Essay: 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.

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