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Evolution Of Roof And Ceiling

( Originally Published 1920 )

ALL early examples of human habitations are extremely perishable in kind, for in the nascent stages of architecture the prototype of man's dwelling is the nest, blending with, and proving little more than an excrescence on the natural surroundings. These nests may be made of a bundle of reeds, some lithesome tree branches more or less cunningly intertwined,. bent to the builder's requirements, and so disposed as to form a shelter. Elsewhere we may find a hollow scooped out at the foot of a hill, as in the troglodytes' caves ; or more laboriously contrived high up the cliffside, like those of the gitanos in Spain, or man's immemorial refuges in those long ranges of mountains sweeping with a north easterly trend across Southern France well nigh from the Pyrennees to the Alpine regions. This type we see also in the recluse cells of Nipaul and Thibet.

Even more rudimentary is the hole dug in the ground, partly concealed by a protecting wind and rain screen, composed of mud, which eventually became a built over semi-dome. Types of these we may see in the Dane or Dene holes of Essex and Kent; or further afield - in those shell-proof excavations on the banks of the Tugela into which General Cronje crowded his motley army with all its lengthy tail of women and children, only a brief ten years ago.

In speaking of any architecture as extremely perishable, reference is made only to the structures themselves, for the principles involved, the types presented, are persistent and lie at the base of our most daring practices of yesterday and today, evidence of their origin being sufficiently abundant all around us. It was clearly from these types that the more elaborate structures were evolved. We have another great source of inspiration in the beehive huts common to primitive races the world over, and generally constructed of bent bamboos, interwoven with reeds, with here and there stronger timber posts, and provided with a domed roof. This dome sometimes assumes the conical, and thus becomes the rudimentary pinnacled roof and the tower. Such reed and rush form of coverings, of course, survive in our straw-thatched roofs. Thus for a long time in modest abodes roof and ceiling were one. Anthony A Wood says that chambers and humble dwellings of old had no ceilings, " a custom " he adds, " not uncommon anciently in the upper rooms of our colleges at Oxford ; these were vaulted with reeds bruised and flattened," the true forerunners of the flat, pliable laths.

Another source of the dome is the dug-out nest with mud screen, which gradually grew into the hummocky hut, built of sodden clay, of clumps of turf, or of the more regularly formed bricks, sun dried or burnt. It is, however, well to note here that the term camera which was applied in Rome to the barrel-vaulted chamber, and eventually came to denote a room of any kind, was originally applied to any-thing covered. Herodotus so applied it to a wagon. The same term was used to describe the garden trellis work. Both these are sources of the barrel dome : the tent on wheels, and it is interesting to remember that we call a certain pattern of barrel vault—with flat ends—a wagon ceiling, and we apply the same word to the trellis-work frame of the rush built hut.

The flat dome is a common enough feature over large tracts of Asia and also of Africa, that is, in low-lying lands where timber is scarce, and mud or sand plentiful. Ferguson points out that Bengal is without stone or wood, and in its advanced stage is essentially a country of brick buildings. " The Bengalis," he says, " taking advantage of the elasticity of the bamboo, universally employ in their dwellings a curvilinear form of roof, which has become so familiar to the eyes that they consider it beautiful. It is so in fact when bamboo and thatch are the materials employed, but when translated into stone or brick architecture, its taste is more questionable." This is a criticism that can scarcely be sustained as regards interior effects. At all events it is a survival which has become a permanent feature of Bengal architecture, finding its way in the seventeenth century to Delhi, and reaching Lahore some hundred years later. In course of time the flat dome often became concealed from the outside, the building presenting a rectangular form on the exterior, but inside, the roof or ceiling shows itself as a series of very shallow, saucer-like domes, one dome to each chamber, or a series of domes covering one long chamber.

Again we have the stupas or relic mounds, which the Buddhists have carried in ever varying shapes over a great part of Asia and the East. Professor MacDonell traces the stupa in its earliest existing examples to a solid mound, surrounded by a processional gallery, surmounted by a tee, or ceremonial umbrella. As time advanced the stupa was provided with a chamber, of course, vaulted, and it became less squat, more like a cone, and as the structures were set up in the eastwardly march of Buddhism they grew taller, the tee especially shooting upwards, one umbrella being super-imposed upon another until it grew into the Burmese and Chinese pagoda. Unquestionably the stupa, as traced by Professor MacDonell presents one of the most striking instances of the disturbing and often expanding force of local surroundings. It must be remembered in this case the form of building was carried from a flat, treeless region to tall timbered lands. But if the stupa is merely a specialised description of cairn, at once a monument as well as a decency tomb, it nevertheless may be taken as a prototype of a dwelling for the living. Professor MacDonell says the earliest extant example of the stupa is that at Piprahwa, which probably dates back to 450 B.C. More primitive types must, however, have been put up ages before that.

The stupa is a mound, in shape it is moulded on the low reed framed and mud plastered but. The processional gallery round the top, and the encircling fence placed at some distance round the mound, although for ages past built of stone, heavily carved, still retain the forms and patterns of wooden palings. However, in many regions it is probable that the tombs formed the pattern of the more permanent kinds of dwelling houses. Man built houses of reeds or wood for his own habitation, but of stone for that of the dead. This is quite natural, for when men were con-tent with the tent and the reed hut, surrounding conditions made it necessary to provide more substantial protection for the dead. Shallow sepulture with the built-over cairn presented the easiest and most obvious method at once to keep out enemies and scavenging animals, and to keep in the departed, for, according to most ghost and vampire lore, the wandering "shadow " or spirit was powerless with-out the body. It is noteworthy that the tee, or umbrella expansion on the stupa, and even over the pagoda, is topped by a vase-shaped ornament, which we may take to be a simulacrum of the head of a prisoner or slave usually placed on the umbrella spike to mount guard and scare away evil spirits from the tomb and the dwelling house. Indeed, the weather-cocks, the staff supporting fluttering bunting, and the floreated, often horned pinnacles which adorn our roofs are merely survivals of the older grim guardians—the grinning skulls of prisoners and slaves, or of fierce buffaloes, which leaders of men placed over or immediately in front of their places of abode. As Herodotus said of the Scythians, " The reason that the heads (of dead enemies) are set up on high is in order that the whole house may be under their protection," and the powers of the air kept away. The same practice persisted widely down to our own days. We may see its modification in many islands of the Malay Archipelago, where natives place long poles with horned ornaments before their houses, frequently adorning the, roofs with horns, further modifications of which may be traced in the curved lines of the pagoda roof and their boss-like vertical ornaments.

Thus it will be seen that the futile weathercock and too often meaningless finial have a fairly ancient, and at all events awe-inspiring ancestry. Nor need we hesitate to attribute the same origin to the wreathed horned ox skulls which the Greeks used with such good effect to adorn their friezes and fill their metopes. These Greek bucrania, with the other horned beasts employed by Asiatic architects as capitals to their columns, such as, the Indian adaptation of two kneeling elephants or tusked elephant heads, often found their way into the decoration of flat surfaces, and to this day, form a permanent motif in internal frieze and ceiling adornment.

Another, remarkable funeral monument and abode of the dead, the pyramid, is a copy in lasting stone of the less enduring dwelling of the living. In this instance it is the nomad's patchwork tent of skins guardian spirit to look after the interests of the sacrifiant, the idea being that the haunting ghost of the victim should hover about the spot and keep off all the evil-minded strangers." He adds : " Not the least interesting point about this practice is that where it is breaking down, substitution of the heads of animals for human -heads takes place."

Or rush mats which served as a model. Here, too, we have a great pile with small chambers deep in the mass, wherein honoured remains could be safe from human enemies, ravening carnivora and from floods. One result of this evolution from the cairn and eavern was the discovery of the many advantages attaching to the employment of thick walls in hot climates ; for heavy walls and small outlets mean cool internal chambers. Another deduction from the tent and pyramid was the immense advantage of sloping the outer surface of a wall from top to bottom wherever resistance to wind pressure, to earth disturbance, or to drifting sand had to be faced.

This is a marked characteristic of certain classes of buildings in Egypt, a common attribute of Assryian architecture, and so may be traced across the plains and plateaux of Asia in mud and stone structures, to the forts, palaces, and monasteries of Thibet and Bhutan, standing sure-footedly on the apparently inaccessible cliffsides or mountain tops.

Another influence is seen at work on alluvial plains and the margins of sandy wastes, where the horizon stretches far in every direction; in such places, there is a tendency for most things to be reduced to flatness or hummockyness. Hence, in Northern Africa, in parts of India and over extensive tracks of the great Asian plains we have the rounded hill-like dwelling, though more generally the low rectangular construction, which, from a distance is lost in the wide sweeping undulations which take on the semblance of a monotonous dead level. Quite commonly these squared buildings are vaulted internally, then we have a series of cells each covered by a shallow dome, or a single chamber covered by a series of such domes, as already mentioned. This arrangement is certainly suggestive of the excavated mound or the cavern, where the internal shape of the chamber is neither influenced nor betrayed by the outward envelope. In Egypt, however, the vault was rarely employed, at least for large chambers ; primitive timber and reed coverings suggested the form of the later stone slab roofing and ceiling.

Persisting traces of the primitive use of timber are afforded by pillars and sham rafter ends. The Egyptian pillar has well defined base or root, shaft or stem, and capital or foliated head. It represents either the palm tree or a bundle of reeds, both forms being used and in some cases it is realistically carved and painted. At a later period the column appears as a single lotus or papyrus stem, with basal leaves and terminating with a single flower or a group of bloom s. Curiously enough the band used for tying the bundle of reeds was retained half-way up the single lotus stem column, a useless relic of tradition. In certain Greek temples wooden columns supporting the ceiling beams were covered with bronze, beaten to represent the scales of palm trees, the metal being gilt. In classic architecture we often see small cubes of stone slightly projecting at regular intervals between the top of the wall and the frieze, or between the frieze and metope, which have no structural duties and are unrepresented inside the building. These are merely a mimicry of the abandoned wooden rafters, serving no useful purpose, but often of real decorative value.

Some forms of the pillar and certainly the pilaster, or pillar partially imbedded in the wall, are reminiscent of quarry, practice To this source, too, we must go back for a curious and effective form of ceiling decoration, the stalactite ornamentation, consisting of closely set pendant cones, with corrugated sides, such as we find in a conventionalised form crowning the Hall of the Abencerrages in the Alhambra.

In certain regions the tent evidently gave rise to the high pitched dome. And in other regions where wood, in the form of substantial timber, was the prevailing building material, where mountains and trees surrounded man, an aspiring type of architecture arose, notable for its shelving, water-shedding roofs, drooping eaves protecting the walls and openings, and its internal upward slant designed to train smoke from the smouldering fires to a central hole in the roof. All of this was an unconscious mimicry of local environment. In this way we come by the forest and Alpine type of cottage.

Akin to the forest, too, is the Gothic, which was developed among timber-using folk as an evolution from the Romanesque or Norman order, itself a modification of the classic style. As it gradually developed and rose to its apogee it betrayed a constant tendency to revert to woodland types, and forms. This is shown in the grouped columns, as, for instance we see them in the Early English style—a number of circular pillars forming a circle round a larger one, or as the column is later presented to us, with its capital expanding, splitting up like branches and merging . directly into the spreading ribs of the arches. So we walk under the dimly lit- forest avenue. In the domestic Gothic we have wondrously timbered roofs, and still more suggestive is the diagonal joining, an ornamentation consisting of small beams (later carried out in brick or tiles) placed obliquely, chevron-wise (V joined to inverted A) in panels formed by larger beams, running at right angles.

As for the ceiling itself, we may, for our present purpose, take the term in its widest sense, coelum, the sky, or covering of the chamber, though technically the word is applied more particularly to the inner lining of a roof, and to the lining of the under part of a floor. We are often loosely told that the type most apt to come to our mind, the plastered ceiling, is a modern thing.. Of course the stucco ceiling, both flat and vaulted, was known to the Greeks and Romans, and to the Egyptians before them, and was, indeed, as we have endeavoured to show, the direct outcome of the above mentioned mud semi-dome, and the wattle and daub method of construction, in which matted reeds or intertwined twigs and branches were plastered over outside and inside with clay in order to make them weather-tight.

This reed and twig tradition was pre-served by the Egyptians even when they had substituted stone slabs, for they painted their stucco ceilings with water plants and matting designs ; on the other hand the intricate criss-cross of timber construction has given us the effective coffering, or deep square and oblong pits in carved and plastered ceilings, types which we shall deal with in subsequent chapters.

In his " Grammar of Ornament " Jones lays down the proposition that : " Architecture is the material expression of the wants, the faculties and the sentiments of the age in which it is created " to which we assent with the addition : that it is also subject to the profoundly modifying and often fettering traditions of the immediate or forgotten past. He goes on : " Style in architecture is the peculiar form that expression takes under the influence of climate and materials at command." But tradition plays at least as important a part as climate or materials. No style is all of one piece. It has its roots in the past, and ifs growth is subject to quickening breezes or blighting currents from many outside climes. Perhaps the happiest styles, those having the most lasting effect, are those which have been introduced from a foreign source, absorbed by an artistic people and bent to their own needs. The Greeks, the Mauresques, the mosaic workers of India, the Japanese are witnesses to this, and to the fact that the principles underlying architectural and decorative practice are survivals of a past outlived, but still gripping us for good or evil.

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