Last edited 11 Dec 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Origins of Classical Architecture

Origins of Classical Architecture, Mark Wilson Jones, Yale University Press, 2014, 304 pages, 30 colour and 230 black and white illustrations, hardback.

In this lucidly argued and beautifully produced book Mark Wilson Jones attempts the hugely ambitious task of explaining the genesis of classical architecture. Many others have preceded him, from Vitruvius onwards, and there is no shortage of existing hypotheses. In acknowledging the challenge, the author avoids taking an expressly polemical position, citing his experience as an architect, as well as an architectural historian, in developing an awareness of the innumerable factors that bear on the production of buildings.

This position underscores the structure of the book, which explores those issues that have previously been promoted as fundamental aspects of Greek classicism’s origins: constructional principles; the influence of preceding traditions; visual impact; and symbolic manifestations of value systems. In contextualising previous debate, however, Wilson Jones gives particular attention to factors that have sometimes been disregarded. One such is the fact that early Greek architecture did not develop in a progressive evolutionary fashion; instead there was a sudden jump in the early 7th century BC from unassuming shrines to grandiose stone peripheral display-temples. Linked to this is the author’s belief that temples were not only houses for the gods, but safe-stores or museums of offerings to the gods.

To give an idea of what these sanctuaries with their attendant clutter of artworks looked like, he includes a number of remarkable reconstruction drawings by late 19th-century Beaux Arts-trained archaeologist-architects such as Hittorf, Labrouste and Defrasse, which are a corrective to the sterilised views of Greek temples to which we are accustomed. Hellenistic culture prized excellence, and nowhere more so than in temples, which were symbols of collective pride and reverence. Everything offered to the gods had to be expertly crafted, and the crafting of the orders, including their forms, the author argues, required the highest standards of excellence.

This position leads on to exploring the influences on those forms, and here some interesting detective work is applied. While it is generally presumed that influence flows from major to minor arts (from architecture to decorative arts), in 8th century Greece there was no substantial indigenous tradition of building. When the wish for monumentality emerged, architects (who were themselves artists and craftsmen) would have looked to prestigious portable materials for inspiration. Thus pottery fish-scale decoration on vases can be traced through to metopes; volutes on vases can find echoes in later architectural forms; and the characteristic shape of the phialai (libation bowl) can be seen in the capitals of the caryatids on the Erechtheion.

Most surprising is the author’s case that the form of the triglyph, that most baffling element of the classical vocabulary, is based on that of the tripod, which was employed as a symbol for sacred space by vase painters. Yet vases from the 8th century show representations of tripods as a form of decoration, sometimes as friezes, while huge numbers of tripods had accumulated at sacred sites, where they would have taken on the character of architectural features.

Given the density and complexity of the factors discussed and the evidence presented in the book, the final chapter provides a useful overview. It separates the questions that the author feels able to answer, from those that he feels only provoke further questions rather than answers. In deliberately taking an inclusive approach to the subject, he quotes Robert Venturi, who held that great art and architecture resist clear interpretation. This is indeed the case. It also explains why the classical vocabulary is able to provoke a limitless range of contrasting readings, to which this book makes a major contribution.

This article originally appeared as ‘Portable inspiration’ in Context 141, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in November 2015. It was written by Peter de Figueiredo, historic buildings consultant.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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