Tradition & Innovation (History of Architecture)

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Tradition & Innovation (history of architecture)

Much great architecture of the past has proceeded by refining strict conventions without really questioning them. A much smaller body of work has moved forward through radical innovation. Use examples to show (among other things) that what appears to be radicalism or conservation is not always what it seems. You could trace a sequence in one place (such as Brunelleshi's Florence or Pericles' Athens) or range more widely drawing test cases from various times and places.

The Athenian Parthenon has captured the imagination for nearly two and half thousand years. Writers often speak of it as the finest architectural achievement of the Greeks, embodying the classical values of harmony and restraint, calm, pose and serenity, proportion and economy (eg Sowerby 1995, 168). However, the Parthenon is merely one of numerous buildings completed as part of the so-called Periclean building programme of the second half of the fifth century BC, which can be examined for the way their architects made use of tradition and innovation. Other buildings, such as the hypostyle Periclean Odeion that owes much to non-Greek Persian traditions, probably due to their state of preservation and less appealing setting, have tended to be sidelined in discussions of this nature, but are important nonetheless. This essay will first discuss innovation and tradition in the development the Greek temple from its origins to the mid-fifth century BC and then explore innovation and tradition in the Periclean building programme itself, relating these to the wider context of Greek temple architecture.

For the Greeks, architecture was a term reserved for public and sacred buildings as opposed to private and domestic constructions (Whitley 2001, 279). Of these public and sacred buildings, the temple is perhaps the most well-known and characteristic form, which also incorporated into their programme sculpture, painting and writing (Richter 1987, 19). Temples perhaps developed from the Mycenaean megaron, a rectangular building with a columned porch that formed the central building of Late Bronze Age palaces (see plan in Stierlin 2001, 34) but their origin in early apsidal buildings, such as that of Lefkandi seems more assured (see plan in Johnston 1993, 25). The architectural significance of these buildings is that they make use of the colonnade, creating an outer portico around the cella (the interior building) and can thus be described as peristyle or peripteral (of a temple). Presumably this development occurred from the practical concern of roofing these large buildings, which also used an axial colonnade for support, but was retained, becoming perhaps the defining characteristic of Greek temples, certainly still visible in those of much later periods including the Periclean Parthenon. The two-sided roof also led to the creation of a pediment, the triangular space or gable formed by the roof above the entrance that would be used to frame architectural sculpture. An early example of such a decorated pediment from the early sixth century BC is from the temple of Artemis on Corfu (Johnston 1993, 47-48). It is interesting that, for whatever reason, the apse was not retained in later buildings and instead an opisthodomos (an open room at the back of the temple, sometimes used as a treasury) was sometimes present (for a temple groundplan see Richter 1987, 22). These changes in layout are shown by the succession of temples at Thermon between the ninth and late seventh centuries BC (see plan in Stierlin 2001, 42). Thus the development of the temple form was one in which tradition and innovation can be seen from the beginning.

The earlier buildings were not the great marble edifices of later times but were constructed of wood with thatched roofs (Stierlin 2001, 44). Over time stone and tile came to replace wood; sometimes rather than knocking down a temple and starting from scratch, wooden columns would be replaced in situ by stone columns in a process known as petrification (Stierlin 2001, 46). The ancient Greek tourist and writer Pausanias (5.16.1) vividly described an ancient oak pillar still in place in the stone temple of Hera at Olympia. Columns of various diameters made up of different numbers of column drums can still be seen at this temple, testifying to the ad hoc nature of the temple’s transformation. Replacing wood with stone also led to the petrifying in stone of some of the notable architectural features of the wooden temples – fluted columns, triglyphs, dentils, gutae, roof construction and coffering for example (see Boardman 1993, 122 and Richter 1987, 25 for illustrations; Stierlin 2001, 48). This transposition into stone conserved the form of temples that had developed in wood but the act of petrification is itself innovative. It might be speculated that stone immortalised the temple and made it a fitting and permanent home for the god.

Before proceeding to discuss tradition and innovation in the Periclean building programme, a few words should be said about the development of the two main Greek orders, the Doric and Ionic (see comparative illustrations in Stierlin 2001, 49-50) as these are key to understanding the development of the Acropolis. The Doric order developed in the Greek mainland and Greek southern Italy and Sicily and is typified by broader columns without bases, tapering towards the top, heavier entablature with alternating triglyphs and metopes, the latter sometimes with carved decoration (Stierlin 2001, 52). A hexastyle (sic column) façade was usual. The Ionic order developed later (c590BC) in Greek Asia Minor. Columns were more slender, had moulded bases and were not markedly tapered. The capital had two spiral-scroll volutes and the lighter entablature was not broken into triglyphs/metope pattern, allowing continuous decoration. From the groundplans, Ionic temples, such as that of Heraion at Samos and Artemision of Ephesus also appear more hypostyle than peristyle, having two (dipteral) rows of columns rather than the Doric one and often with an octostyle (eight column) facade (see plans in Stierlin 2001, 105, 106). The two orders have been contrasted as masculine, squat, rough and feminine, elegant and refined respectively (Stierlin 2001, 49) and at the time of the Periclean building programme were ‘still essentially distinct regional styles’ (Rhodes 1995, 54).

The Periclean temple to Athena Parthenos, or Parthenon, was built between 447 and 438BC by the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates and the sculptor Phidias, and formed the centrepiece of the building programme of the political leader Pericles (Stierlin 2001, 183). This programme sought to glorify Athens and in the case of the Acropolis, to reconstruct the temples burned by the Persians in the early fifth century BC. It has been said to mark ‘the climax of the Doric style’ for the harmony of its proportions, the refinements in its structure and its sculptural decorations (Richter 1987, 33). However, in comparison to the slightly earlier temple of Zeus at Olympia (finished around 460BC), we can see that while the latter is almost purely Doric in style, ‘the Parthenon’s form and spirit partakes generously of the Ionic’ (Rhodes 1995, 74). This combination of Doric and Ionic can clearly be seen on a groundplan (eg Stierlin 2001, 191), which reveal an octostyle peripteral Doric portico (8 by 17 columns), rather than a Doric hexastyle, while six more slender Doric columns behind the octostyle facades suggest a dipteral colonnade, an Ionic feature. The cella was divided into two rooms, a smaller western room, the Hall of the Virgins and the eastern naos that housed the statue of the Athena, both approached from the outside and not connected. The Hall of the Virgins contained four Ionic columns while the naos was divided into three naves by a superimposed Doric colonnade following the walls and returning behind the statue, a first in temple architecture (Rhodes 1995, 87). Of course the use of an Ionic frieze around the cella should not be overlooked.

The Parthenon seems innovative in its deliberate mixing of Doric and Ionic elements (Rhodes 1995, 146). However, some of these elements that may seem innovative can be found elsewhere and on much earlier temples. For example, the sixth century Doric peripteral temple of Artemis on Corfu had an octostyle façade and the same proportion of columns (8 by 17) as the mid-fifth century Parthenon, as well as two rows of columns in the cella (Lawrence1996, 77). The temple of Athena at Paestum in southern Italy is a Doric hexastyle temple of around 510BC but the inner portico uses eight Ionic columns in an Ionic arrangement (Stierlin 2001, 74; see plan in Richter 1987, 30). It was also noted that the Parthenon made use of superimposed porticoes in the naos (see reconstruction in Boardman 1993, 118). These were also used in the contemporary second temple of Hera at Paestum (460-440BC) and Stierlin suggested that in the case of the latter they may have been used as a deliberate archaising element, referring to the temple of Aphaia on Aegina, built around 500BC (Stierlin 2001, 79; compare photos in Stierlin 2001, 78 and 148). In a necessarily (to fit the grand statue of Athena) wide temple like the Parthenon, 30.88m at the stylobate, they may have been more practical as well as attractive. It can indeed be seen that while the Parthenon may be innovative in the context of mainland Greek temples, there are parallels in the Greek temples of southern Italy and Sicily that provide precedents for mixing Doric and Ionic features (Rhodes 1995, 198n12) as well as features from Archaic temples on Corfu and Aegina. The often discussed architectural refinement of the curvature or splaying of the Parthenon was also a traditional Doric solutions to drainage, although in the Parthenon it succeeds in preventing the temple from appearing squat (Rhodes 1995, 74). The main factor in the layout of the Parthenon was in fact the older temple that it replaced, rather than any truly novel plans. The architects of the Parthenon did not work in isolation but in a cultural and linguistic zone stretching from Italy to Cyprus, with mainland Greece in the middle and while the Parthenon is as unique as every Greek temple it may be said to have incorporated traditional innovations in a traditional way.

Moving on to consider briefly two other Periclean buildings on the Acropolis, the Erechtheion and the Propylaia, the Erechtheion, ritually the most important building of the Acropolis, is a real innovation in the sense that rather than being a canonical temple, it is fitted to the mythic and physical landscape of the Acropolis. As such, it was constructed on two levels, though with three different roof levels, and incorporated the cults of Athena in the east cella, and Poseidon-Erechtheus in the west cella and north porch (Rhodes 1995, 131-36). The Erechtheion is Ionic in its columns and friezes and provides a complement to the Parthenon with its human-shaped Karyatid columns following a hundred year old Ionic tradition begun by the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi (Stierlin 2001, 208). The Propylaia, or gateway to the Acropolis foreshadowed this balance again by incorporating both traditional Doric hexastyle exterior combined with an internal Ionic colonnade. Rhodes says of its architect: ‘Mnesikles’ greatest contribution to the history and direction of Greek architecture was likely his vision of Doric and Ionic as equal components of a greater Greek architecture’ (1995, 73).

It is possible that in a sense the Parthenon is more significant to its modern adorants than its builders and that there is a desire to justify this by reference to innovation. Greek temples were built not on subjective principles of aesthetic beauty but on mathematical and religious principles of harmony and temples that reflected a particular harmony were successful (Stierlin 2001, 64-74). The Periclean building programme did not radically innovate from a static or stagnant tradition: the buildings examined above certainly did combine many elements to achieve their unique aims but then no two Greek temples were ever the same. Throughout their thousand plus year history, Greek temple buildings and their builders combined traditional elements with limited innovations that generally belonged to the temple building tradition guided by the principles of harmony –a temple should be temple, after all.


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