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Comparison In Architecture

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Study will show that at the time of the Gothic and the Renaissance revivals, the manifestation in buildings of the principle of putting large numbers of like dimensions with like, again came to be considered necessary. It is considered so in all great architecture.

In case our own builders ignore this fact, we can expect but little from them. They may turn out of their planing mills or stone quarries, pillars that look like those of Greek temples, or arches that look like those of Gothic cathedrals; they may discard these older models altogether, and try as hard as savages to be original by bringing together discordant mixtures of shapes, sizes, styles, and colors, and doom to eternal infamy the names of Queens Anne and Elizabeth by calling their hotch-potch after them; but no great architecture or school of architecture can be produced in this way. Great architecture is founded upon principles that are in the constitution of nature and of mind, the applicability of which all men recognize. Nor can they be ignored or neglected in any product of art without lessening the force of its appeal to human interest.-Idem, XIII.

Every list of figures that we have found proves . . . that the Greek builder was careful to preserve the appearance of putting like dimensions with like. This principle applied to all the parts of a structure would determine its pro-portions as a whole. If, in time, laws like those mentioned by Vitruvius arose, it is more than likely that most of these in the forms in which they have been preserved, were after-thoughts, derived from what, at a period when architecture was no longer in its prime, was discovered by measuring the buildings of the fathers. Why it should ever have passed its prime and begun to decline is easy to perceive. When any form of art is young, men are never tired of going back to first principles and experimenting with their designs, not only in painting and sculpture but in architecture too, just as often as effects seem unsatisfactory. After the earlier, creative periods of the art, however, men begin to think that the whole subject, and all its methods, have been mastered. They imagine that no more practical experiments are needed. They are first contented with what has been achieved by their ancestors, and then they begin to have a traditional veneration for it. That which should stimulate them to thought, stirs them only to reverence, and, like many of the critics and architects of our own day, they come to teach in their schools, and to believe in their hearts, that to be a successful imitator is to embody the only praiseworthy artistic ideal. Undoubtedly this was the fate that, after a time, overtook the architects of Greece. They became imitators. Because their copies stood before them, they ceased to experiment. Because they did not need to conceive their own designs they ceased to think about them; and when they ceased to do this they necessarily ceased to cause them to develop, and began to cause them to deteriorate. Before long, they began to regard as ends those methods which the great architects had used as means. They reproduced the subordinate features in the older temples, but overlooked the principal ones. Finally all the measurements that they used grew discordant, and it was beyond the power of any rules like those of Vitruvius to make them otherwise. Columns, entablatures, and tympanums, bore a general resemblance to those upon the Acropolis, but contained not one element that, in the estimation of the merest tyro of the art, could entitle them to be considered architectural models. The Greek temples emphasize results, which the others do not, attained by putting like with like. All the best Greek buildings show similar effects, and why? Because the Greek lived near to nature. His buildings emphasized corresponding measurements for the same reason as do the card houses of a child. The Greek carried out the instinctive promptings and prescriptions of the mind. It was in the endeavor to do this that he originated those scientific adjustments to accommodate actual proportions to optical requirements, which will be considered in the following chapters. Only much later did this end absorb the whole interest of builders, as it has that of modern students who have examined their works, and thus divert attention from more important matters on account of which alone these optical requirements were at first studied. The result was on a par with that of the exclusive attention paid to the secondary details of poetic form in the time of Queen Anne, leading to the pompous prosaic jingle that during most of the last century passed in England for the only permissible poetic phraseology.—Idem.

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