Posted on May 8, 2015
On recent travels to Greece and Egypt it became grossly apparent to me that we have lost a quality to our buildings that is essential to architecture’s cultural and societal expression; that one characteristic that gives architecture the true ability to be sustainable- permanence.
In Ancient Egypt, reigning Pharaohs believed that Osiris would judge them in the afterlife by their contributions to Egyptian society, culture and to its great architecture. Osiris soul, or Ba, was “The Soul of the Lord of the Pillar of Continuity” and being such, each reigning Pharaoh took care to please Osiris by continuing to extend the great Temples beyond the works of the generation before, creating great structures only possible through a collective effort.
The incredible treasure of ruins found today along the Nile River Valley aren’t great monuments for the Pharaohs as men, for the Pharaohs lived not in palaces (as Cecil B. De Mile would have us believe), but in wooden structures, since as men they were merely temporary- only upon death were they fully deified. What the Pharaohs built of stone were the Temples and the tombs of the gods, architectural offerings as reflections of Egypt’s great and ever-lasting civilization.
The Egyptians and the Greeks understood that they were the mere stewards of their history, as well as their future. Their architecture wasn’t about any one transient individual, but about generations upon generations of those whom, as a collective, represented a people. Some say that Socrates willingly drank hemlock, ending his own life in order to heal the City of Athens’ ills- a selfless act for the cause of community harmony. As a people it was difficult to separate the individual from the whole.
Greek architecture was a reflection of this collective culture. They did not build for the greatness of the individual, but to the greatness of their city. Because of these attitudes, we are left today, some 3000 years later, with the lasting impact on our own cultural expression, evidenced by the impact their architecture has had on our own in expressing meaning in our cultural values.
The Romans on the other hand were once shamed by visiting dignitaries, who discovered the city at the center of the great and growing empire was merely a shabby wooden village. Leading Roman citizens soon understood that building in marble, as the Greeks did, was the only way to impress upon the world the true measure of their greatness. They also soon found that by building aqueducts, roads, forums, theaters, baths and other great buildings; projects so popular among the masses, that individuals used bigger and greater projects as a political tool to rise to power.
Building traditions have expressed continuity of culture through architecture throughout the history and the development of Western Culture. Even the architecture of the Dark Ages sought to connect to the understanding of our world by the ancient Greeks. When The Abbot of Clairevaux, or St. Benard, reformed Church architecture, he looked back to the Greeks and Plato for our understanding of the universe and how the sacred buildings we built could express divine meaning – an understanding of the cosmos that would guide the church and its buildings for centuries; thus, creating a framework for the lives of its many followers. These buildings would be the living word of the Church expressed in stone- a manifestation of the Divine and the teachings of the Church in material form and space.
Societies also sought to use architecture as an expression of longevity. When John Soane designed the Bank of England, he not only presented how the Bank would look when built, but illustrated it beyond the fall of the British Empire, as a vast and beautiful ruin- a future vision of a ruin expressive of the power and culture that Britannia had possessed as one of the greatest civilizations the world had seen.
Next week in part II, the idea of permanence comes to America.