In a previous post (17-Mar-2013) I tried to figure out what “The Canon” is – not surprisingly a confusing post, given my own confusion.
I’ve since found the term used in a slightly different way, in John Summerson’s The Classical Language of Architecture (1). To quote (p. 10): “It was Sebastiano Serlio … who really started the orders … on their long career of canonical, symbolic, almost legendary, authority”. Excellent – a chance to see the concept used in action and thereby perhaps make better sense of it.
“The orders” are types of columns – Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. I used to think of these as decorative, just a matter of how fancy the carving at the top was, and except where standing clear and holding up a porch many columns seemed more like moulding on the walls than actually structural or integral to the building.
However when used The Orders (I feel a need for the capitalisation) define a “plane of relief”. They support an entablature – architrave, frieze and cornice – which moves with the columns. If the columns are changed from free standing to half embedded in the wall, the entire face of the building changes. The Orders control the structure (page 20). The spaces between the columns can completely change the impact.
The Orders started with the Greeks. The Romans used and extended them, and added arches. In the Renaissance this architectural grammar was re-established, then in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Orders again became the major discipline in architecture.
One thing I was troubled by when writing earlier about the Western Canon was the prospect of an inflexible and suffocating set of rules. In practice the canonical orders have evolved over time. Summerson shows the progression of a circular temple – from the Temple of Vesta, to Bramante’s Tempietto (1502), to Wren’s St Paul’s (1696 – 1708), and (my addition) a variation in McRae’s Queen Victoria Building (1893-1898). New ideas and extensions are added, appropriate to contemporary needs.
This developmental arc is not just refinements and extensions. There can be boredom and revolt, although it seems to me that Summerson’s example of Giulio Romano is more an extreme exaggeration, not turning to a new path. It seems the arc can also be traveled in reverse – for a long period Greece, as part of the Ottoman Empire, was basically off-limits to Western travelers. Ancient Greek architecture was known from old, inaccurate drawings and through Roman buildings. In 1762 Stewart and Revett published a volume of new and accurate drawings, feeding a Greek Revival in architecture.
The Greek Revival extended into the early twentieth century – and walking around Sydney, I think rather longer here… and I pause briefly to savor the moment. When family and friends ask what I’m up to I’ve been making a bit of a joke of the course notes research point which begins “Find out as much as you can about the Roman occupation in your area”. Not a lot to find here in Sydney (although it has been claimed that Melbourne has the third largest Greek-speaking population in the world (2)), but when you get to the Greek Revival and to classic influences of the Modern Movement suddenly we’re at least in the game. Something that seemed purely academic has become more directly relevant.
These photos show the National Library in Canberra. Opened in 1968 the stated aim of the chief architect was “to design a building that was a contemporary derivation in the spirit of Classical Design”, while the refurbishment completed in 1999 “succeeds in expressing the design language of the building with a fresh interpretation, achieving a contemporary derivation of classical design” (3). I’m directly quoting my source with such abandon because in a sense I didn’t need it. I was in Canberra last weekend, visited three different exhibitions at the National Library, and given my recent reading couldn’t have missed that it’s a modern Greek temple.
All of the photographs in this post were taken in Sydney and Canberra. In fact Sydney’s enthusiasm for this western world classical style building has me wondering. Was it simply a matter of the architectural vogue at the time that much of Sydney was built (ignoring earlier more temporary wooden buildings)? Going back to John Summerson I find “… the shop-filled arches and arrogantly bedizened Doric columns of Australia House – Bramante again, in the age of British Imperialism: date, 1911” (p. 43). Arrogant. Imperialism. With Australian federation as a nation in 1901, were our leaders and planners a little over-keen to show that we had made it – no longer a colony but ready to take our place among the great nations as cultured citizens of the world. Could there be a whiff of cultural cringe?
This particularly extravagant and arrogant building is the Lands Department office built in Sydney in two stages in 1876 and 1888. The department was responsible for the administration, selling and leasing of Crown lands, including resolving disputes between settlers, speculators and pastorialists (4). Notice who are missing from that brief? Non-Australians might not know of “terra nullis”, the extremely convenient theory used by the British Government of the time to treat Australia as uninhabited and thereby take the land from the Aboriginal people – a nasty piece of work with consequences that are still very much felt today (see for example http://treatyrepublic.net/content/terra-nullius-0). I don’t know which would be worse – that the planners of this building with its statues of heroic explorers of the “empty” land were sending a message of power and control to the traditional owners of the land, or if those planners were absolutely unaware or unconcerned about them.
The canonical Orders have retained their strength and influence over more than 2,000 years. They have been able to survive adaptation, refinement, enhancement and perhaps the occasional debasement. They also have been used to project or assert power, prestige and authority.
(1) Summerson, J. (2002) The Classical Language of Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson.
(2) http://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/ABOUTMELBOURNE/HISTORY/Pages/multiculturalhistory.aspx [Accessed 12 April 2013]
(4) NSW Land & Property Information (2013) History of Land and Property Information. [online] State of New South Wales through NSW Land and Property Information. Available from: http://www.lpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/169035/Brief_history_LPI.pdf [Accessed 12 April 2013]
Lands Department Building: http://www.sydneyarchitecture.com/cbd/cbd1-005.htm [Accessed 13 April 2013]
National Library of Australia: http://www.bvn.com.au/projects/national_library_of_australia_executive_offices_and_foyer_and_mezzanine_refurbishment.html?OpenDocument&idx=&pcat=&tpl=ext [Accessed 12 April 2013]
Queen Victoria Building: http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/heritageapp/ViewHeritageItemDetails.aspx?ID=5053525 [Accessed 12 April 2013]
Stained glass by Leonard French: Fuller, J. (2010) Leonard French’s stained glass windows at the National Library of Australia. The National Library Magazine 2010 (March) pp. 12- 15. [online] Available from: http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2010/mar10/Leonard-Frenchs-Windows.pdf [Accessed 12 April 2013]
Sydney Town Hall: http://www.sydneytownhall.com.au/building-history.asp [Accessed 12 April 2013]
UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon take 2
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project one: Ancient Greece.
Topic: Canonical Orders.