the rate for a craftsman. Ironically, the closest architects came to being chief builders was not in the Classical period but during the later Middle Ages, when they were craftsmen elevated through the masonic guilds.

But we understand most about the outlook and methods of Classical architects through Vitruvius. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote the only complete treatise on architecture to survive from the ancient world, though it was not unique at the time he wrote in about 25-30 BC. There is much we will never know about him, including his proper name - was his familial name Vitruvius, or was it Pollio? Nobody can be sure. But Vitruvius sounds more poetic, so we have stuck with it. Vitruvius' treatise punctuates a noble tradition of pandering to rulers in the hope of prestigious work, for he was a military architect to Julius Caesar around the time of the first invasion of Britain, and he continued into the reign of Augustus. At that time, Hellenistic culture was much admired by the Romans - its inheritors - who had taken on and adapted Greek temple forms and classical orders. Vitruvius' Latin was peppered with received Greek terminology: taxis (order) can be achieved by diathesis (design) through oikonomia (the distribution of elements), perhaps using peristyle planning, stylobate articulation, and anthemion ornament.

In his 10-part treatise, what Ingrid Rowland calls a 'technical handbook with literary ambitions', the first chapter concentrates on setting out cities, with the last three chapters covering water, sundials and clocks, and machines. Importantly, in the opening sections Vitruvius tells us about the process of the education of an architect. It should begin with the encyclios disciplina, a Latinised form of enkyklios paideia, a broad curriculum of Greek training for civic leaders. It was retained and championed by Romans such as the famous lawyer and rhetorician, Cicero, who called them artes liberales.

These 'liberal arts' would transfer into the medieval disciplines of the verbal trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and the mathematical-scientific quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy). Philosophy was not so much a component of this syllabus as the whole aim, toward preparing a rounded character.

So Vitruvius suggests that philosophy 'completes the architect's character by instilling loftiness of spirit, so that he will not be arrogant but rather tolerant, fair, trustworthy and, most important of all, free from greed [?] let him pay serious attention to protecting his dignity by maintaining a good reputation - for these are things that philosophy recommends.' The architect should also understand the mechanical arts but within reasonable limits, because if 'an architect should not and cannot be a [?] musician as gifted as Aristoxenus, still he should know music [but partly in order to understand the proper tautness of strings so that you can calibrate a catapult to fire a rock in a straight line]; if not a painter equal to Appeles, still not unskilled in draftsmanship; if not a sculptor in the order of Myron or Polykleitus, still he should not be ignorant of sculptural technique [?] no-one, after all, can possibly master the fine points of each individual subject, because it can scarcely be in his power to master and grasp their reasoning.' Incomplete knowledge would be no handicap to the ability of an architect, however, as '?it is not possible for men to judge the state of the knowledge of the arts that lies hidden within them, because talent is concealed in darkness in men's breasts.' Another, lesser-known, architectural text to survive from antiquity was compiled by a man who took 'Rule Britannia' literally: Julius Frontinus, a second-century governor of Britain.

His De Aqueductus was not so much a treatise as an in-depth manual on how to design an aqueduct, with little of Vitruvius' politeness and philosophy.

This was an age when nature was either transgressed or ignored, famously for straight Roman roads, but also landscapes, which could be corrected. For example, Roman engineers diverted the River Itchen at Winchester into a neat canal to the east of the city and built their settlement over the old meandering water course, where the later cathedral still lists and sags into the old stream beds. Water courses were no side issue but were often fundamental aspects of design.

That a Roman architect was both an intellectual and technically experienced was important for the ambassadorial nature of building on behalf of an emperor, for the success of military operations and the sanitation of thousands of people.

The standardised playing-card shape of planned towns and the legionary stamp on the backs of tegulae (wall-tiles) are testament to the disciplined and systematic nature of Roman building across Europe and North Africa. Roman architects were not just arbiters of style but missionary builders of an empire.

Jonathan Foyle is an architectural archaeologist and TV presenter

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