May 02, 2006

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.


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