Saturday, January 27, 2018

Parsing the Parthenon (I)

Happy 2018! This marks the 1000th post for The Carpentry Way. I know some blogs do 1000 posts in just a year, but I am pleased to have been able to keep at least a semi-consistent stream of posts coming your way since 2009, and an added bonus is I have to date received no death threats as a result. You never know what might set people off these days. I intend to continue with this blog for as long as it is useful and as long as I have something to contribute.


Today I wanted to talk about a famous work of stone architecture, namely the Parthenon in Athens. I had planned mainly to focus on the intriguing aspects of it’s design, however the history of the structure is equally of comment so this topic will span two posts, the first looking at the history. Before that though I had a few random comments in general about stone architecture.

While stone architecture may seem outside the realm of carpentry strictly speaking, stone architecture in many (but not all) cases is an outcome of building traditions which had previously developed wooden architecture to a high standard, and wanted to emulate their wooden building forms in stone for the advantage conferred by stone, namely vastly increased durability. Possibly the decision to build in stone at different junctures in time was also influenced by what materials may or may not have been available. After all, 50 years ago one could find homes with clear VG 2x12 floor joists, while nowadays that sort of material would be unexpected. It’s curious now how our economic systems have made building architecture in stone an utter rarity. In the US, the place where things are built to last in stone would be one’s neighborhood graveyard and that is about it. All that care and concern about marking in physical terms the people once they have passed out of this world, and yet we cannot, no any longer, justify anything remotely similar in terms of celebrating people and society while living. It is a curious thing.

While stone architecture can emulate wooden architecture through the use of columns and beams, and may imitate wooden architecture’s features, such as gutters and the ends of ‘beams’, one cannot ignore the fact stone has quite different characteristics than timber, and thus it is generally inadvisable to perfectly duplicate in stone what was otherwise done in wood. Stone has little tensile strength, for example, so cantilevered and trussed elements are not practical -instead you need to reduce spans, increase the number  of columns, and enlarge beam sizes. Deep eave overhangs are not possible for similar reasons, so a stone building will have vestigial eaves at best.

A point worth mentioning is that in ancient Greece, temples were built of marble painted in primary colors. But by the time they were discovered by Europeans in the eighteenth century, the paint was long gone, leaving the white marble. And to this day, people associate the Greek Revival with the color white – the white columned look.

It’s a bit perverse to later copy such aspects of stone buildings by imitating them with timber as happened in the West starting in the 1800’s with the Greek Revival period. Buildings of timber were intelligently copied by builders of stone in ancient times  - by that I mean, they used stone in respect to its strengths and not weaknesses, as I’m sure they would have found pretty quickly what the limits of stone were if they tried to copy timber structures too closely. The Greek Revival buildings are however are arguably less intelligently copied, as one can imitate stone in timber quite faithfully without having an immediate result of structural failure. the fact that a building of wood with little or no eaves weathers vastly more poorly than a stone building seems to have been overlooked, or was simply not considered somehow.

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were sent by the French government to study the American prison system. In his later letters Tocqueville indicates that he and Beaumont used their official business as a pretext to study American society instead. Following his return to France in 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote De La Démocratie en Amérique, or (On) Democracy in America, published in two volumes, the first in 1835 and the second in 1840. In Volume II we find Chapter XI, “Of The Spirit In Which The Americans Cultivate The Arts”, where some very salient points are made about the production of the arts in democracies generally. I’ll quote a couple of paragraphs, as it bears upon Greek Revival architecture:

“This leads me to speak of those arts which are called the fine arts, by way of distinction. I do not believe that it is a necessary effect of a democratic social condition and of democratic institutions to diminish the number of men who cultivate the fine arts; but these causes exert a very powerful influence on the manner in which these arts are cultivated. Many of those who had already contracted a taste for the fine arts are impoverished: on the other hand, many of those who are not yet rich begin to conceive that taste, at least by imitation; and the number of consumers increases, but opulent and fastidious consumers become more scarce.

Something analogous to what I have already pointed out in the useful arts then takes place in the fine arts; the productions of artists are more numerous, but the merit of each production is diminished. No longer able to soar to what is great, they cultivate what is pretty and elegant; and appearance is more attended to than reality. In aristocracies a few great pictures are produced; in democratic countries, a vast number of insignificant ones. In the former, statues are raised of bronze; in the latter, they are modeled in plaster.

When I arrived for the first time at New York, by that part of the Atlantic Ocean which is called the Narrows, I was surprised to perceive along the shore, at some distance from the city, a considerable number of little palaces of white marble, several of which were built after the models of ancient architecture. When I went the next day to inspect more closely the building which had particularly attracted my notice, I found that its walls were of whitewashed brick, and its columns of painted wood. All the edifices which I had admired the night before were of the same kind.”

Anyhow, some minor observations aside, let’s get to the topic at hand.

If you look at the stone buildings of classic antiquity, the most famous is undoubtedly the Parthenon in Athens, now in a state of some disrepair (though it is being restored currently):

The Parthenon is widely regarded as the finest example of ancient Greek architecture, the zenith of the Doric order.

It has been widely copied. The Parthenon is a symbol of democracy, the classical desire for ideal perfection and has a very rich cultural significance to Athenians. In the US, the building which started the Greek Revival craze was the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, constructed 1819~1824:

The building’s exterior uses Pennsylvania blue marble, which, due to the manner in which it was cut, has begun to deteriorate from the exposure to the elements of the weak parts of the stone. The building now serves as an art gallery.
Then we have the Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street, built 1833~1842:

It has a little dome on top, not visible from street level.

Opened in 1835, the third Indiana Statehouse, designed by the firm of Town and Davis, was Antebellum America’s closest replication of the Parthenon:

The above structure is long gone. To quote directly from the ICAA’s page on Parthenon derivatives in the US,
“The limestone constructed statehouse gave the appearance of solidity and permanence, but by the 1860s it had become shabby and its foundations began to fail. The building was finally condemned and demolished in 1877, having served Indiana for only forty-two years, a surprisingly poor record when compared to its ancient Greek precedents.”

In Nashville there is a full-scale Parthenon replica, built in 1897:

In Germany there is Leo von Klenze’s Walhalla, completed in 1842:

In England there is the Birmingham Town Hall Chamberlain Square:

In Oslo there is the University of Oslo’s Faculty of Law building, the middle section of which, borrowing from the Parthenon’s facade, is termed the Domus Media:

There are Parthenon-inspired structures all over Europe, and Russia, however an exhaustive cataloging of those structures is not the point here - only to list a few notable examples to show the influence of the Parthenon upon some of the most important Western Edifices of the past 200 years.

The Parthenon, as such, is not the original building on the site of the Acropolis. There was a 'pre-Parthenon’, which was destroyed in 480 BC. The structure we see today was a project initiated by the Athenian Statesman and General Pericles - here’s a stone bust of the fellow:

Pericles initiated what might be loosely called a “Make Athens Great Again” campaign in 447 BC,  with an ambitious building project atop the Acropolis. The architects Ictinos and Callicrates began their work in 447 BC, and the building was substantially completed by 432, but work on the decorations continued until at least 431. The period 460~430 BC is termed the “Golden Age of Athens”. Athens got into a kerfuffle with Sparta, leading to the Peloponnesian War, which interrupted construction. The temple was finished during the Peace of Nicias, between 421 BC and 409 BC. The term 'Peloponnesian War’ is all but universally used today is a reflection of the Athens-centric sympathies of modern historians. As prominent historian J. B. Bury remarked, the Peloponnesians would have considered it the “Attic War”.

This is akin to the conflict termed the 'Vietnam War’ by most of the Western world, is however termed the 'American War’ by the Vietnamese themselves.

According to Wikipedia, the Peloponnesian War reshaped the ancient Greek world. On the level of international relations, Athens, the strongest city-state in Greece prior to the war’s beginning, was reduced to a state of near-complete subjection, while Sparta became established as the leading power of Greece. The economic costs of the war were felt all across Greece; poverty became widespread in the Peloponnese, while Athens found itself completely devastated, and never regained its pre-war prosperity. The war also wrought subtler changes to Greek society; the conflict between democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta, each of which supported friendly political factions within other states, made civil war a common occurrence in the Greek world.

Greek warfare, meanwhile, originally a limited and formalized form of conflict, was transformed into an all-out struggle between city-states, complete with atrocities on a large scale. Shattering religious and cultural taboos, devastating vast swathes of countryside, and destroying whole cities, the Peloponnesian War marked the dramatic end to the fifth century BC and the golden age of Greece.

Though the conflict shattered Athenian society, the Parthenon survived intact. In the third century Greece was attacked by sea by the Herules, an east Germanic tribe originating in southern Sweden. They were marauding barbarians like the Goths and Huns. The Herules apparently practiced a warrior-based male homosexuality, along with the practice of senicide, where the sick and elderly were killed and burned (by a non-relative, conveniently). Following the death of their husbands, Herul women were expected to commit suicide by hanging. And easy-going group, all in all, wouldn’t you say?

The Parthenon survived the Herules. Then it survived the Byzantine Period, (330~1453) the last hurrah of the Roman Empire. Following a decree by Roman emperor Theodosius II in 435, that all pagan temples be closed, the Parthenon came to be used as a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. That’s not so far off I suppose, as the term 'Parthenon'  connects to the epithet parthénos meaning “maiden, girl”, but also “virgin, unmarried woman” and was especially used for Artemis, the goddess of wild animals, the hunt, and vegetation, and for Athena, the goddess of strategy and tactics, handicraft, and practical reason.

The Byzantine ended with the Byzantine-Ottoman Wars and the fall of Constantinople. In 1456 Ottoman Turks invaded Athens and after a year-long siege, gained control. The Parthenon was then appropriated for use as a Mosque, the Christian altar being removed, minaret’s added, and Christian imagery whitewashed over. The Parthenon was still largely intact however, as a drawing published in 1688 shows:

The interesting thing about this picture is the roof depicted. It was an accurate drawing, however the roof pitch we can see in the drawing was not original to the structure. The ancient roof had been severely damaged by a fire in the 3rd century, and had been rebuilt with the steeper pitch. It would be most interesting to learn how they adapted the steeper pitch roof onto the older one, however the evidence is long since gone as far as I know.

The Ottoman Turks got into a war with the Venetians in 1683, a conflict now termed the Great Turkish War. It was the 6th war between the two parties.

The year 1687 was not a good one for the Parthenon. The Ottoman Turks had fortified the Parthenon and were using it for the storage of gunpowder. The Venetians sent a charmer named Francesco Morosini to attack Athens and capture the Acropolis. Most of his soldiers were German mercenaries. Here’s a portrait of Francesco, who apparently always dressed in red from shoes to hat, and went into battle accompanied by his cat:

via Tumblr

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