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Tony Grist

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Architectural Conservatism [Feb. 4th, 2008|10:00 am]
Tony Grist
Every Roman villa is like every other Roman villa. I was thinking this yesterday when the Romanists were clambering over the latest Time Team excavation and going , "Oh yes, that's a thingummywhatsit. In fact it's the best thingummywhatsit I've ever seen."

And this is how it always is. The archaeologists never find anything weird or unique. All the things that come out of the earth- floor-plans, mosaics, decorative schemes, doodads- always conform to recognisable type.

The way they're put together may vary- but the elements remain the same. Roman art and design didn't come off a production line- it wasn't mass-produced- but it might as well have been for all the variety on show.

In theory the Roman landowner could have sat down with his architect and said, "Look, I want to think outside the box here- how about something in the Egyptian taste?"- but he never did.

It wasn't that other styles weren't available, it was just that it never occured to anyone to risk the charge of eccentricity.

I was going to opine that the Romans were a peculiarly conservative people- but, then I thought about it and realised  they weren't.   Our own age is no different.  We have a much wider range of architectural styles to draw on than the Romans did but we mainly don't employ them. We could be building gothic churches and classical law courts but we don't because that would be old-fashioned. And we could be building ultra modern, eco-friendly town houses but we don't because they're weird-looking. 

And we don't care to be laughed at.

Every culture is pretty much like this when it comes to architecture- and the arts in general- but architecture in particular because buildings are so public and represent such a huge investment of time and money.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: strange_complex
2008-02-04 01:11 pm (UTC)
Yes, it's true - although actually the Romans can be seen to have innovated in a lot of ways, as far as they were concerned, traditionalism was a virtue to be trumpeted. The basic idea was that the actions of their ancestors had brought them to world supremacy, so it must be a good thing to carry on doing what their ancestors had always done. Although, as I say, they actually innovated a great deal as well - they just didn't go on about it so much.

Meanwhile, in a province like Britain, there's also of course a whole other layer of behaviour going on, which is largely about non-Romans buying into the sophisticated, civilised culture that was Rome. So wealthy Brits would want to build villas like the ones in Italy, as it was a sign of their participation in a glorious and powerful culture.

In practice, of course, villas in Britain did actually vary quite a lot, while Egyptianising motifs did become very popular for a while in houses in early imperial Italy. But in literature, innovation is almost always talked about in terms of anxiety, and there was always, always a very clear model of what a 'proper', traditional house or villa should look like.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-02-04 03:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I was hoping you'd have something to add.

Is it the case that innovation is more likely to be seen near the centre of the Empire than in its far-flung provinces?

Innovation is associated with anxiety- yes, I like that.
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[User Picture]From: strange_complex
2008-02-04 04:22 pm (UTC)
Self-conscious innovation, yes - there is usually a sense that people in and near Rome are the leaders of fashion, while everyone else is trying to keep up with them.

But that said, plenty of architecture in the provinces looked different from that in the centre of the empire. There, it wasn't so much that the provincials were trying to innovate in the sense that they thought others elsewhere in the empire (and even in Rome) might then imitate their sexy new ideas. Rather, it was more to do with creating their own localised interpretations of things they'd picked up from Rome.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-02-04 10:06 pm (UTC)
I always wonder- looking at reconstructions of Roman buildings- just how much is guesswork. Here in Britain we have the groundplans and fragments of the building materials- and we can supplement this with our knowledge of a extant buildings or pictures of buildings from other parts of the Empire- but that's not a lot to go on.

Palaeontologists are continually revising their ideas of what the dinosaurs looked like- is it the same with Roman architecture?
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[User Picture]From: strange_complex
2008-02-05 01:00 pm (UTC)
Yes, there are often areas of doubt - particularly once you get up above the first storey. In many cases, the only guide to whether there were upper floors or not is the thickness of the walls at ground level, with the principle being that you needed to build thicker walls to support the weight of extra storeys.

But there's a lot more Roman-period architecture about the place than I think is usually the case for fossilised skeletons. So there are usually plenty of similar sites to reconstruct a fragmentary one from. Also, it helps a lot that the Romans were very fond of symmetry. So if you've got one half of a building, you can usually make a pretty good guess at what the other half would have looked like!
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[User Picture]From: margaretarts
2008-02-04 04:34 pm (UTC)
Innovation is almost always talked about in terms of anxiety

I like that concept very much, too--thanks. I find it true in both writing and design (my 2 fields) when trying to even press against the *sides* of the box while staying in-bounds! Your thought helps me realize that breaking outside the box *will* create huge amounts of anxiety in others, yes, but will not necessarily kill anyone. (I'm speaking about a sustainable design project I'm trying to get off the ground here in Portland.)
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[User Picture]From: strange_complex
2008-02-04 05:01 pm (UTC)
I thought I'd add a concrete example of Roman anxiety about innovation, since you and poliphilo both find it interesting. It's from a manual on architecture, written by a fellow named Vitruvius in the Augustan period (i.e. end of the first century BC / start of the first century AD), and relates to changes in fashion in domestic wall-paintings.

Vitruvius approvingly describes the old-fashioned styles of wall-painting, which at first involved painting imitation marble panels like this, and later incorporated 'trompe l'oeil' architecture like this, or images of myths and landscape scenery like this. That's all fine, says Vitruvius, because they were basically painting things which could potentially exist in real life. But he's really uncomfortable about the latest fashion, which is to represent fantastical monsters and unrealistic architecture, e.g. like this.

This is what he actually says about it:

"But such things never did, do, nor can exist in nature. These new fashions have so much prevailed, that for want of competent judges, true art is little esteemed. How is it possible for a reed to support a roof, or a candelabrum to bear a house with the ornaments on its roof, or a small and pliant stalk to carry a sitting figure; or, that half figures and flowers at the same time should spring out of roots and stalks? And yet the public, so far from discouraging these falsehoods, are delighted with them, not for a moment considering whether such things could exist. Hence the minds of the multitude, misled by improper judges, do not discern that which is founded on reason and the rules of propriety. No pictures should be tolerated but those established on the basis of truth; and although admirably painted, they should be immediately discarded, if they transgress the rules of propriety and perspicuity as respects the subject." (Full text here).

He's a pretty dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, and it's also obvious from his passage that the majority of people were very keen on the new, unrealistic style of paintings. But nonetheless, his kind of views are the ones most often expressed in elite literature.
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[User Picture]From: margaretarts
2008-02-04 05:42 pm (UTC)
his kind of views are the ones most often expressed in elite literature.

Too true. Thanks for a great illustration of your point.

I'll add an illustration from the arts: A few years ago, I was attacked verbally at an international conference for having the gall to compare the work of a visual artist (Vincent van Gogh) and a poet (G. M. Hopkins), instead of comparing the work of a poet with another poet or an artist with an artist. But a professor from Japan said that my academic method, though different from most in the room, was completely valid.

Eastern culture allows differences to be held together in harmony, such as the idea of wabi sabi: something grows more lovely as it ages and shows its cracks. For Western culture to continue instead of collapsing in on itself, it needs to embrace that concept of holding disparate things. That's the whole definition of metaphor, after all. As it is, there is only "right and wrong" art, as in your illustration of Vitruvius. I wonder how long it was from the time of this pronouncement by Vitruvius to the fall of Rome?

Going back to your post, poliphilo, I agree with you that architecture today is too conservative...and often just in poor taste. In America, at least, it's relatively easy to point to a house and guess its age, by outer clues, to the nearest half-decade...from the late 1800s up to the end of the 1960s. Now houses are often just a poor mish-mash of older styles. We need a new beautiful style. Or styles.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-02-04 07:38 pm (UTC)
Hopkins and Van Gogh- yes, I would never have thought to compare them, but clearly they have a lot in common- an awareness of nature as an expression of the divine- and an attempt to express that awareness in terms of style.

As for architecture- at least we seem to have moved beyond the brutalism of the postwar decades. There are lots of dull buildings going up today (as always) but few that make a virtue of being inhuman.
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[User Picture]From: margaretarts
2008-02-04 08:57 pm (UTC)
On GMH and VG--- yes, exactly. Their biographies are incredibly similar in many ways, though they took almost opposite paths in their vocations. One embraced God and tried to deny his art, while the other denied God [he says this in a letter to Theo] in order to focus solely on his art. They died within a year of one another, only one country apart, and since neither was famous during his lifetime, neither could have heard of the other. So how could they have created these similar works of art, unless their minds were simply working in the same vein: compare Van Gogh's painting 'Starry Night Over the Rhone' (userpic/1888) and Hopkins' poem 'Starlight Night' (1877):

"Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there..."

Our American postwar architecture may be different than England's, in that we tried so hard to return to a quaint normalcy that perhaps never was. "The American way of life" came to mean what one had left behind in Iowa and what one had fought for. But in the new suburbs of the late 40s, the old-fashioned farmhouse had to shrink to fit, with a white picket fence (instead of a fence that kept in farm animals) with incoherent architectural trappings like fake shutters and front porches so narrow nobody could sit on them. Anyhow, it's fascinating how architecture seems to be the outward manifestation of a country's mind.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-02-04 09:57 pm (UTC)
One could talk about them both being plugged into the zeitgeist- but it wouldn't really explain anything.

In England the postwar return to normalcy meant throwing up millions of detached or semi-detached houses with gardens- most of them dull and some positively hideous. More recently we've re-discovered the Georgian style and have taken to equipping the slightly more expensive new houses with porticos and other classically derived features.
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[User Picture]From: margaretarts
2008-02-04 10:04 pm (UTC)
Yes. And circling back to the comment that started this thread, I'll add a quote:

Opinions that deviate from the ruling zeitgeist always aggravate the crowd. - Germaine de Staël

Amen, Germaine.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-02-04 10:23 pm (UTC)
That's very nicely put.

(With just a touch of aristocratic hauteur)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-02-04 07:26 pm (UTC)
I prefer the new style myself...

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