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Architecture in the Western world used stone as the primary building material until the late 19th century.

A Victorian era street with ornate stone buildings.

Modern architecture uses much more glass and metal in construction compared to the architecture of that time period.

An overview of a modern city with many glass and steel-frame buildings.

Why would a modern civilization with more advanced technology continue to build many buildings out of stone rather than glass and metal?

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    $\begingroup$ The only reason to use glass is that it is transparent to th same wavelengths of light that are visible to use. If your modern civilization are aliens who do not see the same wavelengths as us, they probably wouldn't use it. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2022 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ When playing with this sort of idea don't forget to evaluate the effects of different sensibilities and cultural norms. Those massive edifices need metal to support them, but to persons expecting to live a thousand years, suddenly building things out of steel in an oxygen bearing atmosphere might seem like hubris. $\endgroup$
    – user8827
    Jan 1, 2022 at 23:03
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    $\begingroup$ There could also be a practically angle: steel and glass buildings are miserable to be in (hot in summer, cold in winter). Just because something is "fancy and new", it isn't necessarily better. Stone walls offer decent insulation (which can be improved), can be used to hang shelves, etc. etc. $\endgroup$
    – DetlevCM
    Jan 2, 2022 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ Arguably we still build most of our buildings from stone (grinded and mixed with other things but still), clay (baked), wood and other materials used since generations ago. Glass it mostly used for windows and steel is used for supports but most buildings still use 'traditional' materials more than steel and glass. $\endgroup$ Jan 3, 2022 at 4:17
  • $\begingroup$ See also worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/39997/… $\endgroup$ Jan 3, 2022 at 19:37

18 Answers 18

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Culture is enough to do that.

The people do not like glass and metal, it's cheap, the glass isn't safe, it is wasteful of energy to heat and cool. Stone is "natural". Skyscrapers are more cheap-outs, and inaccessible for many.

I can imagine a culture that disdains cheaping out on buildings, that thinks buildings are a form of art and not using stone, sculpture, highlights is ugly.

After all, the old institutions we admire most are all stone; most city halls and government buildings are stone or concrete. We love and fantasize about castles, stone archways, stone forts, stone churches and cathedrals full of stone statues and stone gargoyles and lions protecting them. Stained glass is art, a window is ... just a window.

The modern office building looks sterile and utilitarian, why would any self-respecting professional work in one? Do they care nothing about the aesthetic senses of their clients?

Just build it into the culture. It's like dress: We could all, male and female, children to the elderly, wear the same gray shirts, pants, shoes, winter coats, underwear, etc. Dress could be meaningless. But in our culture, it is not. We are entertained by dress. Dress expresses our emotions, our sense of self, we use it to look attractive, we like variety in our dress and appreciate variety in the dress of others. We use it for formality, suits and tuxedoes, frilly and other impractical dresses serve absolutely no practical purpose, they are strictly art, custom and form.

Stone buildings are a form of dress. The cultural expectation is you will NOT show us the equivalent of a T-shirt and jeans and sneakers -- Your place of business will be entertaining, it will be natural stone, with carvings, with sculptures, with marble columns, and statues or other stone art.

Or nobody will frequent your business, or rent in your building, no matter how cheap you make it.

Here's some kind of weird warehouse district, it's absolutely disgusting. It might as well be cardboard boxes!

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ "The people do not like glass and metal, it's cheap, the glass isn't safe, it is wasteful of energy to heat and cool." I think glass provides a much better heat isolation than stone! $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    Jan 1, 2022 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Stef I mean it looks cheap. And a yard of stone will provide much more insulation than a half inch of glass. I would not say glass is forbidden in this culture, they would embrace windows and such; but the notion of a steel skeleton with all glass walls (like those in the picture) would be repellent. The idea that a building provides virtually zero protection from attack is abhorrent to them. For them, every building must serve as a fortress, and that requires thick stone. Impervious to rocks, arrows, swords, even guns. Anything easily breached by a few shells from a shotgun is garbage. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Jan 1, 2022 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ Building a skyscraper out of stone is taunting the earthquake gods. $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2022 at 2:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Amadeus -- note that if they're technologically advanced enough to develop what we would consider "advanced technology", laminated glass would be within reach for them, which'd mean that they could build glass that could take the sort of abuse you describe and then some -- top-of-the-line impact resistant windows are rated to withstand tornado-propelled 2x4s (15lb 2x4 at 100mph, which packs a pretty serious wallop), and can also be developed for bullet and forced entry resistance to quite serious levels. $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Jan 2, 2022 at 8:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Amadeus You seem think the Romans disliked tall structures simply for their height. Stone is heavy; there's a limit to how cost-effective a tall building will be. Roman apartment buildings, for example, were limited in height by statute for safety reasons, not because they preferred shorter buildings. $\endgroup$
    – chepner
    Jan 2, 2022 at 17:41
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You mean like we do?

enter image description here

Another word for concrete is "synthetic conglomerate". We use stone extensively for building; we just don't wait for geological processes to provide it and instead whip up a more flexible version ourselves.

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    $\begingroup$ Instead of writing my own answer I'm just gonna jump in with this one. I have read a number of scifi stories that include advanced civilizations (sometimes including ours) that can essentially grow stone, often to a mold, or sometimes even have it preshape itself. At least 2 of those stories used that as the reason ancient megolithic structures exist. Definitely not an uncommon trope. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2022 at 7:37
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    $\begingroup$ Adding further to this, all those big glass and metal buildings are usually hiding a lot of synthetic stone internally. There are some things that cement and/or concrete are simply better than glass or steel for, and we generally do continue to use them for those purposes even when the facadé of the building is all glass and/or metal. $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2022 at 14:34
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    $\begingroup$ And wallboard is essentially stone (gypsum) but in a form factor that can be built with. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Jan 1, 2022 at 16:08
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    $\begingroup$ We still use brick fairly often. It's not a natural stone, but it's also not 100% synthetic, either. $\endgroup$ Jan 3, 2022 at 20:23
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They build everything to last Forever:

The basic philosophy of the society is that nothing should be done if it isn't done right. They want to build cities that will continue to be used for thousands of years, and recognizable as a civilization for 10's or hundreds of thousands of years. Modern materials are transient and pale imitations of the stone construction of the ancients. They build in stone, and MASSIVELY in stone - pyramids, roadways made of thousand ton slabs, the works.

We have the technology today, and it's only getting better. Concrete is already essentially synthetic stone. Soon we'll be able to make materials that are synthetic stones, indistinguishable from stone and stronger and more durable than natural stone. If stone is the gold standard for lasting forever, and we can make stone even better than that, why wouldn't a society do so?

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    $\begingroup$ “indistinguishable from stone and stronger and more durable than natural stone” How does this work? $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Jan 1, 2022 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ This makes me think of a briefing I went to on structural damage. Look up "unreinforced masonary" on a search engine trained to think you are a civil engineer and all you get are crumbled buildings. There is a reason we moved away from stone, steel has structural integrity to boot! $\endgroup$ Jan 3, 2022 at 21:39
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    $\begingroup$ @wizzwizz4 indistinguishable to the naked eye, but stronger chemical bonds, I would assume $\endgroup$
    – TCooper
    Jan 3, 2022 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ @AndrewMicallef Amazingly, blocks were often held together with bronze pins that have lasted for centuries. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Jan 4, 2022 at 2:24
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Ecology.

They were once used to building with concrete (and steel, and glass, and plastic, etc...).

They later found out that cement has an impressive energy and waste footprint. They also devastated some natural sources of sand. Steel is not better either.

In order to reduce the cement use, they started to use natural stone. It is pretty much abundant and can be CNC-machined (once the needed industry is established). Steel reinforcement is reduced and inserted by boring. The waste of cutting and boring is engineered for particle size and used as a sand replacement.

The cheaper form results in the usual panel buildings. They just slice the rock in 20cm sheets.

The more prestigious and expensive form uses the more traditional stone blocks that results in Ancient Greek / Ancient Roman / Medieval European architecture.

Both processes are not really as labour intensive because of extended automation. The real labour is drawing first and fixing whatever goes wrong later.

Both types of building blocks are efficiently recyclable and it is normal to see an downtown building transforming into a number of expensive suburban homes in the same style (e.g. Old Opera Park).

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Taste for vintage style.

During Neoclassicism building in the style of classic Greece were built, though the civilization was quite more advanced.

Still today we see objects manufactured in the style and look of the '60s, though we have made some step forward with respect to those times.

And don't forget practical reason: with your neighbor upstairs going commando the whole day, would you really want a glass ceiling in your condo?

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    $\begingroup$ The desirability of a glass ceiling probably depends a lot on how attractive one finds the upstairs neighbor to be. 😜 $\endgroup$ Jan 1, 2022 at 14:57
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TRADITION!

...and public perception.

An old, long-established company may want to project a certain image to its customers, that they are concerned with traditional values and long-term stability, and building in an old-fashioned style projects that image. Even their new buildings look like they've been around for many years. Maybe such buildings cost a bit more time and money to build, but the extra time and money is advertising.

Even certain recently-established companies that rely upon public perception and trust and want their customers to know that they will be there for the long haul may prefer old-style buildings for just the same reason.

What sort of companies might want this sort of image? Banks, investment brokers, stock traders, governments and the like.

To contrast, technology-based companies would likely favour modern-style glass and steel buildings, to project an image of being fresh, new and progressive.

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Perhaps the world where the civilization evolved is low on metals and silica. What quantities of these materials which are available are needed for electrical/technological uses.

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To be like Jerusalem

From Wikipedia:

Municipal laws in Jerusalem require that all buildings be faced with local Jerusalem stone. The ordinance dates back to the British Mandate and the governorship of Sir Ronald Storrs and was part of a master plan for the city drawn up in 1918 by Sir William McLean, then city engineer of Alexandria.

There are other places in the current world with strange rules. Homeowner associations where you have to paint your door a certain color. Cities with height limits so that no building is higher than one special building (whether governmental or religious in nature). But stone - just look at Jerusalem.

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They can grow stone

In the modern day we often use concrete, a stone you can make, because it's cheap. But it's also ugly.

This advanced civilization has a way to grow stones cheaply and effectively. As such, only very rich people can afford to use other inferior materials and most buildings are made of stones.

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We might soon stop using glass in skyscrapers as they are not energy efficient. If you are after Victorian look not the construction technique, it can easily be justified as that is what people like. The buildings will be built like modern ones, with steel and probably concrete and then faced with stone to make it look good.

If you want to do away with steel at all, they are advanced enough to grow special stone crystals which are extremely durable and thus they do not need any of our modern materials. It could very well be more cost effective, stronger and environmentally friendly at the same time.

If you are after shorter buildings, we already have those kinds of restrictions in many places, you can simply extend it globally.

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The planet has no earthquakes.

One requirement for earthquake proofing buildings, especially large buildings, is using building materials with adequate ductility.

Ductility describes how well a material can tolerate plastic deformation before it fails. Thus, materials with high ductility can absorb large amounts of energy without breaking. Structural steel is one of the most ductile materials, while brick and concrete are low-ductility materials.

If a planet has no earthquakes, there wouldn't necessarily be a need to use other materials like steel in the first place.

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  • $\begingroup$ this can be done, all you need is a planet that no longer has active plate tectonics. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Apr 24, 2022 at 21:27
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The transition to glass happened later than you think it did

The style of architecture you're referring to is called the International Style, and features steel (or sometimes reinforced concrete) frame construction with glass/aluminum curtain wall building envelopes and steel/concrete Q-deck type or concrete slab floor systems. However, that style is so commonly associated with skyscrapers that most people forget that skyscrapers were invented well before the International Style came to be, using multiwythe masonry for their curtain walls, and structural clay tile floor systems instead of the steel Q-deck we now use.

As a result, in response to the increasing need to use valuable, highly serviced and amenitized urban land as efficiently as possible (which is what drives building heights up, and is a rather universal pressure -- the Romans had to limit apartment heights for safety reasons), they wouldn't eschew the skyscraper altogether, simply the glass curtainwall systems of the International Style. Instead, their buildings would be built like the skyscrapers of the 1900s through the 1920s were with some adaptations, mostly less reliance on steel alone for support.

In particular, they'd use a reinforced concrete or masonry internal frame (instead of relying on relatively slender and light structural steel members), with structural clay tile floor form systems (a lost art ever since Q-deck was invented, sadly), and multiwythe reinforced brick masonry curtain walls, optionally faced with stone veneers. These buildings would be elegant, rugged, adaptable, and tall, much like the grand Art Deco skyscrapers that evoke fond memories to this day.

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  • $\begingroup$ Great answer! A bit late, but still interesting nonetheless. Was the International Style adopted primarily because it was considered more visually pleasing when it was introduced, because it’s cheaper, or something else? $\endgroup$
    – Galactic
    May 20, 2022 at 5:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Galactic -- it was part of the very sharp swing in aesthetic tastes among architects associated with Modernism -- there were also influences from the rise of air conditioning (reducing the need for operable windows for direct ventilation of spaces) $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    May 20, 2022 at 22:35
  • $\begingroup$ is the reason why few non-governmental buildings are built today with Classical architecture because of cost or aesthetics? $\endgroup$
    – Galactic
    Jun 11, 2022 at 4:50
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Façades

This is an architectural concern, as well an engineering concern - engineering does care about the energy efficiency of the building, but for an architect, they also set the tone. Sometimes, the tone is related to the building it replaced in the past.

This technologically advanced civilization likely went through intermediate stages before getting to be advanced, and thus, old building would be getting replaced with newer, better buildings. Well, better in terms of a building code, but architects do wish to sometimes pay homage to the previous building, or the nearby buildings, in some significant way.

An angled view of the façade of the F5 building in Seattle, with a view of buildings directly nearby

As you can see from this Google Map Street View image, the F5 Tower here is mostly glass, and a look from it at here, it's a lot of glass further up - but crucially, there's a stone textured block appearing to hold up part of it, even with these more metal pillars appearing to hold the structure itself, with a crossing metal beam appearing to go across and up into the upper glass component of the building (From a cursory glance, that line appears to reference the the nearby I-5 Express entrance/exit, although as I didn't design this building, I can't say for certain that was the inspiration of it.)

These decisions often aren't just made in a vacuum like other photos above have emphasized - sometimes they're in reference to nearby building, or in contrast to make their building stand out as specifically different, as this other angle shows it's not quite replicating the Sanctuary building next door.

The F5 Tower from the opposite angle, showcasing its placement next to the Sanctuary building and a few other, distinctly different skyscrapers.

As a result, each nearby building, despite looking the same from a bird's-eye view as heavily glass, is likely to be able to be find some way of distinguishing itself especially at the lower level, taking inspiration from past buildings in that same spot, or from the nearby infrastructure, to stand out upon closer viewing.

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They were once a rich, advanced civilization but are now forced to live on a barren, mineral poor planet.

Well, maybe not technically mineral poor. Rocks are made of minerals, and you can extract various metal from it. Perhaps poor in useful minerals, and one reason or another they do not have high quality mineral deposits and the cost of refining all building materials into metal is too high.

It would be a barren planet that lacks soft dirt (clay buildings insulate heat better than stone) and plantlife (wood, hay, etc.) Hopefully a temperate if slightly cool climate as stone is a thermal material. Lack of these materials usually limits the civilization's ability for growth, that is why it is likelya postapocalyptic society that either lived in a changed world or are forced to migrate to a barren world.

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Because they were "taught" to use stones by an ancient, advanced civilization before them.

This species died out completely shortly after translations were established, and this is where a majority of your civilizations advancements came from for the first thousand years of their recorded history. What they didn't realize is they only met these last few survivors after their civilization had collapsed. The space stations they'd been living on in orbit were lost to the oceans when they tried to convert them to floating cities in the [great catastrophe] of [year].

The only buildings remaining on land were even more ancient stone structures - but your civilization always assumed stone was the only material worth building with, because the all-knowing, as they're memorialized, "only" built with stone. Those that question the use of strictly stone are labeled as fools who don't know history.

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The Sound

Metal has a tinny sound and can reverberate sound in a way that is unpleasant. For privacy concerns amongst others, stone muffles sound. solid stone would conduct sound better but the thickness can manage how that happens.

Temperature management

Metal changes temperature much easier than stone. Perhaps for retaining heat or slowing temperature changes from outdoors. (short days on the planet perhaps?)

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They dig. Well.

The sonic disintegrator is a simple device which produces and monitors sound. It is able to project a sharply focused "wire" of sound anywhere in a mass of rock, shearing it to any desired shape internally. Blocks of stone can then be pulled out of the resulting tunnel, which is ready for service. This allowed the massive expansion of civilization underground, for safe bunkers and isolated ecological preserves and countless other reasons.

This has left behind a whole lot of cut stone. With electric motors and regenerative braking available in practically every mode of transport, it is very cheap to simply move blocks of stone where needed nowadays. Stone blocks have the advantage of a natural beauty and established historical provenance. You can look at any block in a wall, and immediately find out where it was mined, what minerals it is made of, and, to the nearest year, when any given part of it was deposited. The structural qualities of the blocks are equally well known, making it completely unnecessary (and counterproductive) to grind them down to chunks or refine them into component compounds before using them in engineering.

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Your aliens don't like to be too crowded. Modern (human) buildings go to glass and metal because this allows taller buildings, packing more people/space into a given land footprint. As long as nobody wants buildings taller than about 5 to 8 stories, stone works just fine, and there was little incentive to develop the steel-frame building characteristic of modern buildings.

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