Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Lamp of Power

Mont Blanc, Switzerland
How do you personally describe the sense of awe experienced at the base of a high mountain, in the midst of a raging downpour or even seated in the lofty nave of a towering cathedral? Such experiences make us deeply aware of our smallness, profoundly feel our mortality, perhaps even go so far as to intimidate us to a degree. Yet our souls are touched, we are excited even if at the same moment somewhat overwhelmed by the experience. How best to describe this quality engendering so much awe inspired emotion in us? Western philosophers began considering this question at the close of the 17th century and the debate continues into our time. In the 19th century, naturalist John Ruskin too pondered this question and singled out “Power” as the most fitting description of this quality, specifically as related to architecture.

John Ruskin was a stalwart promoter of beauty in human activity considering it the preeminent order of building in particular. Nevertheless, in this essay he acknowledges that there is a second order of building that likewise pleasurably impresses us yet in a completely distinct manner. Whereas beauty in architecture seeks to emulate that which is delicate and precious, power in architecture imposes the severe, the majestic. Beauty gathers and reflects the fairness of nature, whilst power governs and depends for its dignity on the order inherent in the human mind. The former asks for veneration, the latter exercises dominion. Ruskin observed that these virtues of beauty and power were polar opposites; it was impossible to amplify one without diminishing the other. The conclusion reached that it would be best first to choose decidedly one of these virtues in harmony with the purpose of the building to be constructed. Ruskin next goes on to highlight the four principal ways a given work of architecture might manifest its power.

Beauvais Cathedral
13th Century
This may appear so obvious as to not merit more than the briefest of mention. Of course, making a building taller or more massive will likely increase its sense of power. However, there is a greater sophistication involved. A building is nothing in comparison to a mountain, for example. Yet some buildings despite their comparatively smaller size are able to engender a similar sense of awe in us. Often in design, we may be limited in greatly enlarging the physical size of a building; nevertheless, how we treat its visible surfaces can greatly enhance their impression upon us. Ruskin provides an excellent example, “There are few rocks, even among the Alps, that have a clear vertical fall as high as the choir of Beauvais; and if we secure a good precipice of wall, or a sheer and unbroken flank of tower, and place them where there are no enormous natural features to oppose them, we shall feel in them no want of sublimity of size.” I can personally attest, Beauvais Cathedral is very successful in making you feel every bit of that height.

Ruskin gives a further admonition for ensuring the power of a building, “determine at first, whether the building is to be markedly beautiful or markedly sublime...if he chooses size, let him abandon decoration; for, unless they are concentrated, and numerous enough to make their concentration conspicuous, all his ornaments together will not be worth one huge stone.” Ruskin presents St. Peter's basilica as an example where several aspects of its design undermine its potential power. For instance, the arrangement of the façade conveys the appearance of a two story building with an attic. Together with its conspicuous horizontal entablature and pediment this appearance serves to detract from the actually quite significant height of the building. Furthermore, Ruskin points out that the folly, commonplace to Renaissance cathedral architecture, was to place a dome, spire, lantern or some other prominent feature over the crossing of the nave and transept, in the middle of the building where it was least visible. This is poignantly true of St. Peter's, unquestionably one of the greatest domes ever constructed is unable to be appreciated in its full majesty, its view largely consumed by the façade.

St. Peter's Basilica, 16th century

Palazzo Vecchio 14th century
The Palazzo Vecchio was the seat of power for generations of ruling Florentine nobility, including the powerful Medici family.The Palazzo does not struggle to embody the concept of power. Everything about the building conveys strength: the sheer face, the imposing entablature, the crenelations, the heavy rustication of the masonry the placement of its tower flush with the façade. Not withstanding the latter Ruskin noted the form of the Palazzo Vecchio as an oft overlooked, yet noteworthy source of its power. He writes, “the square and the circle are pre-eminently the areas of power among those bounded by purely straight or curved lines; and these, with their relative solids, the cube and sphere, and relative solids of progression...the square and cylindrical column, are the elements of utmost power in all architectural arrangements.” The shape or form of the Palazzo Vecchio, approaching near cubic proportions, does not require it to be significantly larger in size than its neighboring buildings to eclipse them in power.

Until now we've considered power at the scale of the building. However, this virtue can also be exhibited (or neglected) in the details, the elements.  St. Madeleine in Paris is a fine example of powerful architecture in respects to treatment of size and form. Nevertheless, its power is severely compromised by the construction of the shafts of its columns. Traditionally such shafts would be constructed wholly or in a few large drums. Ruskin likens the hundreds of stacked discs to “vertebrae...which suggest ideas of poverty in material, or deficiency in mechanical resource, besides interfering with the lines of the design”. The resulting visible joints crossing the flutes creates the unfortunate effect of a garden trellis.

L'église de la Madeleine, consecrated 1842

By contrast, the relative weight of a material can imbue sublimity to an otherwise modest, humble abode. Ruskin noted that many of the thatched stone cottages encountered in Wales and Scotland accomplished this by using just a few courses of large stones to reach the roof line. Similar to the previous example, the noble effect would undoubtedly be lost were many courses of a standard brick to be used instead.

Thatched cottage, Scotland


Palazzo Ducale, Venezia 15th century
One of the first things I share with my students regarding moulding theory is that the practical concerns regarding mouldings in exterior are quickly attended to with a calculated projection and a few right angled fillets to serve as drip edges. The cymas, ovolos, fascias and other possible shapes are not important design elements in and of themselves, rather the visible component derives from the shadows that they cast. Ruskin offers similar advice to the aspiring architect, “the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of it shadow...among the first habits that a young architect should learn, is that of think(ing) in shadow, not looking at a design in its miserable liny skeleton; but conceiving it as it will be when the dawn lights it; when its stones will be hot, and its crannies cool; when the lizards bask in the one, and the birds build in the other.” A fine example he provides is of the Doge's Palace in Venice. The quatrefoils of the piano nobile are thick, unornamented, sharply cut and cusped resulting in powerful contrasts and lines of shadow.

Corinthian Capital Temple of Olympian Zeus
2nd century
The column capitals of the Palace likewise furnish some instructive examples. Ruskin draws the following interesting comparison, “while the arrangements of line are far more artful in the Greek capital, the Byzantine light and shade are as incontestibly more grand and masculine based on that quality of pure gradation, which nearly all natural objects possess”. This is not to say that one was generally superior to the other, merely on the question of power by virtue of their respective treatment of shadow. In an almost confession Ruskin continues, “I know that they are barbaric in comparison; but there is a power in their barbarism of sterner tone, not sophistic nor penetrative, but embracing and mysterious; a power faithful more than thoughtful”. I too must confess, I have seen, drawn, made many a capital yet none have enthralled me like those of the Piazza San Marco. There is something truly spiritual about them, beyond the ability to rationalize, just to be enjoyed.

Palazzo Ducale

Over the next few posts I'll endeavor to highlight each of the “Lamps” or virtues espoused by Mr. Ruskin. Next to consider: The Lamp of Beauty

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Contributed by Patrick Webb 

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