Essay: The contribution of the Ancient Greeks to architecture

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  • The contribution of the Ancient Greeks to architecture
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The ancient Greeks have provided art, mathematics, literature, architecture and language that have widely influenced western society for thousands of years and which continues to influence us today.

Some famous Greeks from ancient history that continue to inspire us include Homer in poetry, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle as philosophers, Pythagoras and Archimedes in mathematics and Hippocrates in Medicine. Alexander the Great was considered one of the greatest military commanders in history; he was responsible for expanding the Greek empire to its largest size and was famous for never losing a battle. These ancient Greek pioneers are household names, easily recognised by most people today. Students have been studying the works of these individuals for thousands of years. Modern doctors continue to acknowledge Hippocrates when they take the Hippocratic Oath.

Contemplating modern architecture and design provides a fascinating opportunity to appreciate the connections that exist between form and style in our own time and those that existed in the past. Architectural form and style has linked disparate cultures over time and space. This is certainly true when considering the legacy of those architectural forms created by the ancient Greeks.

Architecture is more than the construction of buildings. Architecture is when construction becomes an intellectual exercise and shape and form express an idea to meet a specific purpose. Construction becomes intelligent and thus architectural when it is efficient and immediately appears so. If it is the simplest and most advanced type of structure, solving the task set for it, and conceivable in its age, construction will have the quality of perfect appropriateness and will also be the expression of the mechanical knowledge of a culture.

Some key periods in western history that have paid homage to ancient architecture, in particular Greek architecture, have included the Renaissance Period, in Europe and more recently the Greek Revival Period, in the United States. The Renaissance Period originated in Italy and later spread to the rest of Europe from the 14th to the 17th Century. The Greek Revival Period, popular in the newly founded United States occurred between c. 1825 and 1860.

On a much smaller scale, but equally interesting is considering architecture locally. Key local buildings in Launceston, Tasmania include xxxxxxxxxxxxxx. While these buildings have been built relatively recently they have clearly been designed to impress over time. Notably these buildings include elements of architectural form and style that date back to ancient Greece.

Spanning great geographical distances and periods of time, Greek architecture has endured in popularity. The enduring, intellectual nature of Greek architecture speaks to both the mind and the eye, invoking higher thoughts and ideals. In this major study we will explore what is remarkable and unique about Greek architecture and how this architecture has influenced western society through the ages. According to Alain De Botton, we call a building beautiful if it reflects our values, or maybe those values that we feel society lacks. What values have been attributed to Greek architecture that has given this style such lasting influence?

Chapter 1 – Ancient History – Greek Architecture

Greek architecture refers to the architecture of the Greek-speaking peoples who inhabited the Greek mainland and the Peloponnese, the islands of the Aegean Sea, the Greek colonies in Ionia (coastal Asia Minor), and the Magna Gracia (Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily). Greek architecture stretches from c. 900 B.C.E to the first century C.E. Ancient Greece was not a country but many independent city states that adopted Greek culture.

The history of the ancient Greek civilisation can be divided into two eras, the Hellenic era (c. 900 B.C.E ending with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E) and the Hellenistic era (323 B.C.E – AD 30). Substantial works of architecture appeared from approximately 600 B.C.E.

In ancient Greece, life was dominated by religion, so it is not surprising that some of the most famous ancient Greek structures are temples. Unlike earlier cultures, man was no longer perceived as being threatened by nature, but as natures most beloved end product. The natural elements were personified as gods of completely human form, and very human behaviour. This humanistic philosophy demanded respect for human qualities, especially the human intellect. With a focus on respect for the human intellect, ancient Greek culture promoted enquiry, problem solving and logic. Greek architecture embodied this philosophy with a commitment to order and symmetry, a single minded pursuit of perfection and beauty.

Until approximately 650 B.C.E Greek temples were built from materials that didn’t last long, primarily wood and mud brick. However, from 650 B.C.E onwards, or thereabouts, there was renewal of contacts and trade links between Greece and the Middle East, including Egypt, the home of stone architecture. As a result, Greek designers and masons became familiar with Egypt’s stone buildings and construction techniques. This process – know as “petrification” – involved the replacement of wooden structures with stone ones. Fortunately, ancient Greece provided a rich source of limestone and had easy access to high quality white marble.

Stylistically, ancient Greek architecture can be divided into three “orders”: the Doric Order, the Ionic Order and the Corinthian Order. These styles are called “orders” namely because their parts and proportions are co-ordinated and ordered.

Greek architects devised an architectural template for temples and other public buildings. Greek temples were primarily rectangular and peripteral; meaning their exterior sides consisted of rows of columns. There are two types of Greek temple: the Doric, which evolved on the western shore of the Aegean sea and the Ionic, which evolved on the eastern shore. Both types show the same basic plan: a central windowless statue chamber, a porch called the cella, usually with two columns in the front; and a ring of columns around the four sides called the peristyle. The Doric temple was simpler in plan, the Ionic temple larger and with a double peristyle.

The three Greek architectural orders are best defined by the particular type of column and entablature they use. A column consists of a shaft together with its base and capital. The column supports a section of an entablature, which constitutes at the upper horizontal part of a classical building and is itself composed of (from bottom to top) an architrave, frieze and cornice. The form of the capital is the most distinguishing characteristic of a particular order.

Deborah K. Dietsch, Parts of a column, Greek Architecture: Doric, Ionic or Corinthian?, 2016

The Doric Order column is wider at the bottom and has a simple capital and no base. An Ionic Order column stands on a base and has a capital in the form of a double scroll (volute). A Corinthian Order column was usually slimmer, taller, stood on a base and has a richly decorated capital, often with sculpted flower and leaf decoration. All three orders have vertical fluted carving. The Doric Order column has a heavier, solid feel with the height of the column five and a half times greater than the diameter. The Ionic Order column has a lighter and more elegant aspect with the height of the column nine times greater than the diameter.

3 Greek Orders of Architecture, 2016

The Doric Order was the earliest of the Greek Orders and is the order most often applied in famous examples of Greek architecture. The Doric Order was a definite type by the 7th cent B.C.E., however it was considered perfected by the 5th cent B.C.E. It is generally believed that the Doric Order column was derived from an earlier architecture that relied on wood as its main building material. The earliest examples of the Doric Order column were heavier, becoming more slender in the perfected type. The Doric Order was most popular in Mainland Greece.

The Ionic Order originally evolved in the Greek Colonies of the Asia Minor Coast, showing some Asian influences. It wasn’t until after 500 B.C.E. that this order appeared in temples in Mainland Greece.

The Corinthian Order was the latest of the Greek Orders, not reaching its full development until the middle of the 4th cent B.C.E. This order was the least used by the Greeks themselves. This order was particularly popular with the Romans and was used in many monumental pieces of Roman architecture.

Some of the most well known examples of architecture from each of the orders include:

Doric Order – The Parthenon – temple of Athena Parthenos, Greek goddess of wisdom, built on the Acropolis in Athens between 447 and 438 B.C.E.

Ionic Order – The Erechtheum – a temple built on the Acropolis in Athens between 421 and 405 B.C.E.

Corinthian Order – The Temple of Zeus Olympia in Athens was started in the 2nd Century B.C.E and was completed buy the Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd Century A.D.

While the three Greek architectural orders laid down a broad set of rules regarding the design and construction of columns, temples and similar buildings, appearance or the mind of the beholder was the ultimate guiding principal of ancient Greek architecture. The ancient Greeks treated their architecture like sculpture, the priority was to make sure the structure looked perfect to the eye from any angle.

Reason gives form to matter; it brings everything together and leads it to the harmony and unity of the “cosmos.” It was the Greek architects task to demonstrate the rational relationships which ensure harmony and unity. Ancient Greek architecture succeeds in imprinting the laws of cosmic harmony on a building by making its construction technique obey the “principle” of proportion in size. The architect uses his material in order to form perfect proportions, and thus achieve a flawless rationalistic harmony which reveals and teaches the beautiful as symmetrical perfection.

A perfect example of the impressive Greek architectural pursuit of perfection is the Parthenon, directed by the Athenian statesman Pericles and designed by architects Ictinus and Callicrates. The Parthenon measures out to a perfect mathematical formula. All the major and minor parts are broken down and calculated to perfect proportions. The ideal of proportion that was used by Ancient Greek architects in designing temples was not a simple mathematical progression using a square module. The math involved a more complex geometrical progression, the so-called Golden mean. The ratio is similar to that of the growth patterns of many spiral forms that occur in nature such as rams’ horns, nautilus shells, fern fronds, and vine tendrils. While the Parthenon is truly impressive in its proportional perfection, the Greek architects took the design a step further. Appreciating that the ultimate judge was the eye and mind of the beholder, the Greek architects took into account optical illusion and distortion. The Parthenon is one of the worlds most impressive examples of ancient architectural brilliance, an exercise in mathematical precision and yet, as Helen Gardner (American art historian 1908 – 1986), points out, there is hardly a straight line in the building.

Constantinos Iliopoulos, Parthenon, Greece, 2010

The adjustments made in the construction of the Parthenon to counter optical distortion were comprehensive. To the eye, columns tend to look narrower in the middle than at the top or bottom. The Parthenon columns were built with a slight bulge in the middle to make them appear straight. Columns further away from the centre appear thicker, to counteract this columns in the centre were built a little thicker. Spacing between columns appear smaller towards the centre and therefore, centre columns were spaced wider apart. Horizontal lines appear to dip in the middle, and so the

centre portion of the floor was raised accordingly. Columns were slanted inwards so they would meet if they were extended one mile into the sky.

Aaron Maurer, Parthenon: Optical Illusions, 2015

The Parthenon continues to fascinate and impress humanity thousands of years after its construction. Amazingly, it was built in just eight or nine years.

Greek architecture is a celebration of those higher qualities intrinsic to being human. The Greeks worshipped Gods who were given very human looks and very human motivations. In worshipping their Gods, they were in fact glorifying mankind. The Parthenon at Athens, was a shrine built to honour Athena, the Goddess of wisdom, good counsel, war, the defence of towns, intellectual reason, arts and literature. In building the Parthenon, in honour of Athena, the Greeks were demonstrating love and pride in their town, and a hope for its continuing prosperity. Greek architecture wasn’t a means for individual expression, it was a means to express those most noble characteristics that are expressly human. Greek architecture strove to best express those pure intellectual ideals of moderation, balance, perfection, and harmony.

The Athenian, drew no sharp distinction between the ethical and aesthetic spheres; the beautiful and the good were really identical. True morality therefore consisted in rational living, in the avoidance of grossness, disgusting excesses, and other forms of conduct aesthetically offensive.

Temple of Zeus, 2016

The Roman Empire, founded by Augustus Caesar in 27 B.C.E. and lasting for 500 years, reorganised world politics and economics. Replacing Greek democracy and piety with Roman authoritarianism and practicality, great prosperity resulted. Classical Roman architecture was inspired by and ultimately borrowed many Greek architectural ideas, most importantly the Greek concepts of harmony, balance and simplicity. In addition, the Romans adopted the use of columns from the Greeks. The famous Roman Colosseum used all three orders of Greek columns.

Alex Segre, Colosseum, 2014

It was the invention of cement and the ability to organise large scale labour forces that significantly allowed the Romans to improve on Greek design. Cement provided more flexibility, enabling the construction of the beautiful domes and arches that mark classical Roman architecture. While Roman architects incorporated great feats of engineering, they often looked to the Greeks for guidance on beauty, choosing to feature Greek form and style.

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (ca. 90 – 20 B.C.E), most widely known as Vitruvius, was a Roman military engineer and architect. Vitruvius wrote De Architectura libra decem (On Architecture), otherwise known as the Ten Books of Architecture. De Architectura is the oldest surviving book on this topic, providing invaluable insight on Greek and Roman architecture as well as philosophy, mathematics and medicine. Vitruvius was a great admirer of Greek architecture, with Book III focussing on the mathematics and correct proportions of columns and temples and Book IV on the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian architectural orders and the various types of temples and alters.

Showing great synergy with those philosophies behind Greek architecture, Vitruvius says, there are three things to be considered in any building, without which no edifice is worthy of praise: utility or commodity; durability; and beauty… Beauty will be the result of a beautiful form and from the correspondence between the whole and its parts, and of the parts between themselves as well as to the whole; thus, buildings may appear as a single, well finished, body within which all members agree, and all members are necessary for what is desired… (Palladio, I Quattro Libri I, I).

Chapter 2 – Middle Ages – Renaissance Architecture

The Renaissance Period ca. 1400 – 1600, initially flourished in Italy and later spread to the rest of Europe. The Renaissance Period has three sub periods: Early Renaissance ca. 1400 – 1500, High Renaissance ca. 1500 – 1525 and the Late Renaissance ca. 1525 – 1600.

Renaissance Humanism was an intellectual movement which started in the 13th century and came to dominate thought in Europe during the Renaissance. At the core of Renaissance Humanism was the study of classical texts to help break down the predominant medieval mindset. Humanists looked to reintroduce a more human centred outlook whereby humans had the ability to act and not blindly follow a religious plan. Looking backwards and studying ancient texts gave Renaissance Humanists a historically based alternative to current medieval ways of thinking. Petrarch (1304 – 1374) has been called the Father of Italian Humanism. He was a firm believer that classical writings were not just relevant to his own age, but saw in them moral guidance which could reform humanity: a key principle of Renaissance Humanism.

Renaissance Humanistic contributions to science consisted mainly in the recovery of Greek scientific literature which evinced a more accurate and acceptable body of facts and ideas than most medieval scientific work. The intellectuals of antiquity, in contrast to medieval Christians, were relatively unconcerned about the supernatural world and eternity of the soul. They were primarily interested in a happy, adequate, and efficient life here on earth. This pagan attitude had been lost for one thousand years. Humanism directly and indirectly revived the pagan scale of virtues. Another Humanist trend which cannot be ignored was the rebirth of individualism, which, developed by Greece and Rome to a remarkable degree, had been suppressed by the Church and by feudalism in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, the Church officially ignored man and nature.

There were some key causes behind the success of Renaissance Humanism. The invention of the printing press allowed rare classical texts to be mass produced, reach a wider audience and therefore allow greater intellectual discussion and criticism. Renaissance Italy was a shifting mosaic of states, governed by autocratic rulers. Courts looked to stand out for their patronage of the arts and humanities. Ruling families were expected to fund large scale religious and civic projects. Humanist Giovanni Pontano (1446 – 1503) was one of the finest Latin Poets of the Renaissance and an advisor to the kings of Naples. He also wrote a treatise entitled On Splendor, in which he argued that the spending of large sums on precious objects was an expression of a ruler’s merit or virtue. Following ideas first elaborated by Aristotle, Renaissance theorists regarded “magnificence” as an obligation of position and wealth. With political and financial support behind Renaissance Humanism, aspiring artists and architects were amply supported to produce their masterpieces.

Renaissance architecture, strongly influenced by Renaissance Humanism, was a deliberate revival of the ideas and practices of the architects of classical antiquity. Renaissance architects rejected the intricacy and soaring heights of Gothic architecture and sought a return to the simplicity and balanced proportions of classicism. The term “Gothic” was coined originally as a term of abuse by Italian Renaissance artists, to describe the type of Medieval architecture they considered barbaric, as if to suggest it was created by Gothic tribes who had destroyed classical art of Antiquity. Medieval Christianity was marked by its pessimistic view of heaven and hell and the weakness of man. Renaissance architects were more optimistic and sought a return to the humanistic and intellectual properties that were first introduced in ancient Greece and Rome.

Discovery in 1414 of Vitruvius’ De architectura libri decem, in the Monte Cassino abbey, helped re-ignite an appreciation for those principles behind excellence in architecture as advocated by Vitruvius.

Three of the most renown Renaissance architects include Filippo Brunelleschi, Leon Battista Aberti, and Andrea Palladio.

Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446) is widely considered the first Renaissance architect. Brunelleschi travelled to Rome to study the ancient buildings; he was the first since ancient times to use the classical Greek Orders, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian in the correct manner. Brunelleschi often began with a simple unit of measurement whose repetition throughout the building created a sense of harmony. The Ospedale degli Innocenti (Florence, 1419) is a good example of this. The Ospedale degli Innocenti is based on a modular cube, which determines the height and distance between columns, and the depth of each bay.

Ivan Herman, Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence, Italy, 2007

Later pieces of work, including the Old Sacristy at San Lorenzo (commissioned by the Medici family in 1421) and the Pazzi Chapel (commissioned by the Pazzi family in 1429), further demonstrate Brunelleschi’s successful implementation of mathematical modules and geometric formula in his designs. These impressive spaces beautifully express a concept first explored by Brunelleschi in the Renaissance; centrally planned spaces based on squares and circles and perfect geometries.

Alexandra Korey, Pazzi Chapel floor plan and elevation, Florence, Italy, 2016

In addition, Brunelleschi has been credited with rediscovering the principles of linear perspective, known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, but which was lost during the Middle Ages. Using a single vanishing point, toward which all lines on the same plane appear to converge, objects appear smaller as they recede into the distance. These principles allowed artists of his generation to create illusions of three-dimensional space on two dimensional canvases, creating a realistic image not seen previously.

Leon Battista Alberti (1401 – 1472). Alberti was a trained humanist, an accomplished architect, musician and art theorist.

It was in the Este Court in Ferrara in 1438 that Alberti was encouraged and commissioned by the Marchese Leonello to restore the classic text of Vitruvius. Alberti continued his study of classical architecture and engineering, enabling his appointment as architectural advisor when Nicholas V became pope in 1447. Together Nicholas V and Alberti collaborated on many building projects in Renaissance Rome. It was to Nicholas V that Alberti dedicated in 1452 the monumental theoretical result of his long study of Vitruvius. This was his De Re Aedificatoria (Ten Books on Architecture), not a restored text of Vitruvius but a wholly new work, that won him his reputation as the “Florentine Vitruvius”. It became a bible of Renaissance architecture, for it incorporated and made advances upon the engineering knowledge of antiquity, and it grounded the stylistic principles of classical art in a fully developed aesthetic theory of proportion and harmony.

The Basilica of Sant’Andrea is considered to be one of Alberti’s most complete pieces of work. The Basilica of Sant’Andrea was commissioned by Ludovico III Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, with building commencing in 1462. Even though this impressive structure wasn’t finished for 328 years, it is believed to be primarily completed following Alberti’s design. This, his final piece of architectural work, demonstrated Alberti’s commitment to capturing the harmonious order of the world. The Basilica of Sant’Andrea fully expressed Alberti’s knowledge and appreciation of ancient architecture. Alberti’s careful coordination of elements throughout the entire structure, interior and exterior alike, gave Ludovico Gonzaga the distinction of being patron of the first truly monumental, classicising structure of the fifteenth century. Of all Alberti’s buildings, perhaps Sant’Andrea is the one that best fulfils the following statement by Alberti on the desirable balance between decoration and structure: “One thing above all which a temple should have, in my opinion, is that all its visible qualities should be of such a kind that it is difficult to judge whether… they contribute more to its grace and aptness or to its stability”.

Stefano Scansani, Basilica di Sant’Andrea, 2014

Andrea Palladio, originally named Andrea di Pietro della Gondola (1508 – 1580), was born in Padua, Republic of Venice, Italy. Palladio, regarded as the greatest architect of 16th century northern Italy, is most known for his designs for palaces and villas, also for his treatise quattro libri dell’architettura (1570: The Four Books of Architecture).

Palladio’s quattro libri dell’architettura was a summary of his studies of classical architecture. He used a number of his own designs to exemplify the principles of Roman design. His designs are marked with dimensions according to a system of mathematical ratio. The ratios employed are based upon the musical intervals that were in use in Palladio’s day, and it was believed that numerical equivalents would result in a beautiful building, since it would be designed within a universal mathematical order.

While Palladio designed churches and a theatre, it is for the designs of his palaces and villas that he is most recognised. He was the first architect to systematise the plan of a house and consistently use the ancient Greco-Roman temple front as a portico, or roofed porch supported by columns. In adapting the classical temple front to his villas, Palladio reasoned he was ensuring great dignity of entrance. One of Palladio’s most famous buildings the Villa Rotonda, formally known as the Villa Almerico-Capra, has four facades equalling four entrances.

Victoria C., Villa Rotonda, 2012

The Villa Rotonda (begun in 1567), initially commissioned by Canon Paolo Almerico, is a square domed building aligned with the cardinal points of a compass. Its popular name is derived from the plan, a circle within a square. Each of the four sides of the square has a wide flight of stairs leading to a portico with six Ionic columns. The design of this stunning building is completely symmetrical. Palladio’s dedication to harmony through mathematical consonance has produced a design that is both serene and striking.

Chapter 3 – Modern History – American Domestic Architecture

Some interesting periods within American domestic architecture that have direct links back to ancient Greek (and Roman) architecture and therefore Renaissance architecture include the Georgian (1700 – 1780), the Federal (1780 – 1820) and the Greek Revival (1825 – 1860) periods.

Georgian architecture was influenced by English architects including Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, who in turn drew inspiration from the Renaissance and in particular Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books of Architecture. Symmetrical, two story houses with a centre-entry facade were popular in England which in turn influenced the colonies. Georgian architecture got its name from a succession of English kings named George (beginning in 1715). By the early 1700’s the upper classes in the colonies were beginning to embrace the European concept of gentility, looking to maintain order of dress, speech and behaviour. Status was appropriately displayed by the orderly symmetry of Georgian architecture.

The Federal period was also typified by strict symmetry with houses being in a box shape with doors and windows arranged in a formal pattern. This period modified the simple box shape by adding wings, particularly in high end examples. The Federal style had a refined delicacy to its design as compared to the Georgian architectural style which was more ponderous and heavy. A key architect credited with the refinement of the Federal style is Robert Adam (1728 – 1792). Robert Adam had traveled to study classical Greek and Roman monuments in person rather than relying on the interpretation found in buildings from the Renaissance period. Charles Bullfinch (1763 – 1844) is credited with introducing the Federal style to America following his own European tour. Examples of Federal architecture are most often found on the eastern seaboard of America, particularly prosperous port cities including Boston, Maine, New York and Washington D.C.

With archaeological investigations in the early 1800’s focusing on Greece (as the mother of Rome), and given American resentment against the British after the war of 1812, American architects encouraged what is now known as Greek Revival architecture. It was the classic form of the Parthenon which inspired the design for the First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia (1797). The National style, as it became known, was popular for public buildings, churches, banks and town halls as well as domestic houses. Typical Grecian elements included columns, porches and facades that were strictly symmetrical. Often painted white to resemble marble, Greek Revival buildings imparted a sense of solid, timeless elegance, instilling confidence in the success of the future.

Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the first volume of The Antiquities of Athens. In appointing Benjamin Henry Latrobe as surveyor of public buildings in the United States, Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in introducing Greek Revival Architecture. Latrobe had claimed that “I am a bigoted Greek in the condemnation of Roman architecture”. Students of Latrobe’s, including Robert Mills designed the Washington Monument, the Treasury Building and the Monumental Church; William Strickland designed the Second Bank of the United States.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial was modelled after the Pantheon of Rome, featuring Ionic Order Columns. Architect John Russell Pope took into account Jeffersons own architectural tastes when designing the Memorial. The Lincoln Memorial (a monument to honour the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln) is a building in the form of a Greek Doric Order temple.

Greece, the birthplace of democracy, provided inspiration for a young nation looking to unapologetically celebrate its potential for a long and prosperous future.

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