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

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Architectural Word of the Day; 31 - 40


The ‘impost’ is the point at which the vertical thrust of an arch or vault is ‘imposed’ (Latin, impositus) upon an architectural member.

In one of my favourite examples of so many architectural details, the Villa Madama, we see the capitals of the ‘piers’ receiving the thrust of the arches and the cornice of the entablature to the left serving as an extended impost for the barrel vault.


Possibly the most utilized base in Classical Architecture, the ‘Attic Base’ consist of two ‘Tori’ (semi circular profiles) separated by a ‘Scotia’ (concave profile) and fillets, usually resting atop a ‘plinth’.

‘Attic’ comes from the Greek ‘Attikos’ (Ἀττικός) literally meaning of Athens or Athenian, speaking to the supposed origin of this base design.


As you might gather from the name, ‘rustication’ is a way of treating stone to appear more rough or ‘rustic’. This roughly hewn stone give an impression of strength.

This is appropriately used in the pictured example of a US Post Office on the ground floor and rusticated quoins where stability would be expected.


From the Italian “piedistallo”, literally the ‘foot of the style or column', a pedestal is a base support for columns, pilasters, monuments and the like.

The order of the pedestal typically consists of a cornice, crowning a dado (often paneled body), supported by a base and plinth.


The Roman emperors initiated a tradition of erecting freestanding ‘triumphal’ arches to commemorate their military victories.

During the Renaissance the custom was revived. The architectural style also began to be incorporated into façades, the central arch emphasizing the main entry into or portal leading towards a building, a visual queue of its elevated status.

Image courtesy of Nathan Hunt


The term ‘escutcheon’ came into use as an English heraldry term from the Latin ‘scutum’ meaning ‘shield’. Often you will encounter a highly ornamented escutcheon resting above the entry of a family estate proudly displaying the family’s coat of arms.

A less glamorous use of the term is for the protective cover plate surrounding a door knob that has a shield-like appearance.

The ‘Doric’ order is the primary and oldest of the 3 principal orders of classical architecture. Its name derives from the Dorians (Δωριεῖς , Greek), northern invaders who occupied the Peloponnese peninsula.

It is characterized by its typically unornamented, geometric capital as well as its frieze with tryglyphs, metopes, guttae etc. that we will consider individually in upcoming posts.

Sketch in charcoal by Steve Shriver
design provided by Domiane Forte


‘Esquisse’ is the French term for ‘sketch’. The formal ‘esquisse’ was a skill honed to perfection by the French at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts during the 19th century.

Architects and artisans today can benefit themselves immensely by always having paper and a drawing medium on hand for observational field drawing, a quick shadow study or to flesh out a design idea. 

Triumphal Arch of Augustus Aosta
maquette from the historic plaster cast collection
Institute of Classical Architecture & Art


Taking the sketch or ‘esquisse’ concept a bit further is the ‘maquette’ or model. This was customarily taught at the École des Beaux-Arts as a method for architects and artisans to develop a design for presentation and work out design problems in advance.

Typically, plaster would be the medium for realizing a maquette. 


The intersection of two simple or ‘barrel’ vaults create arrises that indicate the lines of thrust are directed toward the terminating imposts. This allows the support to be concentrated on piers instead of along a supporting wall, an advantage utilized extensively in Gothic and Renaissance architecture.

Image courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot

Contributed by Patrick Webb  

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Lamp of Beauty – Part I, The Classical Orders

“Remember that the most beautiful things in life are often the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.” – John Ruskin

The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the Neoclassical. For three centuries successive ages of philosophers, principally rejecting the yoke of the Church, concurrently left superstition and sentiment behind to embrace science and reason. But a generation of the philosophers' children felt their fathers had overreached. A world of reason was fast becoming a world devoid of sense. For many of this next generation of philosophers of the Romantic era it wasn't enough to think, they had to use their innate capacity for feeling to help understand themselves, society and even the physical world.

Porte del Paradiso
Ghiberti, 15th century
To some degree John Ruskin was influenced by the times he lived in, yet to a greater extent his philosophy contributed to defining the era. Certainly, he held a view of beauty that was not “of his time”, not of any time really as far as I can ascertain. If anything Ruskin's vision of beauty was not temporal, rather physical, “of his place”, thereby transcending the cultural milieu of the 19th century. For Ruskin, beauty was primarily an objective matter and thus a shared value amongst humanity. Although, in seeming contraposition, he likewise held beauty to be largely a sensory affair that could only fully be experienced emotionally. The uniting bridge between an objective view and a sensory experience was a profound sacredness, an intrinsic knowledge of beauty intimately imbued in our very humanity as fundamental and universal as our understanding of the sweetness of sugar or the bitterness of wormwood.

Ruskin by far considered beauty the brightest "Lamp" or virtue that could be embodied in a work of any architecture that might be called good. He opens his essay on beauty with the declaration, “the value of architecture depended on two distinct characters: the one, the impression it receives from human power; the other; the image it bears to the natural creation...all beautiful lines are adaptations of those which are commonest in the external creation”.

The Classical Orders

Ruskin subsequently precedes to illustrate the aforementioned premise with a consideration of the three principal orders of Classical or Greco-Roman architecture: the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.

The Parthenon, 5th century B.C.E.
The order is introduced as follows: “beyond a certain point, and that a very low one, man cannot advance in the invention of beauty, without directly imitating natural form. Thus, in the Doric temple the triglyph and cornice are unimitative; or imitative only of articficial cuttings of wood. No one would call these members beautiful. Their influence over us is in their severity and simplicity.” I would venture that this sentiment is evidenced most clearly at the Parthenon where the severly linear geometric trigylphs, mutules and cornice powerfully frame the truly beautiful forms of men and centaurs engaged in pitched battle that lie in alto-relievo upon the metopes.

Ruskin next addresses the other prominent features of the order, namely the column shaft and capital, “The fluting of the column...was imitative in origin, and feebly resembled many canaliculated organic structures. Beauty is instantly felt in it, but of a low order...the Doric capital was unimitative; but all the beauty it had was dependent on the precision of its ovolo, a natural curve of the most frequent occurrence.” The ovolo Ruskin refers to was called the “ekinnos” by the Ancient Greeks, so named because of its resemblance to, or perhaps better stated imitation of the skeletal body of the sea urchin. The canalis, or shallow flutes of the shaft too resembled the channels often encountered in shellfish such as the sea scallop.

Again, the Ionic order like the Doric depends on the abstraction of natural forms for its expression of beauty. The most notable, perhaps defining feature being the conspicuous volutes representative of many spiral growth patterns in invertebrates and vegetation. However, Ruskin reserves particular praise for the Egg & Dart motif going so far as to say that its “perfection, in its place and way, has never been surpassed”, offering the following detailed explanation:

Simply because the form of which it is chiefly composed is one not only familiar to us in the soft housing of the bird’s nest, but happens to be that of nearly every pebble that rolls and murmurs under the
Argus Pheasant
surf of the sea, on all its endless shore. And that with a peculiar accuracy; for the mass which bears the light in this moulding is not in good Greek work, as in the frieze of the Erechtheum, merely of the shape of an egg. It is flattened on the upper surface, with a delicacy and keen sense of variety in the curve which it is impossible too highly to praise, attaining exactly that flattened, imperfect oval, which, in nine cases out of ten, will be the form of the pebble lifted at random from the rolled beach. Leave out this flatness, and the moulding is vulgar instantly. It is singular also that the insertion of this rounded form in the hollowed recess has a painted type in the plumage of the Argus pheasant, the eyes of whose feathers are so shaded as exactly to represent an oval form placed in a hollow.

The Erechtheion, 5th century B.C.E.

Thermae Stabianae, Pompeii 
1st century C.E.
Until now we've considered decorative motifs prominent of the Doric and Ionic orders that are highly abstracted. Ruskin noted that further progress in the pursuit of a beautiful architecture could not be attained without a more direct imitation of nature herself, what he expressed as "delight" to be "engrafted upon architectural design". For the Ancient Greeks this was to culminate in the Corinthian order and specifically with the appropriation of the acanthus leaf. The Romans would wholly embrace the acanthus form as well, expanding its use beyond capitals for a variety of uses most notably delicately carved foliated scroll-work. Ruskin conveys his veneration for the beauty inherent to the Corinthian capital as follows:

Acanthus Spinosus
Thus the Corinthian capital is beautiful, because it expands under the abacus just as Nature would have expanded it; and because it looks as if the leaves had one root, though that root is unseen. And the flamboyant leaf mouldings are beautiful, because they nestle and run up the hollows, and fill the angles, and clasp the shafts which natural leaves would have delighted to fill and to clasp. They are no mere cast of natural leaves: they are counted, orderly, and architectural: but they are naturally, and therefore beautifully, placed.”

Library of Hadrian at Athens, 2nd century C.E.


In the continued consideration of the “Lamp of Beauty – Part II, Monstrosities” we will examine some of what Ruskin perceived as ugliness, certain abuses that developed during the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods.

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Contributed by Patrick Webb 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Plaster Word of the Day; 21 - 30


The rebel Titan Prometheus was said to have fashioned man from clay. The Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition all attest that the first man Adam (whose name means red earth) was likewise a divine result of breathing life into clay.

Mastery of clay is in fact integrally associated with civilization itself, at the heart of what separates the man from the beasts. Clay bricks and plasters permitted man to raise his first shelters and establish his first cities. Clay and earth continue to be the primary building materials worldwide.

Modern, Western society has eschewed clay and earth as a primitive medium in favour of high embodied energy materials and industrialized systems. However, we may share father Adam’s punishment for our transgression, “from dust you came…unto dust you will return.”


Photo courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot
‘Binders’ are the fine materials in a plaster that undergo a physical and usually a chemical change to ‘bind’ the plaster together in the setting.

Clay binders arrange themselves in tetrahedral sheets or ‘platelets’ a purely physical change.
By contrast, for gypsum and lime based plasters the binding action is accomplished by interlocking crystal formation, both a physical and chemical change.


‘Compo’ really short for “Composition Plaster’, is a material and technique developed by the French in the late Baroque and very much associated with the Rococo period.

Various proprietary recipes are typically some mix of pine rosin, plaster of Paris, linseed oil, turpentine and the key ingredient rabbit skin glue. The key properties of the resulting mix is a flexible yet strong medium that captures fine details and will adhere to both plaster and wood.


Photo courtesy of Plâtres Vieujot
A latticed background of wood or metal for the support of plaster, most often over a timber frame backgroun. The penetrations or separation of the lath are so spaced to allow a portion of the plaster to fall behind and form a ‘key’ upon setting.

Although expanded steel is the most common lath system today because of ease of manufacture and installation, a quality wood lath such as chestnut produces a system that can endure for centuries, even through several plaster replacements.


This technique of applying fresh plaster onto still moist plaster can be very useful for controlling the total thickness of a finish coat.

Because the initial coat retains moisture there is less suction thus reducing movement, avoiding ‘cold joints’ and facilitating a smooth finish. Very little plaster is used for this coat; instead the 'sweet coat' plaster acts more as a lubricant to level and close the surface.


As plasters remain absorbent, topcoats are often used to provide some stain resistance especially in interiors. Traditionally in Europe natural soaps were preferred over waxes. The main reason is that unlike a wax which rests as a film on the surface, these soaps penetrate into or ‘impregnate’ the pores of the plaster.

If freshly applied over a lime plaster a chemical reaction takes place, ‘saponification’. The resulting reaction of the alkali soap with the fresh hydrated lime produces a thin protective layer of calcium stearates (i.e. soap scum) which is highly resistant to liquids and at that concentration remains transparent.


The traditional natural soap of North Africa based on raw olive oil and potash (potassium salts, mostly potassium carbonate).


The traditional natural soap of Southern France based on palm kernel oil using lye and soda ash as the alkalizing agents to maintain its whiteness.


The woody inner core of the hemp plant, called the shiv or hurd, has excellent binding as well as thermal
Photo courtesy of Vicat
insulating properties. About 20 years ago the French began mixing Hemp shiv as an aggregate with NHL or Natural Cement and pouring into forms to create monolithic substrates.

After a quick setting, the low embodied energy, insulating building substrate is ready to plaster inside and out. The British and Irish soon followed suit and the technique is gaining notoriety in the US and Canada.


‘Natural Cement’ is an eminently hydraulic lime that is baked from clayey marls that have an high alumina content in addition to active silicas. The Romans exploited hydraulic lime deposits and would sometimes combine them with pozzolans to increase the hydraulic setting action even further.

With properties of a rapid set, self binding and high resistance to salt attack, natural cements are used for exterior statuary, run mouldings and as an accelerator for natural hydraulic limes.
Photo courtesy of Vicat

Contributed by Patrick Webb