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April 3, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage
Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.
The stately, rhythmic elegance of Greek temple architecture has inspired generations of architects (and tourists) from the Romans to the Renaissance to modern times. Wilson Jones’ handsome book makes an important contribution to the age-old discussion about how their architectural ‘orders’ or styles developed and what they might mean.
The conventional picture, established by the Roman writer Vitruvius, is that the massive Doric order evolved from now-vanished precursors in wood. Later thinkers read into this paradigm a virtuous respect for structural honesty and primitive simplicity; subsequent Ionic and Corinthian orders responded to a taste for more elegant, ornamented, ‘feminine’ forms.
Wilson Jones presents a more complicated picture in which Greek stone temple architecture developed not gradually through evolution, but in a ‘surprisingly rapid jump … a race for splendour’ in the seventh century BC. After a burst of fertile creativity, taking in a wide variety of influences, architectural forms settled down into an increasingly well-defined canon.
Throughout, the author cautions against looking for single explanations. After introductory chapters on the development and function of temples, he explores four different modes of interpretation, each illustrated chiefly by an order to which it closely applies: constructional questions (Doric); the migration of design ideas between cultures (Aeolic); the visual qualities of architectural form (Ionic); and symbolism (Corinthian). As Wilson Jones immediately admits, this paired structure is a ‘strategic device’, a way of schematising a complex picture: in reality, all these factors were ‘inextricably tangled’ in the architectural products of the seventh and sixth centuries BC and even in the minds of the individual builders and craftsmen responsible.
Thus the builders of Greek temples were in part concerned with questions of construction and a memory of wooden elements, but also open to foreign influence, interested in revivals of earlier Greek styles, affected by developments in the other art forms that filled religious sanctuary sites and willing to incorporate symbolism (the author makes a particular case for the bronze tripod having influenced the grooved panel that alternates with square metopes in the frieze running horizontally above a Doric temple’s columns). Growing economic prosperity led to confident competition between Greek city states and sanctuaries; the sense that temples were an appropriate offering to and home for the gods helped fuel the development of sophisticated, elaborate buildings.
This wide range of contributing factors does not make Greek architecture an eclectic mish-mash. ‘Design is also knowing what to leave out’ and the author points to the distinctive contribution of builders and craftsmen working either side of the year 600 BC: ‘It is as if designers inhaled all manner of things, drawing in that which was of use, while exhaling that which was not.’
Wilson Jones’ writing is vivid and fluent, managing the difficult task of amassing and explaining a great deal of technical material without losing sight of an overall argument. This is particularly important given that his aim is to combine multiple strands of interpretation, challenging previous scholarship, ‘which in its concern for detail can miss the forest for the trees’. The book’s success in that aim makes it useful to specialists, but also to anyone interested in Classical Greek architecture, not least for its prolific, often sumptuous, illustrations.
Adapted from historytoday.
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This was an article on Architecture.
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MCAT CARS Instructor.