Reclaiming Classicism Part 4 – Nature

Picking up from the earlier post where I was trying to get at a better definition of what classical architecture is, there seems to be three main themes that best explain it, namely Nature, Tradition and Language.

If we start with nature, we need to look as far back as we can to when we first started to build. For as long as we can work out, shelter has always been an essential requirement for humans to survive. And from earliest times to modern-day, humans have had to deal with the same issues around climate, materials, physics and technology.

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Early humans did not use caves for habitation generally speaking. Caves were used as permanent depositories for things that were precious to them, such as ritualistic objects, human remains and knowledge in the form of cave paintings and carvings

Starting in the Paleolithic era roughly 100,000 years ago, the first shelters used by humans were naturally occurring. Humans used existing forms for shelter such as caves, hills, forests, groves and valleys and adapted to these existing natural forms. Our image of the ancient “caveman” is not particularly accurate, but caves did seem to serve as important venues in the spiritual lives of earliest humans. This is evidenced by the discovery of ritual deposits and cave paintings showing important aspects of their lives and beliefs. Humans were generally not tied down to one particular spot and so caves did not seem to be used as the homes at this time as we might have imagined. Instead they were homes for something far more important; homes for their most precious objects and beliefs concerning the world around them. In a way they served as the libraries of the ancient world.

In Paleolithic times, humans considered the whole world as their home and so it was natural that there was an intimate relationship between humans and the natural landscapes that they inhabited. The natural forms humans encountered during this time became the models to follow which evolved into later architectural forms that are still familiar to us. But these later forms were not just literal models of what humans encountered, it was far more subtle. From adapting to the naturally occurring forms in the world around them, humans were able to develop discrete strands of knowledge such as how different materials could be worked and also an understanding of the structure of the forms they had seen and used as shelters in the past.

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A Finnish Saami family outside their Laavu at the end of the 19th C. The Laavu is a temporary/ portable home that suited their nomadic way of life i.e. following their main food-source, the reindeer during their annual migrations. Structures similar to the Laavu allowed Mesolithic people to follow their food sources into areas of land previously covered by ice-sheets.

Jumping forward to 10,000 BCE to the Mesolithic era, we can see how humans were now combining simple naturally occurring shelters with temporary structures. This was a time of extreme climate change when the great ice sheets were retreating northwards and humans began migrating into the vast swathes of newly exposed lands. Tempted by the abundant fauna inhabiting these new lands, these first societies were nomadic and tribal, and their architecture also reflected this. Small portable structures were grouped together in camps for certain periods of the year, depending on the resources at hand, and then were packed up and moved on when the food source moved on.

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The foundations trenches of a typical Neolithic house in Co. Wexford; re-cut a number of times as the house was rebuilt in the same location. Also of note are the extended walls which produce features known as antae; a common feature of later classical buildings.

As the climate settled after the ice-age, humans became less nomadic and were able to settle in areas that could provide for them all year round. This Neolithic period of approximately 7000 BCE is when many humans transitioned from a nomadic lifestyle to truly living off the land and developing the first agriculture. At this early time, agriculture tended to be very basic and normally relied on one main food source such as  cattle in Africa and grain in central Asia. The architecture of these first pastoral and agricultural settlements developed from earlier portable models but it was not durable and relied on being replaced at regular intervals over time. Looking at the archaeological record of Neolithic sites it is common to see overlapping foundation trenches for multiple versions of the same building in the same spot. At some stage it must have occurred that this was very costly and wasteful and so the drive to more durable and permanent buildings must have begun.

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Newgrange is basically a man-made hill with an artificial cave built-in; it is an emulation of earlier ritualistic sites that occur ed naturally.

During the Neolithic era, the population was very small with family settlements spread far apart. But at certain times of the year people gathered and participated in necessary communal activities such as marriages, trade and feasting. For whatever reason, these locations become ritual landscapes with what could be described as the first durable architecture. The most famous of these in Ireland is the Boyne Valley with the great tombs of Knowth and Newgrange being examples of huge communal effort and investment. We know that hills and caves were important locations for ritual activity before the Neolithic, and so caves were an obvious model for the great tombs, which for all intents and purposes are enormous man-made hills with their own artificial caves built within. In this way the first architecture was an emulation of the naturally occurring structures that humans encountered in their environments. Other examples of man-made emulations of hills and caves are the Buddhist Stupa and the Egyptian Mastaba, which later developed into the Pyramid. Also of note is that these earliest structures would have been built in many stages and expanded over many iterations and additions; a bit like a tree adding growth-rings every year.

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A Buddhist Stupa which like the great tombs of Ireland or Egypt is an emulation of a naturally occurring sacred structure.

The other most common type of architectural model that humans adapted is the grove or forest. These discrete sacred locations would have been perceived as being the home of a particular god that needed to be appeased, so at these locations simple shelters would have been built which over time became more elaborate and permanent. Unlike the tombs of the Irish or the Egyptian, these structures were replaced rather than added to with every iteration elaborating on what came before. In this way early timber structures surrounded by trees evolved into what we now all recognize as the classic Greek temple with its’ small inner sanctum or naos with rows of surrounding trees which developed into the rows of columns of the classic hypostyle hall

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The Temple of Amon in Egypt showing massive stone columns emulating or imitating the stalks of papyrus reeds.
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A plate from James Gibb’s “Treatise on the Decorative Part of Civil Architecture from 1759, showing the evolution of architecture from portable camps to timber huts which eventually evolved into the stone architecture of early Greece.

So we can see that there are many common threads in our earliest architecture, no matter which corner of the world we look at. This commonality is due to the fact that all humans had to deal with similar factors such as climate, natural materials and human physical limitations. Through this common foundation all early humans had a deep and innate understanding of natural structures and tectonics; By looking at the natural world they could see tapering of limbs, thickening at junctions, splaying for stability and the combination of uprights and cross-members for simple frames, and they used these concepts in their shelters.

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From the earliest age we gain an innate and deep understanding of the naturally occurring structures around us. We were an integral part of the world and not just alien inhabitants of it.

It is also important to remember that everybody was a crafts-person, everybody was their own architect and so every person had to have an understanding of the materials in their environment from which they would need to make their own shelters. In this way the earliest architecture was an extension of the natural world; it emulated nature and was seen as living in a sense. There was a natural harmony and unity between the environment, humans and architecture.

Architecture as we know it today is the result of evolution from the natural world. This evolution was fueled by the pressure to develop more durable and permanent shelters from the earliest portable models. This pressure brought about the evolution of materials such as the move from wood to stone, and the constant iterations of the same model that refined and perfected details and proportions.

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A very simple example of a fractal pattern which explains beautifully and simply the complexity of how natural strictures developer and grow

This evolution also brought about more subtle ideas about beauty and philosophy. Natural harmony and beauty was a very practical and reliable way to judge quality – “if it looks right, it is right” would have made perfect sense to the prehistoric architect. In this way beauty was truth and goodness, it was not just a subjective matter of opinion or taste. Natural beauty was the goal. Today, the idea of beauty has been reduced to a shallow marketing angle applied to consumer products, when in the past it was an integral and essential quality for the success of a structure. Beauty was seen as being related to some kind of cosmic order which the earliest mathematicians were able to back up with their research into proportions, divisions and adaptations.

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Christopher Alexander – one of the most influential mathematicians alive today. And probably the most important architect you have never heard of.

Indeed today influential mathematicians such as Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros have delved much deeper into the concept of beauty through their work on pattern languages, fractals, biophilia and complexity science. It is not an exaggeration to say that the science of beauty is fueling much of the mathematics behind the information technology that we take for granted as we again look to nature for models to explain our increasingly complex understanding of the world around us.

By the time we get to the ancient Greeks, architecture had become something far more than just shelter. Buildings had become objects of devotion in their own right and an expression of the seemingly cosmic order underlying our understanding of the world.

Next we look at Tradition, the means by which knowledge has been transferred from one generation to the next for thousands of years, and how architecture has benefited from traditional development.

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