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Greek Factors

( Originally Published 1910 )



GRECIAN activities in architectural development grew on the foundations of philosophical and practical analysis of constructive work, which preceded them. We have all heard of the buildings of ancient Athens as the supreme creation of their kind, and most of us have doubtless wondered why this is so and how it came to be.

Athens is the birthplace of all our modern architecture. Its style of building has come to be known as the classic, and this style, modified but little by various transplantings and reinterpretations, is the dominant style, if there is one, in our own country to-day. Our so-called colonial style is classic, nearly all our important government buildings are designed on the basis of the Grecian temple, and there is at present a marked general tendency to build the home of financial institutions, libraries, museums, post-offices, and court-houses in some interpretation of this style. It is thus obvious that Greek architecture has a peculiar fitness for our time, and this significance will grow clearer as we advance.

It is our purpose in this chapter to discover the human influences that carried classic architecture to its zenith in the "Golden Age of Pericles," a period that has profoundly influenced the culture of all Europe and of these United States.

The Greeks before the age of Pericles had developed the science of architecture through its wooden and terra-cotta transitional periods of Assyrian ancestry, and had formulated laws based on constructional necessity and custom, many of which are applicable to-day. Their architects had the greatest freedom, being considered as above both sculptor and painter, for they did not work with their hands. They studied under the great philosophers, collected libraries, and travelled extensively in the Greek colonies and in foreign countries.

Chersiphron seems to have been the leading architect of those who immediately preceded the age of Pericles. He built the Temple. of Diana at Ephesus in the sixth century B.C., a period of change from the earlier methods, and an era of discoveries and new ideas in building. Ictinus worked with Phidias, the sculptor, at the period when Grecian architecture, and the allied arts of sculpture and decoration, had reached its perfection under Pericles in the fifth century B.C. Later, under Alexander, the Greek Dinocrates, architect of the new city of Alexandria, became the leader. But it required something more than the ability of an artist, or group of artists, to achieve any really overpowering work of genius. The inspiration of a common and compelling ideal was lacking in Greece until the days of Pericles, and therefore the architecture before his time is of interest chiefly to students wishing to trace the preparatory development for the outburst of the Golden Age.

The Persian wars, which gave us Marathon and Thermopylae, placed Greece at the head of the world and Athens at the head of Greece, according to the Greek historian Diodorus. This terrific war developed the cohesion of the Greek tribes as nothing else could have done, and it especially developed the fighting power of the already influential Athenians. It is one of the most dramatic periods in the world's history, especially when examined as to its effect in producing a period of creative culture that we still must marvel at, but it can be but lightly touched upon here.

Toward the end of the Persian war we find Athens practically in charge of the defensive forces, and levying upon the other cities and colonies tribute of ships and men for the defence of the nation. When the war ended in 48o B.C., with the rout of Xerxes, Athens was still levying tribute, and it had become money instead of ships and men. So we have the spectacle of a city grown suddenly rich, powerful, and prideful, and getting rapidly richer, by a heavy dole of taxes upon her numerous dependencies and by a rapidly increasing foreign trade. The result of this dangerous condition upon the Athenians is doubtful until we recognize the dominance of the Ionic temperament in the city. With all their pride of mastery by strength in war, the Athenians were a beauty-loving, a poetic, an idealistic people. Their campaigns had brought them a vast amount of looted treasure which in itself was a stimulus to artistic endeavor, for it comprehended the very cream of the world's art wealth at that time, outside, of course, the vast hidden treasures of India and China.

But it remained for an individual to crystallize the energies of Athens into a creative production the wonder of which inspired Milton's sonorous tribute:

"Where on the Aegean shore a city stands,
Built nobly, pure the air and light the soil;
Athens, the eye of Greece, mother of Arts and Eloquence."

It is a truism of historical philosophy that the apices of human achievement have invariably been made possible by the life of a single individual. As the foundation of every movement of human progress, you will find some dominant personality. A fact that repeats itself from Moses to Abraham Lincoln through the centuries. The genius of Pericles gave to civilization the Golden Age of Athens.

This fact colors all history with strange and unexpected radiances. It tinges the most technical of its departments with an intense human interest that links it with ourselves. We have already avowed our intention of trying to make this plain in our studies of architecture. To me the evolution of architectural styles has always been a subject of fascinating interest, but it is less so because as an architect this knowledge is part of my technical equipment than because my studies have al-ways brought me face to face with human events, with the march of civilization, the dawning of new ideas in the mind of man under stress of conditions, and with individuals of great force or great genius who are otherwise very much like ourselves.

What I have said of the influence of individuals on all great movements is peculiarly true of Greece's Golden Age of Science—or, if you prefer it, Art—and Idealism.

After the end of the Persian war, Athens continued as a democracy with two political parties, the one in power that of the aristocrats, the other that of the plain people. Cimon, the leader of the ruling faction, was an aristocrat of the hide-bound conservative sort familiar in all times and countries, including our own. His opponent was Pericles, a distinguished example of a rare and admirable type. He was as blue-blooded as Cimon, exquisitely aristocratic in appearance, in manners, and in tastes, but broad enough and clever enough to have a genuine sympathy and affection for the plebeians. He was the original "workingman's friend."

Pericles was a brilliant orator, a profound thinker, a musician, and an art lover of the finest discrimination. In many respects he was in advance of his time. As a practical statesman he feared his own aristocratic tendencies, and sought to democratize himself by mingling in a dignified way with the plain people. He consistently pursued the policy of giving the people more and more personal freedom, and of arousing their higher patriotism and self-respect by turning over to them an active part in the government. One of his innovations was to pay the legislators and jurymen, so that poor men could afford to serve. He was a vigorous advocate of popular education, going so far as to train hundreds of Athenians in seamanship each year at the expense of the state. He encouraged public speaking of an instructive sort, fought superstition, which rested like a cloud on the Greeks up to that time, and provided public entertainments of an advanced character. To keep up the standard of Athenian citizenship, he carried out colonization projects for the vagabond unemployed who always thronged the cities in those war-like times, and he spent much money in public works to give livelihood to the better element of the laboring classes.

We thus see, under the incomparable Pericles, the creation of new and vastly higher ideals and their inculcation among the masses of a susceptible, high-strung, and creative people. We naturally expect to find this people building temples to these new ideals that would give adequate expression of the loftier thought. And we are not disappointed.

As Pericles was the political and ethical inspiration of the Golden Age, so was he the inspiration of the scientific and artistic activities that record the change. Athens was thus rarely favored, in that, having secured a ruler of true greatness, it did not have to look elsewhere to have his achievements immortalized. Pericles took the initiative in the encouragement of all the arts, but it was especially due to him that the Acropolis was crowned with the group of monumental buildings which remain to this day one of the supreme achievements of man in architecture. To what extent this was due to the personal taste and knowledge of the First Citizen it is not possible to deter-mine definitely. It may have been the spontaneous and inevitable expression of the marvellous civic sentiment that is so marked a keynote of the period.

But it was the enlightened attitude and enthusiasm of Pericles for the arts that brought poets and sculptors and builders from all parts of the Old World to Athens, and that developed an activity resulting in native talent of unexampled splendor. The achievements of this time are the more amazing when the brief length of the productive period is considered. The Persian war ended, as we have seen, in 480 B.C., and although Athens began making gigantic commercial strides soon after, it was nearly thirty years later when Pericles began to make himself felt as a political and social power in the city. As he died in 429, his active civic life was little more than twenty years, and this was the length of the Golden Age. For, after the death of Pericles, Athens found itself in the hands of professional politicians who took little heed of the patriotic and far-sighted plans of the Olympian, as he was called, and soon involved the Grecian metropolis in such a turmoil of internal and external strife that art and science, high thinking, and high living declined. There was only one Golden Age for Greece, but it laid the foundations for the artistic progress of the whole Western world.

At first glance it may not be apparent that our buildings of today bear any relation to the glorious temples of the Greek Acropolis, but even a hasty comparison will reveal the line of descent. If the reader will at this time accept a primary lesson in structural architecture, I suggest that he make an examination of his own house while in process of construction. Any ordinary wooden building will serve this purpose, for the rules to be illustrated are the same. It is best, however, to find one in which the framework is visible. Or he may visit with me a New Hampshire barn built in the early sixties, which is an excellent example of primitive building principles—in fact, of the principles universal in all buildings using perpendicular supports with horizontal ties on the post and lintel construction. This, as we have seen, will include not only the homes and temples of pre-historic man and the ante-bellum barn of my old North Country friend Lovejoy, but also the most majestic creations of the Athenian architects.

Let us examine the barn, and at the same time your own house, if you will. Resting on its stone foundation is a boundary frame of heavy timbers, called the sill. This sill is merely a resting - place for the main upright supports, used as a tie, and to prevent the ends of the posts rotting by coming in contact with the damp stone wall or splitting under the superimposed load. The uprights are heavy, and placed at regular intervals. They are protected from splitting at the top also by a block of wood, the, progenitor of the capital, or head, of the Greek column. Upon these rests the lintel, or plate, which is the upper duplicate of the sill, and is also of heavy timber, as it must support the superstructure. The basis of this super-structure, or roof, is the truss, a triangular frame of timbers set at intervals from wall to wall of the building and giving its shape to the roof. Upon the chords or upper timbers of the truss smaller timbers, called purlins, run lengthwise. These are for the support of the roof rafters, which, of course, run from the plate, or lintel, to the ridge, or peak, of the roof. The projection of these rafters beyond the wall form the eaves, or cornice.

We thus have three sets of beams running lengthwise—sill, plate, and purlin; one set of uprights, the posts, and two across—trusses and rafters—arranged for horizontal and perpendicular support, and also serving to tie the building together. These elements are essential to any building of consequence to-day, and they were used together before the time of Greece.

Now the roof being on and the walls covered up to the lintel, we find an open space which will be the height of the truss timber all around between the lintel and the first purlin, divided into regular lengths by the ends of the truss-beams. In our barn, and in all modern buildings, these spaces are boarded up. In early times, as among primitive peoples today, the buildings were heated by open fires in the middle of the floor, and these spaces were left open to let out the smoke. They, however, made convenient receptacles for the trophies of the hunt, or of war, and seem to have been regularly used as repositories or hanging-places for skulls, skins, shields, and arms, and in our barn for straps, bolts, bottles, scythes, blades, or what-not. A most curious survival of this is found in the Greek temples. Here this space, with the truss or beam ends showing, became the frieze. The beam ends were duplicated, ornamented, and called triglyphs, while the intervening spaces, or metopes, were filled with slabs carved in relief with skulls, or shields, or trophies of the chase and of war, a practice that is continued by architects in the classic to this day.

The relation between the primitive dwelling, the American barn, your own house, and the Greek temple is quite as intimate in all parts as in this. Let us examine the Parthenon as a typical example of the Greek classic, to get a clearer idea of what the main resemblances are.

With the barn in mind, our first impression of the Parthenon is that it is wholly different in being surrounded by a row of round stone columns. We must remember, however, that the primitive house was not walled up necessarily with boards on the outside, but with skins of animals stretched and tied between the posts, which were merely trunks of trees. When, however, wooden walls came into use, it is as likely as not that they were placed inside the posts, primitive man as we know him not being unduly willing to sacrifice his own pleasure merely to secure the good opinion of his neighbor.

In the Parthenon we really have a comparatively close resemblance to the primitive house, the main difference being in the use of stone instead of wood, in the elaboration of decorative detail, and in the consummate balance of proportions. Structurally, the resemblance to the American barn is also curiously close.

Here, for example, is the sill upon which the columns rest. On them, but separated as in the wooden house by a block, or cap, is the lintel, now called an architrave, and thereafter is the truss-beam, or triglyph, one over each column and repeated between columns at regular intervals, to give an added impression of stability. Between the triglyphs, as we have seen, are the decorative metopes, filling the spaces no longer needed for the escape of smoke.

Without going too deeply into the decorative detail of the Parthenon, an undertaking that would carry us far off the route of our peregrinations, I should like to speak here of a decorative treatment of triglyphs which presents a Greek refinement extremely characteristic of the period. These beam ends, delicately fluted with perpendicular channels, are not allowed to end at the top of the architrave as if they rested on it, but are made to appear below a narrow fillet, or band, in the face of the lintel itself, as if set in for greater stability. The value of this is not, in the stone, structural, however, but evolutional, showing logical methods of tying truss to wooden plate, to avoid side slip. It serves to link the motives of frieze and architrave together in a way that is most subtly pleasing, an effect that is enhanced by the added decorative detail of rows of guttae, or conventionalized raindrops, under the fillet. It was the treatment of such delicate details as this that gave the Greeks pre-eminence.

The ends of the rafters of the wooden house are represented by modillions, molded brackets, or cut blocks of wood, which, while appearing to support the projection of the cornice over the entablature and column, are really merely decorative modifications of no value except to enhance the impression of strength and the richness of light and shade effects. The cornice itself was developed to a considerable degree, but this has little relation to the wooden prototype, as it is almost entirely a decorative development. One feature of it, however, is worth notice. The ornaments which project from the face of the various moldings for shadow spots, which give value to plain surfaces or low relief decorations, were invariably placed over the vertical superimposition of triglyph and modillion upon the column, carrying out the vertical effect to which I have already alluded.

These cornices were made up of grouped moldings and bands of ornaments. The dentil (from a word meaning tooth) showed a continuous row of small blocks separated by a space equal to about two-thirds of the face of the block. "The egg and dart" was a series of egg shaped forms, separated by a point resembling a spear-head carved on a quarter - round molding. An inter-laced ornament called the honeysuckle pattern is much used, and a series of cut lines taking the form of the molding somewhat similar to the egg and dart is characteristic. The soffit, or under side of the overhang of the cornice, was divided into squares decorated with ornaments and with panels.

We have, as you remember, the architrave, or lintel, which was lined horizontally with plain bands, the frieze with the perpendicular triglyph and the cornice with its various parts—the whole, an entablature which gave to the classic its distinction as a horizontal type of architecture. You must remember, also, that in composing this group of decorated and plain bands and moldings the value of each member depended on its relation to its neighbor, and on the effect of light and shadow.

The friezes and cornices were richly decorated, and a considerable latitude was given the builder for individual expression therein. But the chief concern was the column. The most loving care and the supremest skill of Greece's greatest builders must have been devoted to its perfection and its effective use.

In its long and slow development up to Greek times the builders wrought from their failures many set rules for its proportions and decoration, these differing in detail, of course, in the various countries. But none of the pre - Greek columns are of sufficient excellence to influence directly any of the architecture that has a bearing on our own. The Greek development of the column is the architectural high-C of the Golden Age, and its individualization makes a sort of keynote to all their architectural orders.

It is for these various reasons that the columns, with their caps, form the basis for the classification of all classic buildings.

The simplest of these forms is that used in the Parthenon, and is called the Doric. The Dorians, from whom it got its name, were a branch of the great Greek family scattered from Sicily to the shores of Asia Minor (the Spartans were Dorians). Unlike most of the other Grecians, they were a stern and apparently puritanical sort, much given to a severe dignity, worshipping austere gods and building grim temples to harsh ideals. Thus the Doric order is of the simplest and most dignified construction. The column has no base, and in height is but eight times the diameter (the sturdiest of all the Grecian forms), its use giving a powerful impression of solidity and strength. The square block that capped the post of the wooden building as a resting-place for the lintel is still a plain, square block in the Doric, it having acquired nothing but the Greek name of abacus, destined to become its technical designation for all time. Between the "neck" of the shaft and the abacus, however, another member has crept in. It is a supporting molding larger than the shaft, and intended as a resting-place for the abacus. In its simplest Greek form its shape is a graceful and irregular upward and outward curve with one or more delicately incised fillets or bands where it meets and starts from the neck of the shaft. This molding, which is called an echinus, is of value in carrying the eyes from the slender shaft gradually into the broad, heavy superstructure, thus giving an added impression of stability.

You can see how apt an expression of the Dorian character the Doric column is, and the same is true of all other parts of the buildings designed in this style. While the Athenian character was in the main far from Dorian, there was a stern side to the idealism of this city of warriors. Therefore, they built temples expressing ideas em-bodying strength and solemnity in the Doric order. The Parthenon, which was a temple to the sovereign deity of the city, is, as we have seen, a superb example of this order.

When the Athenians built to some less serious ideal or for a lighter purpose, they used a more graceful and rather more ornate style of architecture, now called the Ionic. You will remember that we found colonies of Ionian Greeks flourishing on the shores of Asia Minor, and that they were a people of sunny disposition, lovers of grace and beauty, poetry, and music. These people, by reason of their Eastern habitat, must have come into contact with the Oriental peoples (Babylonians, Persians, and Assyrians), and when their cities were captured and destroyed by Croesus and because of their trade connections many of them returned to the Grecian mainland filled with the art traditions and forms of the East. Thus, with that strange, instinctive adaptability of mankind, we find Athens building her less dignified or smaller temples in a style expressive of the Ionian temperament, and we find in this style a strong infusion of Oriental motives, refined, of course, to the Greek standard. This or-der is to-day called the Ionic. It hardly needs writ-ten history to decide that this type was originally the work of Ionian builders from the colonies in Asia Minor.

The Ionic building was structurally identical with the Doric, but was generally richer in applied decoration. Moldings were used more freely, and Oriental motifs are found in profusion. The column—corroborating the statement of its value in classification--is distinctive. The height of the shaft is from nine to ten times the diameter, and rests upon a base consisting of a supporting series of moldings which taken together are in height half the diameter of the column —a considerable development from the wooden block of the primitive building.

It is in the head of the column, or capital, again that the chief distinguishing feature of the style is found. The whole history of classic architecture reflects itself in the kind and degree of ornamentation on the head of the column. The Ionic capital has the abacus, or block, but it is generally ornamented with carved forms repeated in the manner of a border. There is no echinus, but, instead, what is called a voluted member. The volute is a downward curled scroll at either side of the capital, and the two 'volutes on each column are joined across the front and rear of the capital in such manner as to suggest, though rather remotely, a cushion (Fig. i2). The change from the round column to the square abacus allowed this volute to show only on two sides, front and rear. The curve connecting these faces carries out the cushion idea. It is as if the luxury-loving Easterners (for the motif is Assyrian) had revolted against the austerity of the block, and in an odd hit of architectural symbolism had given to the repose of their buildings a suggestion of the physical comfort they enjoyed so much themselves.

The origin of the third of the Greek orders, the Corinthian is rather more obscure than the other two, although the name selected for it by some later scientist suggents its origin in Corinth, another Greek city of luxurious living and florid idealism. It is, however, unquestionably Eastern in origin, its crude ancestor being frequent in Egypt. In Greece it came as a development in response to the demand for more ornate decoration. The Ionic column had one serious fault, in that, when looked at from the side, it lacked any decorative suggestion. There was need for a round capital,rich in ornamentation, that would appear equally well from all points. The Corinthian filled that need. The capital is elongated to the diameter of the shaft at its base. From the "necking"—or raised band at the top of the shaft—two rows of conventionalized acanthus leaves rise (acanthus has the characteristics of a lettuce leaf or of a skunk cabbage), one behind the other, and from behind these come four small volutes, again showing the Assyrian influence, while between these is another conventionalized plant form. The volutes come at the corners of the abacus, which thence curves inward instead of retaining its, straight lines, as in the other styles. The Corinthian is used chiefly for porticos and small buildings, where its delicacy of ornamentation is brought near enough to the eyes to be seen in detail.

One other characteristic of the Greek column must be mentioned again. This is the perpendicular fluting of the shafts, done to accentuate the effect of height. In the Greek Doric order the flutes meet, whereas in the other two styles they are separated by a flat, narrow band, or fillet. The entasis, or gradual narrowing of the shaft toward the neck to overcome the optical illusion of greater width at the top, approximately, is the same in all columns.

This, then, is the basis of classic Greek architecture, an art that spread, owing to the activity of maritime Athens and her colonies, throughout the entire world. From this one small, ancient city, and from the product of practically but a single generation, came that which has subtly dominated all architecture to this day. So vital was this inspired product that when in later days degenerate Greece fell into the hands of the Romans, then in the ascendant, the conquerors capitulated wholly to Greek science and art.

From Greek architecture, you remember, all the styles that we recognize and use have developed. While the pure Greek is like something apart, so coldly intellectual in its ultra-refinement that it does not perhaps move as much as some more humanly faulty styles, its influence is ubiquitous. I have just mentioned the strength of this influence in early America. Much so-called "Colonial" architecture is almost entirely Grecian, having been introduced into this country by way of England after 1800.

Many of our most beautiful manor houses are in this style.

The active building period a decade or two before the Civil War gave us several examples of sturdy granite buildings in the Greek—notably the old Astor House in New York (to the excellent Doric porch of which I recommend your study). The use of close-grained, sombre granite in these buildings is intimately suggestive of the type of men who followed so studiously the laws of the ancient builders.

While this style did not continue in use in the large cities, there are very interesting survivals of its traditions to be found scattered throughout the country in the smaller towns and cities east of the Alleghanies.

I have seen in farm-houses far off the main highways some most beautiful Greek doorways with columns and pilasters in nicest proportion, which could have been built to fill no requirements save that of the builder's pride and joy in good work.

Many of my readers will remember the New England type of last-century builders--broad-shouldered, stocky, and with closely cropped gray beard, usually deacons in a church of harsh ideals. The rugged temperament and Puritan training found appropriate expression in these uncompromising laws of the Greek builders. I have discussed building details and design with the descendants of these men, and have found that if let alone in building a small town house, or even a barn, they will unconsciously give Greek proportions to the corner-boards and the door and window trim. It is only necessary to keep your eyes open in any small town of New England to see examples of this kind of work in the village church, or in the house of the storekeeper, or in the outlying farm-houses.

In these modern days, and by our most modern architects, there are numerous examples of the use of Greek in bank buildings. The Union Square Savings Bank, New York (Fig. 17), has the Greek delicacy of projection in the moldings, and in the proportions of the cornice, the pilasters, and panels. Notice the similarity between the panelling of this building and that of the old Custom House, Wall Street, New York, a building in the Ionic type built in 1842 by Isaiah Rogers (Fig. 18). The old Colonnade on Lafayette Place was perhaps the best example of a Greek colonnade in this country (Fig. 10. Part of it has unfortunately had to make way for lofts, but its beauty has been well preserved in the etching by Mielatz.

The entrance to the old Astor House in New York is one of the best examples of Greek Doric in the country, though I have grave doubts that this is appreciated by the hungry business men of New York who pass through this portal daily in their search for a quick lunch.

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