Classical Architecture – At the Meeting of Human and Divine


ClassicClassic, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is all about excellence and in architecture that terminology is often applied to the buildings of ancient Greece and Rome. Many believe they were the places where artists have never been more successfully caught between a meeting of the human and the divine.

Horsemen EtchedDesign in architecture reached a zenith of achievement at Athens, the centre of the ancient Greek World five centuries before the Christ Event.

Sparseness moulded the enterprise of its people. In ancient Greece the polis, or city unit was a visual expression of an ideal model for nurturing and fostering community life.

Extraordinary-greek-temple-in-the-Valley-of-the-Temples-in-Agrigento-SicilyAt the heart of Greek philosophy regarding the natural environment was the conviction that all architectural intervention – whether it be by a temple, theatre, agora (marketplace) or a house in town must be in harmony with, and respective of the ‘landscape of the gods’.

This meant it was not just a parcel of land surrounding a man made construction. It was a sacred place, embodying and reflecting the character of its deity. They believed within each part of the landscape existed a genius loci, or guardian spirit.

Reaching out and identifying the sacred spirit fundamental to each location was the duty of the builder.

Then, and only after the spirit was divined would the architecture become part of a partnership with the land.

This way of thinking or, system of beliefs, parallels some Asian cultures where building on different parts of a ‘dragon’s body’ may bring chaos or tempest upon those who breach such beliefs.

Steps-to-Ancient-Greek-SiteTherefore the siting of a Greek temple was not a rational, but an explicit and well planned exercise. It was all at once intuitive, subtle, as well as being an emotional process.

It had implications for the participator that scholars are only beginning to fully comprehend in our own time. A  temple was meant to collaborate, not dominate its surroundings.

And it was believed that, wild though the elements may be at times, there was some yet unrecorded harmony and inner balance between man and nature.

Greek civic spaces were meant for exercise, study and for sacramental purposes, part of the way of life that was intimately connected to their temples and shrines.

A mixture of open and closed spaces provided a great contrast of light and shade promoting an element of mystery. Hidden views revealed themselves slowly along a completely calculated, but often-disguised progress.

The three architectural systems developed were the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Each were named for the different Greek peoples who developed them. They were adapted from construction in timber for stone, which was the local building material of Attica where many people migrated during its colonizing period (800 – 500BC).

Four of the so-called classical Orders of Architecture inherited from the ancient Greeks and Roman civilizations

Four of the so-called classical Orders of Architecture inherited from the ancient Greeks and Roman civilizations

The orders of architecture, as they are known, had a distinct political purpose and celebrated Greek civic power and pride.

Athens-parthenon-02The huge stone Doric style columns on the Parthenon, the temple to the Goddess Athena, which stands on the acropolis (meaning high ground) at Athens gives the building a sense of security and calm.

It has a colonnade of eight columns at each end. Its structural and decorative elements were based on complex mathematical calculations, expressing in architecture the harmony of proportions codified in sculpture.

Its underlying principles are to be found in philosophical debate regarding universal harmony. Constructed from Pentelic marble its ‘optical refinement’ is much admired.

Parthenon-NowOne of the most puzzling features of the refinements is that most are too subtle to be noticed by the eye, including irregular spacing of the columns, the way they are designed to tilt inward while appearing straight and, the sheer quality and enrichment of its sculptures. This sets it apart from all other temples.

The decorative features on the Parthenon at Athens were completed in 432 BCE and they abound in political, civic and religious significance.

Every four years the Panathenaic procession in honour of Athena wound its way up to the Acropolis and to the Parthenon to pay homage and present the Goddess with a new peplum or robe.

The event was recorded on an incredible frieze that was located up and in behind the pediment, which probably accounted for its survival as it was out of the light protected by the structure around it.

The sculptures were entirely designed and perhaps in the main, executed by Phidias assisted by some of Attica’s finest emerging artistic talents.

Sculptures from the Acropolis survived the fury of Christian fundamentalists in AD395, Muslim iconoclasm after the Turkish conquest of 1456 and Venetian cannon fire in 1687 and can be seen today in the Acropolis museum nearby, the British Museum in London and at the Louvre in Paris.

The way of the winds was of primary importance to the layout of any city within its walls, as was considering the path of the sun when building.

When one means to have the right sort of house, must he contrive to make it as pleasant to live in and as useful as can be’ said C5 BCE Greek Historian Xenophon… and this being admitted

Is it pleasant to have it cool in summer and warm in winter?”.

Greek-HouseThis translated into building the side of the house facing south elevated in order to receive the winter sun and the side facing north lower to eliminate cold winds.

Such houses are a hallmark of the civilized Greek, when compared to primitive man who lived in caves and…“had neither knowledge of houses built of bricks and turned to face the sun nor yet of work in wood; but dwelt beneath the ground like swarming ants, in sunless caves”.

The principle of orienting a house towards the south was perhaps not simply an empirical method of making the most lived-in parts of the house as comfortable as possible.

As Xenophon implied it may also have been related to medical and philosophical theories governing the orientation of cities towards the ‘cleansing winds’ so that they could remain free of disease and pestilence.

Greek houses essentially presented high blank walls to the street, their inner courtyards being the most important source of light for its rooms, which opened onto them. This was the focus for family life.

Greek House 1The main evidence for, and about Greek houses from late 5 BCE is from the excavated remains at Olynthus a town at the head of a strong confederacy of Greek towns known as the Chalcidian League. The grid plan of the remains of the ancient town reveal much needed material for studying the relationship between a house and the city, and between a household and its community.

The plan of a Greek house varied according to the size of the land, size of the owner’s family, his taste and wealth and there was a great diversity about the way its rooms were used. They were not so set in their ways of organizing rooms for only one purpose as we do.

Interior Roman Villa

They were forever changing layout to suit the changing needs of an expanding and contracting household. This does not mean there was not a generalized layout plan or common house ‘type’ there was.

Larger houses generally contained two courtyards (aulæ) one behind the other, each with its own circuit of chambers.

The first courtyard encountered was the Andronitis (Court of the Men) suitable for promenading and exercise and where visitors were received and women would sew, sit and talk although withdrawing if men arrived on the scene.

The decoration was plain and the walls tinted with some kind of colour wash; the floor was of simple plaster, or, pounded earth.

A peristyle of columns surrounded it and there was an awning over it during the day when it was very hot.

In the center was a small stone altar to the God Zeus the Protector (Zeus Herkeïos) and a sacrifice was offered from time to time by the head of the household acting as its priest.

Getty-Villa-Peristyle-Side-View-BEESTUnder the colonnade of columns at all four sides were various chambers whose door area was the only source of light. Some were storerooms, others sleeping closets for male slaves and grown-up sons of the household. Rooms at the rear of the house contained the kitchen and sleeping closets of the slave women

On the side nearest to the front of the house, but opening onto the inner court was the Thalamos, the great bedroom of the master and mistress. This was often decorated lavishly with costly furnishings and ornaments. Unmarried daughters slept in the anti-Thalamos a room much larger than the cells of the slave girls.

Another room was set apart for the working of wool, the chief occupation of the woman’s household.

Directly behind the main courtyard was a passage to the inner house where guests gathered for dining.

The Andron contained the family hearth, once a real fire for household cooking, which became a symbol of domestic worship.

In the rear wall of the Andron was a solid door and to enter meant social ruination or disgrace, unless you were the father, sons, or a male kinsmen because it led to the Gynæconitis the hall of women, an Athenian’s holy of holies.

1st century Roman emperor Augustus (63BC – 14 AD) re-established social harmony and the new political order felt the need to make its mark through a building program intended to demonstrate the well being and prosperity, which the new Golden Age was bringing to the Roman world.

He left a record of his deeds and actions (Res Gestae Divi Augusti) inscribed on bronze pillars in front of his Mausoleum at Rome. It was a monumental rotunda, built as a burial place for himself and his family. It also contained the remains of some of his successors as Caeser.

Reconstruction-Villa-Romana-del-CasaleIn the Res Gestae Divi Augusti he placed side by side two concepts for Roman architecture from the late Republican period; that of auctoritas, or inner weight, the authentic and exemplary, and that of ‘potestas’ the powerful and authoritative. A building with auctoritas was one that had dignity, validity and authority.

The bricks and mortar of the Republican architecture with its arcades, arches and vaults, are not as defined or clear and precise as those built of marble.

Cut through Reconstruction Pantheon still standing at Rome

Augustan architecture is characterized by the combination of column, architrave, prop and load arranged with austerity and economy.

Trees framed temples, civic buildings and amphitheatres, which echoed the universal form of Greek architecture. Gardens provided essential shade and a place for repose and were an integral part of town planning.

Reconstruction of the Domus Aurea in its glory days…

The city was decked out in marble and adorned with statuary.

In the forum colonnades made of travertine were built and the pavement replaced with travertine flagstones on which inscriptions were picked out in bronze letters.

The sewerage system and amazing system of aqueducts Romans built to carry water to there cities were revolutionary.

When Roman Emperor Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus entered his newly completed Domus Aurea or Golden House built following the great fire at Rome in 64 AD, he proclaimed to his entourage as he gazed upon its many splendours words to the effect…‘ah, now at last I can live as a human being’.

The Domus Aurea was, without doubt, a crazy, short-lived architectural wonder, which at its worst, reflected the material excesses of its most famous megalomaniac Emperor owner.

At its best Nero’s Golden House showcased Rome’s outstanding contribution to posterity – the invention of concrete, the wonder building material of the ancient world.

Developing concrete as a material adds to the considerable engineering achievements of the Roman people who realized that if a design conflicted with certain natural laws, the structure would fail and more than likely, fall.

The recipe for concrete was lost, like so much other knowledge when the great Roman capital was overrun by the Goths in the fourth century. It would not be rediscovered until an Italian scholar found it during a fifteenth century search of monastery libraries.

The architecture of both Greece and Rome provide us with an insight into the cultural development and society of both cultures at any given time in their history.

It is called ‘classic’, because it is of acknowledged excellence and the highest quality in both craftsmanship and materials.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2010 – 2012

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