Sunday, August 10, 2008

Orders of architecture

To the ancient Greeks, the word “cosmos” conveyed the idea of “the garnished universe,” the “world set in order.” They believed that creation was the act of a great Demiurge who brought structure and form out of preexistent chaos, an ordering that permeated the physical universe. It was therefore perceptible in nature as a ubiquitous mathematical proportional system, a harmony in everything that could be seen or heard. To be in accord with that harmony, their own creations—music, sculpture, architecture—needed to correspond to cosmic order. Their great architectural achievement was to seek for that truth and express it in the development of three systems of building, each with its distinctive proportions, detail, and form, according to the culture that generated it. Those systems are known as the Doric, Ionic, and—little used by the Greeks—Corinthian orders of architecture. Each comprises a column with a base (in the case of the latter two), shaft, and capital, and a supported entablature, consisting of architrave, frieze, and cornice. Each was governed by an evolving system of proportions, linked to the module, the base diameter of the column; each thus imposed architectural order.

The Doric order developed in the regions speaking a Dorian dialect, that is, mainland Greece and the colonies in southern Italy, Sicily, and further west. It is clearly derived from an earlier timber architecture, and when the transition was made from wood to stone in order to produce more appropriate, durable buildings for the gods, the form and details, having gained a kind of sanctity, were translated to the new material, right down to the fixing pegs. The sixth-century Temple of Hera (the so-called basilica) at Paestum, Italy, is a well-preserved example of the archaic form, with its squat proportions, coarse moldings, and heavy entablature. The classical quest for cosmic harmony led to refinements of form and detail until the Dorian Greeks achieved what appears to have been a satisfactory conclusion in the proportional balance and visual nuances of the Parthenon, Athens (447–432 b.c.).

The baseless column of the Doric order, rising directly from the temple platform (stylobate) made necessary by the uneven terrain had a tapering shaft with twenty shallow flutes separated by sharp arrises. The capital consisted of the convex echinus molding crowned with a flat rectangular slab (abacus). The plain architrave of stone blocks, with a molding at the top decorated with raised panels (regulae) and round projections (guttae), spanned from column to column. Above it was the frieze, consisting of double-grooved slabs (triglyphs) alternating with plain panels (metopes). The metopes and the relief sculptures that usually decorated them were painted in bright colors. The order was crowned by an overhanging molded cornice decorated with flower or figure sculptures.

The Greeks continued to use the Doric order until about the second century b.c. But it presented several difficulties. First, with no base to protect it, the column was subjected to wear and accidental damage. Second, it was extremely difficult to make: not only did the columns taper but they were also carved with a slight swelling (entasis) about halfway up to make them look straight. Coupled with the need to maintain sharp arrises between the flutes, that demanded very skillful masons’ work. Third, the placement of the triglyph was problematic. Because it was impossible to locate one over the center of each column and at the midpoint of the spaces between the columns, the appearance was regarded as unwieldy.

The Ionic order, which was fully developed by the sixth century b.c., was created by Greeks who established colonies along the southwestern coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey). The most remarkable Ionic building in the region was the huge Artemiseion at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, commenced some time around 400 b.c. By then, the Ionic order had been long established on the Greek mainland, and the Erechtheion (421–406 b.c.) and the Temple of Athena Nike (427–424 b.c.), both on the Athenian Acropolis, are fine examples. It is of more slender proportion than the Doric. The molded base of the column rested on a stylobate, and the shaft, with twenty-four deep flutes (separated by narrow flat surfaces rather than sharp arrises), carried a capital—usually carved from a single block—with symmetrical spiral scrolls (volutes) flanking an echinus molding ornamented with an egg-and-dart pattern and supporting an abacus.
The earliest Ionic capitals had rosettes in place of volutes, and the origins of the spiral pattern are obscure. Suggested sources have been rams’ horns, bulls’ horns, the foliage pattern of palm trees, and even the helical form of some seashells. Whatever the case, unlike the Doric, the capital was best viewed from front or back, and that presented a difficulty for designers, especially where the row of columns turned the corner of a building. Then, the outer volute on the corner column was turned outward at 45 degrees to make it “right” from two sides—a compromise, not a best solution.

The Ionic entablature had an architrave comprising three bands, each projecting beyond the one beneath; the highest was narrower than the other two. Above was a continuous frieze, usually encrusted with sculpture, and at the top sat a cornice enriched with dentil moldings, a corona, and a cyma molding.

The Corinthian was the most ornate order of architecture. It was also the latest, reaching its mature form around the middle of the fourth century b.c. Apart from its distinctive and elaborate capital—a sort of inverted bell, covered with carvings of acanthus leaves—it is otherwise very similar to the Ionic order, although the proportions are more slender.
The oldest known example is in the cella of the Temple of the Epicurean Apollo at Bassae (ea. 420 b.c.). Among the chief examples are the circular structure known as the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates (334 b.c.), the earliest surviving building with external Corinthian, columns, and the octagonal Horologion of Andronicos (also known as the Tower of the Winds), with two Corinthian porches (before 50 b.c.). Both are in Athens. Also in that city was the massive Temple of the Olympian Zeus, started about 530 b.c. and completed by Hadrian in the second century a.d. It was perhaps the most notable of all Corinthian temples; it was certainly the largest. The Corinthian order was seldom used by the Greeks, although it solved the problems that had been presented by the Doric and Ionic orders. However, it was enthusiastically developed in the Roman world.

The Romans copied Greek art and architecture, captivated by the forms rather than the cosmology that generated them. They employed the Corinthian order more than any other, cosmetically modifying it by changing the column base, adding complicated carved embellishments to the cornice, and producing all manner of fanciful variations to the capital, with showy leafage and sometimes grotesque human and animal figures. The so-called Composite order, attributed to the Romans by sixteenth-century writers, was simply a distortion of the Greek precedents, combining Ionic volutes with Corinthian acanthus motifs. The Romans also used the Ionic order but seem to have been too impatient to achieve the refinements of the Doric, inventing their own version. The Roman Doric, used infrequently, was also influenced by a slender column (with a base) developed by the Etruscans. The Tuscan order, known only from the account of the first-century architectural writer Vitruvius, closely resembled the Roman Doric.

The classical orders were eclipsed by the rise of Christianity, although they persisted in vestigial forms. An interest in Vitruvius was awakened in fifteenth-century Italy, and architects, captivated by all things Roman, made archeological studies of ancient ruins and employed the orders, often in an intuitive, uninformed way. Leone Battista Alberti and other more derivative architectural writers, including Serlio, Scamozzi, Vignola, and Palladio, urged the systematic application of the Roman—not the Greek—orders, with pedantic rules of proportion. Later, beyond Italy, the Frenchmen Philibert Delorme and Claude Perrault and the Englishman William Chambers wrote theoretical treatises about the architectural orders. Subsequently, during the artistic period known as the Greek Revival, strict conformity to the proportions of the original Greek models was practiced. Modern architecture had no place for the orders, but with the rise of postmodern architecture in the second half of the twentieth century, they appeared again, often so abstracted and deformed as to be barely recognizable. The American architect Charles Moore even invented one to flank his lively Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans (1977–1978); he named it the Neon order.

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