All entries for Tuesday 02 May 2006

May 02, 2006

Medieval Essay

Follow-up to medieval from Team Colour

How can a knowledge of technique enhance our understanding of Medieval Art?
As there are very few records of critical art historians from around Medieval times, it is crucial to form our own knowledge of the techniques used to understand the art. We are not directly informed about why some of the art existed or more importantly, its meaning – apart from the large religious influence which i will discuss – making interpretation more difficult. But aside from religion there must have been other factors as to why the art at the time was created, and for what purposes. To begin to combat this lack of knowledge we can analyse instead how a work of art was made and what this involved to further our understanding and appreciation. Additionally, if we know how something was made then we can hopefully get a rough idea of the technology around the time, when it was dated, the events taking place and the artist/s relation to that and/or the influence on them. Was the inspiration to create an art object influenced by a particular event or place, does its existence in turn influence other works of art, and if it does, how does it show their links and connections over the centuries?

To give a brief religious summary as mentioned above; during Medieval times the church had become the greatest power in the realm, and its whole relationship to art had to be reconsidered. This would mean that not only would the church's – or basilica's as they were then called – interior have to change and be built upon, to make room for congregations and services in their ever increasing popularity – but that art too would also be highly influenced by religion. Monks took the lead in theological development, in icons and shaping the piety and religious practice of Byzantium in general, in which ritual, cult and symbolism were practised. This motivated the benefactors who commissioned the religious artworks to express their participation by decorating the churches with gold and silver, silk vestments and bronze lamps. People primarily came to church to be transformed, and thus art became this means of communication with the divine. There are many different kinds of art which can be analysed for their technique, but i will be looking at only two of these in this essay; they will be illuminated manuscripts and altarpieces in churches.

Illuminated manuscripts flourished between 850 and 1200, with their content mainly being very handsome and lavish. The Byzantines were typically known as depicting the first eight books of the old testament, the psalms joined with poetry and the major and minor prophets, with great care taken over the beauty and appearence. These were completed on thick parchment usually in two books. Size often gave a good indication of its intended use, for example pocket versions of the gospels and psalms were popular for private devotional reading. However illuminated manuscripts were made to a large degree for use or donation in churches, and usually made to teach the reader ‘a lesson’ or pass on wise words about their role in life. For example, Theodore Psalter copied the book of Psalms and the Odes for the local monastery’s abbot, Michael. This was intended to guide Michael on how he should show responsibility for the orthodox belief of his monks, and teach them obedience, charity and chastity. The saints in the pictures act as religious guides to help Michael. The more lavish the book, the more powerful in society was the receiver, so we can conclude that material appearances of importance, wealth and position were greatly favoured in those days.

During Antiquity, reading was done aloud and authors would dictate their work for secretaries to transcribe and professionals to copy meaning relationships between creativity and writing were weak. This changed during the middle ages, as authors became more independent and private study more commonplace. Due to this shift in the way writing was communicated, with the written word now being more important, grand letters were used and great care taken over books to make reading more ‘fun’. This extended to the pictures as well; enamel was used from around the ninth to the tenth centuries for expensive objects. Pictures and words were slightly squashed, and their depth reduced. Together these would emphasise a flat and shallow or blank plane. But why would artists use this technique? Effort must be taken to understand the demands placed on the artist to fit everything in on one page, indicating that for whatever reason it was necessary to do so.

The pictures drawn can show not only the telling of a biblical story, but as depicting something that somebody in the past had witnessed in real life. Take for example the Joshua roll and its link with the Byzantine army events in the tenth century. Historical influence therefore had a significant impact on the technique used in illuminated manuscripts, and careful time must have been taken to recreate the scenes as they appeared in reality. I shall also look at whether historical events had an impact on the other type of art in this essay.

It is hard to trace the development of altarpieces as they have been lost in time due to the poor survival of actual objects, the frequent loss of original settings and some missing documentation. The reason i have chosen altarpieces is to prove that it is still possible to learn at least a little of their technique and hence their meaning, despite the fact that are a noticable amount of gaps in knowledge. Another large problem has been the tendency to view nearly all painted wooden panels as alterpieces; this is not the case. Altarpieces were typically made of various materials, the use of stone for example in Virgin and Child, or wood in the altarpieces of Friuli. The way in which altarpieces were made indicated what use they were intended for. Another problem is the altarpieces origin and a way to combat the problem is to search for an existing form and give it a new use; the antependium (altar frontal) may have served as a background to a new ritual, namely the elevation of the main body of the altarpiece. The form and development of the altarpiece depended on local taste and fashion. Patterns of development vary though depending on whether the antependium theory is correct. If it is, then the alter would be made up of rectangular 'dossals' or 'retables' contructed with horizontal wooden planks. The downside is that this still does not explain whether some panels are retables or altar frontals. The organic process is the next step: to separate the figures, arcades or colonettes were used; and for greater height and width, the horizontal structure was replaced by vertical sections. Because some alterpieces did not reach completion, it is very difficult to know how much time it took to make or the date it was 'finished'. Despite this, surviving contracts and records of payments help us to gain an understanding of the production processes and hence to a technique insight. A proof of what patrons demanded is not only in the contracts but backed up by the amount of, or lack of, gold and blue in the alterpieces. Unfortuately though, we do not have such a great understanding of alterpieces as much as other forms of medieval art, although the knowledge isnt enitrely lacking.

Byzantine art is thought to be highly influential but it is not sure how much and whether this phenomenon can be explained better in parellelism.The Byzantine style was not static in the later twelth century, this is probably because Byzantine art was constantly renewing itself while upholding time honoured iconographies. In the last decades of the twelth centuries, it entered a dynamic fast paced phase, followed by a simplistic and calm style of form and expression. There is not a clear connection between early and middle Byzantine art.

To conclude, we can see that by knowing how a work of art was made and what this involved shapes our understanding of technique, showing us that there were reasons other than religion for making art, and how this improves our understanding of the whole Medieval artworld. Technique was also partly down to who was composing the artwork – the Georgians, the Bulgarians, the Armenians, the Crusaders or the Byzantines. The technique of one group seemed to have had largely, but not always, a domino like effect from one to the other. The evidence does seem to suggest that the inspiration to create an art object was indeed largely influenced by an external force; a particular theme, event or place, and that this in turn influences other works of art, showing their links and connections over the centuries. This is highlighted by some of the overlapping styles between all of those listed above (the Georgians, the Bulgarians eccetera) Technique was also down to social appearences, the Byzantiums, for instance, frequently encouraged by their art, made their work ever more lavish. By doing this, they received significant praise for the sheer beauty of it, and so great artists held a high place in society and received creditable amounts of respect from their people. Artwork attracted people to churches and the like as a place for social gatherings and gossip as well as a place to worship and be enlightened. Perphaps this is what the artist/s had in mind as they developed their technique, and it helps us realise why they put so much effort into their art. Yet again it reinforces the crucialness of possessing knowledge of technique to further understand art during Medieval times.


Feminism Essay

Follow-up to a feminism essay from Team Colour

How were the visual arts involved in defining femininity and demarcating the role of women in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain?

The issue at debate here is showing how far the visual arts defined femininity and set boundaries to – or indeed promoted – women’s rights, and the roles women played in society. This brings up other multiple questions along the way which I will attempt to incorporate into the essay. Unfortunately, it is easy to highlight the artwork itself as being repressive or liberating, and arguing that it had a direct causal function to women’s position whilst forgetting that there is a flipside to this. Artists may have simply been trying to show what was happening in society at the time without creating their art as an intended repressive or liberating method of representation.

Throughout this period in Britain there does seem to have been a lot of emphasis among the visual arts in placing negative or stultifying restrictions, values and expectations on women, as society already viewed them as second class citizens. However this was done as a backlash to the very real and supposed ‘threat’ of increased liberation for women that seemed to be coming into focus at the time, and what it would mean for men, society and the family home. Hence as women’s inevitable freedoms increased, the attempts to restrict them increased as well. Issues such as women making a stand and voicing their grievances over a lack of freedom or respect put into light the ‘woman question’, and was a very new and scary thing happening to a society that had never experienced a rebellion of this kind before.

Obviously, with the Industrial Revolution happening at about the same time, insecurity was more prevalent than ever and the need for repression could be argued to have been greater in art. It was deemed necessary by society to ‘put women in their place’, to create more security in an increasingly insecure society, as women were beginning to gain academic freedom through the art–world because of this. Apart from being excluded from painting the nude until 1903 – considered the ‘highest’ form of Art – this extended to access to Academy schools, places of art education run by women, participation in avant–garde circles and therefore increased opportunities in art. Sadly though, education only extended to middle or upper class women, the working class still had little or no rights to this. Another question that comes into play; as art was now the central career for middle/upper–class women because they considered it more appealing that the work of a governess – did this make it the focal point for ‘creative’ repression by society? And if it did, was this largely done by male painters, and to what extent did female painters highlight women’s position? I shall consider next some examples of paintings and how they tried to portray women’s position, either at home or in the professions, to determine how far they were involved in defining femininity and demarcating the role of women in society. These paintings will be a mixture of high and low involvement in this process.

At the time it was genuinely believed that biological differences between men and women somehow ‘proved’ man’s domination over woman. Extending this supposed fact by saying that a woman’s traditional role as opposed to a man’s is inferior, and placing this within the context of art is arguably unfair. Consequently the two sexes were separated into very different spheres, and this lies at the root of common ignorance at the time which still continues to a much lesser extent in today’s society and artwork. In reality though, it was women’s lack of educational opportunities and societal brainwashing of men and women that lead to this common and popular belief.

Paintings were not the only modes of showing women’s supposed inferiority. Caricatures and cartoons poked fun at what a woman student should look like, again a backlash to the threat that by 1871, over 1,000 women were identifying themselves as artists compared to before, due to pressure to earn a living.

The way in which some pictures were painted tried to portray women as an ideal, in an objective light, and as panderers to men. For instance there are two pictures; one shows a working class wife hanging onto her husband’s arm, gazing lovingly into his eyes, and the other a middle class woman comforting her grief stricken husband. The softened facial expressions equally highlight woman’s subservience and supposedly weaker nature.

The visual arts tended to represent the male perspective, and it was not so much that there did not exist a female perspective, more that it was not recognised, taken seriously, or paid attention to. It could be said that because of this, half of art, or half of humanity has been hidden. From some examples of pictures painted of women, such as that of Renoir “The loge, 1874” compared to Mary Cassatt “Reading Le Figaro, 1883”, it is noted that the male and female perspective of the woman tend to be different. A man tended to paint the woman as a beautiful object with little or no emotion, whereas the woman painted herself or another woman with transcendent characteristics and containing personality in her face and body. Contrary to this, and as it was very unusual to acknowledge that there were any talented women painters, critics undermined the individuality of those that did exist by claiming that all women artists had a certain ‘style’ that linked them together, by choosing to paint scenes of domestic life. This is not an accurate claim, as there are women who painted on other subject matters. Some of those that did fit the critics mold managed to defend themselves fairly. For example, a woman painter, Helen Frankenthaler said: “In any case, the mere choice of a certain realm of subject matter, or the restriction to certain subjects, is not to be equated with a style, much less with some sort of quintessentially feminine style.”

This would be true, as male painters too have been preoccupied with one or several recurring themes before – and allowed to be – without being accused of only possessing the capability of a universal ‘masculine’ style. After the 1850s male artists became interested in different topics such as travel, photography, mountains or butterflies, reasserting amateur paintings and thereby taking some of the art focus off of women. This leads us to another mistake sometimes practiced in the visual arts, that is to represent women in paintings – assuming this is how they are in real life – was not only incorrect, but showed the publics fault at large. Art is not necessarily a “direct personal expression of individual emotional experience; a translation of personal life into visual terms” and so could be inaccurate. It does indeed show the considered ideal that women should be subservient, and to some extent shows this forced reality, but it is more a desire than an inherent truth about women. There is evidence of visual material for example, which shows female respectability and highlights a more diverse experience of life for women in the period. This can be seen during the 1870s and 80s when a period of glamour and beauty threatened to tear down the old barriers of women’s repression in the art world.

So, despite overwhelming setbacks, there were some very successful women artists around the time. It is true that these were indeed rare cases, but it still shows that the visual arts were not always against women as some were created by women themselves to actively represent their situation or showing each other in a positive light. Some men too, also painted women in a way that allowed greater imagination for the liberties that would have been granted for women in an ideal equalitarian world. A good example of two successful women are Berthe Morisot and Mary
Cassatt. The Impressionist movement turned away from bourgeois classicism and history painting to genre scenes of contemporary modern life that included scenes of leisure and family life; and these women led their own exhibition society in which they could practice more ‘modern’ ways of drawing upon their direct experiences of family life as subject matter for their artistic practice. Here then, we can see that their art is an example of representational art, and therefore the contradictions that they would have faced in doing so.

Women’s sexuality and their bodies was another fascination in the visual arts, not simply the roles they played in society. Men and women artists and writers too were fascinated by the subject and the theme of puberty, awakening sensuality and young love had (“Psyche”, Berthe Morisot, 1876) had attracted Romantic artists. Cassat is more radical, choosing to paint subjects in this light and highlighting ‘femininity’ as a process beginning in infancy and ending in old age; a social process, not that of true womanliness, which she claimed, was given to women as their nature. Her bold and decisive style effectively changed traditional images of mother female child, for instance. However, instead of being seen as a radical critique of dominant ideologies, she is seen as confirming them.

There are some other examples of art that depicted the idea of femininity and role of woman. Religion, for instance, is incorporated into that of the feminine; the idea of Adam and Eve, of woman being the temptress, the wrongdoer, with the symbolic image of man ‘above’ her and educating her. Or the image of the virgin woman as an ideal is shown in the painting of the ‘fallen woman’’ or the broken prostitute, kneeling in shame at the foot of a previous lover who has chanced to see her in the street. It has been said that this is a direct reaction to the fear of societal change to new laws. Death and suicide were attempted to possibly inject fear into women, showing what could happen to them if they were to commit adultery or lose their innocence. On the other hand, the painting could invoke pity for the prostitute, but it is hard to say what the intention is always going to be in some cases such as these. The meaning is sometimes ambiguous as to whether the artwork is defining femininity or simply raising the question of a moral or individual story of a particular woman.

To conclude, we can see that much of the visual art from around the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain was focused on defining femininity and that this was usually done as a backlash to the threat of women’s increased liberations in not just that of the art–world, but generally. Art also showed itself as a visual representation of Victorian ideals, rather than any inherent truth about women. It defined femininity by a mixture of repression and liberation, which can be seen by both male and female artists, so the question stands as something complicated with many hidden meanings.


a feminism essay

Follow-up to Feminism Essay from Team Colour

How were the visual arts involved in defining femininity and demarcating the role of women in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain?
During the nineteenth and twentieth century both male and female artists were responsible for defining femininity and demarcating the role of women in society. Whilst female painters were not given the same opportunities as their male colleagues, it is evident that they made it their mission to achieve the status of a professional artist. Many women depicted subjects that challenged the role of women in society by showing the difficulties women faced and the restrictions placed on them as they attempted to gain a role in public life. Others painted scenes that portrayed women as ambitious, either through their choice of subject matter or their depictions of women as determined characters. Women remained a popular subject among male artists, yet it is important to note that many of the images of women produced by men were ‘not necessarily a reflection of how women actually lived and experienced their lives in the period’ ; they frequently represented women as weak and unworthy of a more active role in society.
Nochlin’s essay, Why have there been to great women artists?, explores the reasons behind women’s lack of success as artists over the centuries. She claims that ‘The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education’ . Women were prevented from participating in life drawing classes until the 1860s, yet drawing from nude models was part of the basic training of male artists. Zoffany’s painting The Academicians of the Royal Academy shows how women were excluded from institutions such as the Royal Academy; a group of men are gathered in front of male nude models, yet the two female members of the RA are not present. Instead they are included as portraits on the wall. Whilst this shows how women were excluded, the painting does suggest that women were gradually breaking down the boundaries and gaining a role in the art world.
The establishment of female art schools enabled middle class women to receive training and support themselves financially. In the 1840s schools such as The Female School of Design were founded to supply training in design for women who had no choice but to support themselves. In 1862 the Royal Female School of Art was founded and the following year Robert Blaine advocated female membership to the Royal Academy. This inclusion of women in the art world signified the breaking down of boundaries, yet success in the art market was a different matter; exclusion from the RA schools prevented women from gaining personal introductions to clients and patrons that were essential for commissions. Emily Osborne’s Nameless and Friendless, exhibited at the RA in 1857, depicts a woman presenting a portfolio to a shop owner. Her black dress suggests she is in mourning and searching for ways to provide for the boy who accompanies her. Earning a living to provide for her family was a new role for women.
It is significant that the art dealer looks condescendingly at the woman, and the men studying a drawing glance up with quizzical eyes to consider her; they offer no sympathy, instead she is an object for male observation. According to Chadwick, the message of the painting is that ‘women have no place in the commerce of art; they belong to the world of art as subjects, not makers or purveyors of art’ . Whilst women were still struggling to gain accepted as artists, they were gradually changing the boundaries in society and creating a new role for themselves; women like Osborne were capable of exhibiting works that stated how women were viewed.
Limitations placed on women by society meant that the subjects of their paintings were often similar. The works of the female Impressionists depict ‘spaces of femininity’ because these were the areas to which women were confined. Although some outdoor spaces were accessible to Parisian women their subject matter was generally limited to interiors. British women were not as constrained and so did not limit themselves to domestic settings; Elizabeth Thompson refused to restrict her works to ‘feminine’ subjects. Calling the Roll after an Engagement, Crimea is a grand manner paining, depicting soldiers after battle, and it gained Thompson a reputation as ‘“the first painter to celebrate the courage and endurance of the ordinary British soldier”’ . Calling the Roll brought Thompson immediate success when it was exhibited at the RA and it proceeded to tour the nation. This suggests the role of women was changing in Britain; women were successfully painting the same subjects as men and so playing an increasingly important role in the art world.
The role that women played in the art world gradually changed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not simply due to the increasing number of professional female artists; women also became connoisseurs and commissioners. Isabella Stewart Gardener filled her home with fragments of Venetian palaces and a large number of representations of women, including a portrait of herself. Sargent’s Isabella Stewart Gardener presents his subject as a woman of authority. Women, therefore, had a new role in the art world; they became women of business, adopting a traditionally male role.
The suffrage movement was an attempt to change the role of women in society by gaining the vote, and the fight for enfranchisement included various forms of advertising to express their message. Posters and banners acted as forms of advertisement with mottos serving as announcements for meetings, calling for the vote and proclaiming key beliefs. Embroidery played an important part in banner making; it had an association with femininity which the women’s suffrage movement believed they could use to their advantage. The campaigners wanted embroidery ‘to evoke femininity – but femininity represented as a source of strength, not as evidence of women’s weakness’ . The visual arts provided the suffrage movement with a distinctive new way of representing women and femininity and, whilst the actions of the militants hindered the cause to an extent, the processions and advertisements proved women could campaign peacefully.
Through the visual arts women began to change the role of women in society, yet men’s depictions of women frequently undermined their capabilities and achievements. Egg’s Past and Present triptych shows the life of a family after the wife’s adultery has been discovered. The only reference to the woman’s lover is the letter clasped in the husband’s hand in Past and Present I, which is an important detail yet easily overlooked, causing all the blame to be placed upon the woman. Egg portrays the woman as weak, as she is the cause of this loneliness and the break up of her family; in Past and Present II the daughters sit alone looking at the same moon as their mother, yet they are not together.
Prostitutes were a common subject for male artists in this period. Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience depicts a man visiting his mistress; the woman is her lover’s possession as she lives in a house he has bought for her, yet the moment portrayed shows her realizing her mistake. Hunt is more forgiving than Egg, suggesting that these women can change their lives, and he acknowledges that the man is partly to blame for the woman’s situation as he has led her to temptation. These images display women’s weaknesses and may have been an attempt to define femininity in a negative light, suggesting that men felt threatened by the changing role of women in society.
In Victorian Britain the political and business arena was seen as a masculine world whilst the domestic world was feminine. This concept of separate spheres was not unique to the nineteenth century but, as some women began to challenge these beliefs, some found it necessary to attempt to reinforce them. Hick’s Woman’s Mission: Companion of Manhood is part of a triptych that represents a woman at an ‘optimum moment in her life’ as she plays her role as a mother, loyal wife and dedicated daughter. In this particular image the wife provides support as her husband deals with distressing news, yet holding his arm reveals that she is dependant on him. The woman in Hicks’ paintings is his definition of femininity; she represents how women should behave and suggests that the role of women, from a man’s perspective, was to be loyal and devoted.
In conclusion, through the visual arts women were responsible for demarcating the role of women in Victorian Britain by playing an active role in the art world. By exhibiting at the RA and with the introduction of female art schools, women gained the training and audience they needed to become independent and support themselves. With the use of the visual arts the suffrage campaigns were successful in expressing women’s views and defining femininity and peacefully attracting attention. During this period of change men and women depicted women differently as they attempted to define femininity; whilst men often portrayed women as weak and dependant on men, female artists represented women as strong: taking control of their lives and playing a more active role in both the art world and society.

another architecture essay

Writing about web page /teamcolour/entry/a_architecture_module/

‘Classicism in style is potentially stultifying to both innovation and function’ (Tim Mowl). Is this a fair critique of the classical language of architecture?

When discussing classicism and its influence in the history of architecture, it is first necessary to state what the classical language of architecture is. Summerson states that ‘A classical building is one whose decorative elements derive directly or indirectly from the architectural vocabulary of the ancient world’ and these elements, for example the five orders, are easily recognizable. He goes onto claim that ‘the aim of classical architecture has always been to achieve a demonstrable harmony of parts’ . When an architect uses aspects of classical architecture in a new context classicism has the potential to stultify the innovation and function of the building. In most cases, architects simply use elements of the classical language of architecture, so that this problem doe not arise, but this raises the question ‘when is a classical building not a classical building?’
If all the aspects of classicism are adopted in the design of a building the function is not affected, yet the result is that the possibility of innovation is hindered. There was little variation in the architecture of the Roman Empire; the Romans did not build in different styles in different regions. This expressed the power of the Roman Empire and united all its colonies. The Maison Carrée at Nîmes (early 1st century AD), built under Augustus, is a key example; its layout, proportions and fluted Corinthian columns are exactly what was being built in Rome at the time. Whilst there was a lack of innovation in different regions of the Roman Empire, this was not because classicism was restricting; it was a conscious decision to employ one style.
Whilst the Romans used their style universally, they were able to develop it to suit a number of different buildings and purposes. Orders associated with temples were not discounted when designing secular buildings; instead they brought the orders in, ‘in the most conspicuous way possible’ because they were considered an integral part of the design of all classical buildings. By combining the simple architecture of the orders with more elaborate vaults, basilicas and arches, the language of architecture was changed and even raised. This can be seen when studying triumphal arches; these grand and dramatic monuments were introduced by the Romans to honour generals and men of status, for example the Arch of Constantine, 315 AD. They incorporated the classical orders; the central arch and two flanking arches were framed by columns that were placed on tall plinths, so as not to elongate the columns and distort their proportions. Monuments such as this show how the Romans themselves took classical language of architecture to develop a new classical form, proving that classicism is not stultifying to innovation or function.
The orders served no structural purpose for the Romans, yet they were an essential element of their architecture. Whilst they insisted on using the orders in all buildings, it was not limiting to the development of classical architecture, and thus it can be argued that it is not restricting when incorporated with other styles of architecture. During the Italian Renaissance, for example, architects continued the work of the Romans by further developing the inclusion of orders in secular buildings. In the Laurentian Library in San Lorenzo, Michelangelo treats the space as a sculpture; it is entirely decorative. The room is an arrangement of classical forms yet the classical elements are treated in an un–classical way. Michelangelo turns the columns into sculptures by placing them in niches, whilst the pilasters taper and have no known order, reinforcing the idea that Michelangelo was reinventing classical forms. As the architect simply employed classical motifs for decoration, it allowed him to be innovative and create a totally new way of decorating an interior space. Whilst the classical language of architecture was clearly not restricting for Michelangelo, it is possible to argue that the Laurentian Library was not classical, because he greatly changed both the appearance and function of the features of classicism.
Greek and Roman architecture ‘thinks of the building primarily as of a sculptural body’ . Adopting classicism therefore has the potential to stultify function, as an architect can become too involved in decoration and simply including classical features and motifs in his design. Michelangelo was successful in his design of the Laurentian Library because he was using the classical language of architecture in the way it had been used during antiquity; as sculpture.
Classicism is not stultifying to innovation or proportion if only certain aspects of it are adopted and then adapted, as can be seen in the majority of the architecture of the Italian Renaissance; ‘the great achievement of the Renaissance was not the strict imitation of Roman buildings … but the re–establishment of the grammar of antiquity as a universal discipline’ . This can be seen with Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library, yet there are countless other examples. The façade of San Miniato in Florence is defined as Romanesque; it reflects the basilican form, incorporates Corinthian columns on the exterior and Ionic inside, and it is proportionally correct. Borrowing these various features from Roman buildings and applying them to the façade allowed the architect to reflect the status of the guild; it drew a comparison between the church and the great temples of the Roman Empire.
Books such as Sebastiano Serlio’s L’Archittetura (1537–51) clearly explain the classical orders and how they should be used in building. This book was warmly welcomed and had a great influence on the architects of the sixteenth century. Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura was written in Italy in the same century, yet went on to become very inspirational in England in the seventeenth century. These works did not hinder innovation, however, as may be expected; instead they provided inspiration for architects, and explained the classical language of architecture so that they were then able to adapt this ancient style to suit their criteria.
Over the centuries, architects have been influenced by classicism and have used it as a major source, if not the major source, of inspiration for their works. Yet when they only adopt certain aspects of the classical language of architecture, it is debatable whether their buildings are classical. The Palatine Chapel in Aachen, (began around 790) was ‘[d]esigned to recall imperial Rome’ yet the architecture is a fusion of Roman and Byzantine; whilst the vaulted dome and columns provides a classical connection, the building itself is a ‘Byzantine type’ . The long loggia of columns at Robert Smythson’s Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire (began in 1596) is classical, yet the floors of the house increase in height as the building rises, and this is not a classical technique. Smythson has, therefore, been selective in his borrowings of the classical language, as Odo of Metz was when designing the Palatine Chapel.
In the case of the façade of the Assembly Building at Chandigarh, India, the proportions of the building can be described as classical but the building itself is not; it does not include any of the physical features of a classical temple or monument, such as the orders, a pediment or any forms of classical decoration. Classicism has therefore not stultified innovation or function for le Courbiser; he has simply been influenced by the harmony of classical proportion for the building’s façade. The façade is made up of a series of modular units and this careful spacing is classically inspired. This reference to classicism is emphasized by the walls that support the roof; viewed from the front they are reminiscent of columns supporting an entablature. Whilst the harmony of the Assembly Building is inspired by the classical language of architecture, it does not make the building classical; instead it includes classical elements.
During the nineteenth century architects chose not to limit themselves to only developing classical motifs; instead they attempted to incorporate features from every subsequent phase of the classical development into their art. Ornaments from Greek temples, an arrangement of columns from the Roman triumphal arch and elements from Florentine Mannerism are just some of the sources Cockerell was influenced by when designing the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Classicism has clearly not stultified the innovation of this building; instead it has helped the architect to be highly innovative. Again, however, it can be argued that the architect has selected classical elements but the building itself is not classical.
In conclusion, classicism is potentially stultifying if architects choose to stick to the rules rigidly; without developing the features used in classical buildings innovation is not possible. If instead an architect only adopts certain elements of the classical language, and applies them where they are appropriate and necessary, then classicism can aid the function of the building, and innovation is achieved. When this method is used, however, the building produced is not classical; it is simply an adaptation of the classical language of architecture.


an architecture essay

Follow-up to an architecture essay from Team Colour

“Classicism in style is potentially stultifying to both innovation and function” (Tim Mowl). Is this a fair critique of the classical language of architecture?

When assessing the question it is important to look at the fact that it is divided into three arguments. These include how classicism is potentially a problem, how classicism can be rendered inconsistent or redundant (stultifying) and how these factors contribute to the actual function and innovation of architecture. It is important to remember that classicism has been highly influential in architecture as it not only set down the basic principles of harmony and proportion as documented by Vitruvius but also due to the associations, such as power and status, provided by antiquity. This can be seen especially with the classical revival experienced with the Renaissance period, Neo–classicism and in present with modern buildings being fronted with classical motifs. It is the most recent past, commencing with the architecture of Germany and Italy from World War II to the present day that I would like to investigate and explore how these examples of architecture are affected by the issue of classicism.

It is hard to define what exactly classicism is as an architectural resource due to its being used by different architects, movements and leaders in ways that suits their aims and means, rather than using classical influence exactly as the Greeks or Romans would. In this way classical architecture has been broken down partially as with the technological innovations of the twentieth century the structural function of arches for example are left redundant as new materials such as iron and steel are being used to reinforce buildings and distribute weight. This can be seen in Rome’s “Esposizione Universale Roma” (EUR), a building from 1935 under Mussolini’s rule to expose the creation of his “new Roman Empire and partly to rekindle a new spirit of ‘heroism’…” . The EUR complex can be seen to be very classical in its architecture through the use of a square colonnade in Palazzo INA and the six sets of arches used on the Palazzo delle Civiltà del Lavoro. Yet, although these are classical features there is clear innovation as the colonnade is square instead of being on a usual curve as seen in Roman forums or at the Vatican in Rome. The arches used on the Palazzo delle Civiltà del Lavoro are without orders but left plain without applied decoration as would have been seen on the Colosseum. Therefore the classical ideal has been used but it has not been a stultifying factor as the architects have re–invented classicism by selecting the aspects that they want.

Yet, this is not the only example of how classicism has been altered as the Nazi leader Hitler, and the Fascist ruler Mussolini, used the classically designed buildings because of their association with the Roman Empire, therefore showing each leader’s consolidating their power by making a clear show that they too were building empires like the Romans. In this way the use of classical architecture has been somewhat abused as only the significance of what classicism represents is important for the functions of buildings produced, there is no architectural or structural need that can only be provided by classical architecture. Yet, this being said, the concept of using classicism as a form of propaganda was one used by the Romans themselves so it could, in fact, be seen as an inextricable part of the architecture. Therefore although the Nazi leaders only choose classical architecture for what it represents it is innovative, as an old form of architecture is re–invented to revive ideas of Roman power and status.

In contrast to this wanting to show this blatant show of supremacy we have the present day architect Quinlan Terry who intentionally moves away from the Modernist movement and looks back to classical architecture as a timeless way of design. Terry understands the idea of harmony and beauty that was hailed as the key to classical architecture as temple designs were based on harmonic proportions and were deemed perfect buildings, with the Parthenon being the “perfect [Doric] monument” By his own admission Terry acknowledges that classicism takes in its surroundings therefore seems to naturally evolve. In this way it should not be able to stultify function or innovation as it should allow for progression. This is true as it can be seen in his water–front complex, the Richmond Riverside Development. The latest addition, the brick and stucco building on the end of the terrace, seems to combine 18th century features of red brick, sash and casement windows, as well as being mixed with the five classical orders, showing it to partially explore the classical language of architecture.

Despite this, what Terry creates is more a classical illusion rather than a classical building as the underlying structure to the building is a steel frame due to the fact that sit is cheaper, stronger and quicker to set up. In this way although he gives a classical shell to the building, the actual structure is wholly modern. This can be seen as innovative as modern technology is incorporated with a classical front and it creates a more structurally sound building aiding the function to be able to hold a large amount of people. Yet, even with these factors the use of classicism across the waterside has left little room for a modern front to be included due to the fact that it would look completely out of place. Terry does add variety to the terrace as each building is different and seem to progress from a neighbouring design but the use of classical is left moderately redundant as it is purely aesthetic and no longer representing a building to a feat of engineering as it had back in antiquity, for example the Colosseum being architecturally magnificent with the ability to hold four storeys supported mainly through arches in a circular plan.

By looking to the past for inspiration classicism does seem to hinder progress as modern buildings that have not been so popular with the general public. The results of the Modernist Movement in architecture seem to dominate the minds of the public therefore not giving full consent for modern designs to be explored. Much like the classical buildings of the past modern architecture also has a lot to offer in both innovation and function as can be seen by Santiago Calatrava’s 1987 Lyon – Santolas TVG train station in which he uses the modern material of steel to produce a building that can cope with a substantial amount of people passing through as well as acting as a holding place for transport.

A building of this size could be created with classical proportion or design yet it would hinder the progress of modernity which has a considerable amount to offer with innovative design and use of materials. If classicism is continually used in construction we are certain of not losing the influence of the past but definitely endanger the loss of the present and future. Also as classicism has to evolve in order to continually fit in with the demands of modernity, there is the danger of it being so corrupted that it becomes an eye sore or “toy town pastiche” as so comically remarked by a critic looking at the works of Quinlan Terry at Richmond and his inadvertent propagation of the tawdry classicism arising from celebrity culture incorporated with architecture.

In reading Summerson’s “The Classical Language of Architecture” the book concludes with the question “…‘What has happened to the [classical] language [of architecture]?’ The generally accepted view is that the Modernist Movement killed it, and that is not far from wrong.” Yet, this is hard to believe that the classical of architecture has been lost as throughout history has been used in such a way that the idea of the classical has had to continually change and progress in order to satisfy the desires of the designer or the public. Therefore it can be seen that this necessity for change, will repeat itself, meaning that the classical language of architecture can not have died but merely fallen into submission until it is re–invented with new purpose, as well as innovation. It could be questioned that classicism itself may have disappeared with the amount of modifications that have been made, but how can classicism be defined when even from the Greeks to the Romans ideas of what was classical or what could be included were altered? Therefore, it can be seen that classicism can only be stultifying if it conforms to a fixed idea as it leaves no room for innovation or demands of function. This being said it has to be acknowledged that the classical language of architecture itself is not fixed and has been developed from Vitruvius to Serlio and Palladio, meaning that it too is evolving, leaving no way for it to be rendered redundant as long as it is part of a re–invention of the style.


May 2006

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