Sunday, January 26, 2014

Roman Architecture: Weeks 1 & 2

Temple of Portunus
I signed up last autumn for an online course from Yale University Department of Classics on Roman Architecture. To my pleasant surprise its really fabulous. There is either a free option or $50 if you want to receive a certificate upon completion. Basically, it is an opportunity to virtually participate in a 3 credit hour Spring semester course, including some fantastic forum discussions with on site students and teaching assistants as well as moderators and online students around the world. There are lectures, homework, exams, the full experience of which I would like to share some of it with you!

Early Rome

When Rome was founded in the 8th century B.C.E., the Etruscans were still the most dominant culture on the peninsula, based out of Tuscany to the north. Before long the Greeks would begin to establish colonies to the south in Nea Polis (Naples) and on Sicily. The Romans were influenced by both cultures yet established themselves as unique. One way the Romans distinguished themselves was in their early temple architecture. We'll take the well preserved 1st century example of the Temple of Portunus on the Tiber river to illustrate this point.

Temple of Portunus plan
Etruscan temples were typically a masonry structure fronted by deep porticoes, sitting on high podiums, with a single stair oriented to a dominant façade. These features are often preserved by the Romans; however, the tripartite cella and a rather simple 'Tuscan' order of wood construction that allowed for wide intercolumniation typical of Etruscan design was eventually rejected.

Tetrastyle façade, Ionic order
Greek temples used the Doric or Ionic order, featured a single cella, and had narrower intercolumniation that was peripteral, in other words having supporting columns going around the entire temple. The Romans worked out a compromise, incorporating elements of both styles resulting in a temple design that was more Etruscan in plan but featured peripteral, engaged columns or pilasters resembling Greek prototypes in elevation.

Does New Technology Lead to Revolution or Revolution to New Technology?

Our initial assignment was to write a short essay considering whether the discovery of a new technology leads to the creation of new forms or conversely whether the desire to express something in a different way leads to the invention of a new medium. Below was my response:

I would venture that the modern Western perspective of the role technology in architecture and culture is fundamentally different than that of the Ancient Romans.

Illinois Institute of Technology
S.R. Crown Hall
A principal leader of the Modernist architectural movement, Mies van der Rohe, emphatically declared at an address in celebration of the addition to the Institute of Design to Illinois Institute of Technology that “Architecture depends on its time”, going on to state that his real hope would be that architecture and technology would “grow together, that someday the one be the expression of the other”. Certainly in his own work and teaching, Mies was a proponent of using technology (specifically modern concrete and steel) as a driving force in pushing the limits of structural possibility.

Sanctuary of:
Jupiter Anxur
1st century B.C.E.
 Everything I have studied and come to  understand of Roman architecture and culture has led me to the conclusion, that by contrast, the Romans understood architecture not as a temporal phenomenon but a locational one. That “locus” was Rome, in the sense of an actual place, likewise in the sense of a powerful culture. The use of technological innovations such as the arch, vault, dome and Roman concrete served as a physical representation of their profound sense of history and identity. If there was a revolution, it did not manifest itself as a radical rejection of historical precedent. Rather, what we see from the Romans is a deliberate, measured, incremental sophistication expanded upon over centuries, of which we today can appreciate as a harmonious legacy.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

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