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Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Parthenon

The Parthenon, Athens, Greece (not to be confused with the Pantheon in Rome)
During the past few months I've written in some depth about American domestic architecture--the walls and halls wherein we hang our hats. And one of the most pervading influences in this area has been the classic precept of Greek temple architecture. I've taken for granted that everyone was basically familiar with such influences as seen in our national landmarks such as the Greek Revival White House and such later structures as the Lincoln Memorial and the Supreme Court building (both twentieth century works). And while we might be visually familiar with such Greek influences, we probably know little of their antecedents. Let me, then, take you back to July 28, 447 Athens, the Panathenic a place atop a modestly prominent hill marking the centre of the growing, prosperous, city ruled by an elected, governing council dominated by one man, the famed Pericles.

To imagine the Parthenon in all its original Hellenic glory, you only have to travel as far as
Nashville, Tennessee, to find this full-scale polychromic reproduction.
As the sun rises, we find thousands of Athenians already milling about a large, flat, stone platform atop the Acropolis. They have gathered to see the laying of the cornerstone to a rebuilding of the temple to their warrior goddess, Athena, daughter of Zeus. Two groups seem to be the focus of attention. Much like today's political landscape, they represent on the one hand the conservative, aristocratic faction made up of old wealth, dedicated to the parsimonious use of public funds, and the construction of public buildings with private funds. On the other side, is a younger, more radical, intellectual group, which has grown in power to the point of eradicating private patronage from public works. Pericles is their leader. Between them stands Phidias, the most famous sculptor and architect in all Greece. And as he lodges into place the cornerstone to his massive new temple, he sets in motion the most ambitious, most remarkable public building project in the history of man to that point--what we now know as the Parthenon.

Despite its seemingly simple beauty and perfection, there was nothing simple about
the temple layout, design, or engineering.
Two years had already gone into its design and site preparation. Even though the new temple was built upon the reinforced foundation of the old, unfinished one destroyed by the Persians some forty years earlier, Phidias' new construction was much more than just a rebuilding of the old. Traditional proportions in Greek temple architecture called for a 6 : 6 X 2+1 formula. That is, a grid of six squares in width; times two, plus one, or thirteen squares in length. Given size and weight limitations of stone masonry at the time, that formula severely limited the scale of the original temple. Phidias solved this by encircling the inner temple on all four sides, with an outer row of slightly larger columns, thus making the structure 8 columns wide; and, to maintain the same visual effect, multiplying that times two, plus 1; or 17 columns long. Added to this, he counteracted the sagging visual effect of a long, horizontal line by bowing the base of his temple platform slightly upward in the centre. And to further heighten the majestic verticality of his design, he made the columns proportionally somewhat thinner than the norm, slightly narrower at the top, decreed that they be fluted, and canting them ever so slightly inward toward an imaginary vanishing point some one-and-a-half miles above the structure.

Nothing short of strolling amid the rubble can convey the massive sophistication of
the construction effort as seen in this cut-away illustration.
The first year of construction was spent hauling the massive quantities of pure white Pentelic marble from a quarry three thousand feet above the ten miles of flat plain separating it and the building project. Each block of marble took two days to make the trip at a cost of 300 drachmas (one drachma was the pay for a day's work by a common labourer). The carts carrying the stones had wheels of up to twelve feet in diameter and were pulled by teams of thirty oxen. Ropes and pulleys were then used to heave the stones, some weighing as much as 22 tons, to the top of Acropolis hill. Only then could the carvers dress the stones and hundreds of laborers begin erecting the 46 outer columns and twelve, slightly thinner inner columns. The main part of the temple was largely constructed between 444 and 441 BCE. Inside was Phidias' sculptural masterpiece, a forty-foot tall wooden statue of Athena clad in ivory with raiment, shield, and helmet of solid gold (over 2,500 pounds of it). Her eyes were precious sapphires. The cost was scandalous--some 3,500,000 drachmas for the gold alone, plus another 1,386,000 in ivory--far outstripping the cost of the entire temple. And, as might be expected today under such circumstances, there were political cries of wild extravagance, legislative investigations, criminal charges, and trials for fraud.

Despite the formal, stylistic perfection of the Parthenon, its environment atop Athens'
Acropolis mount was a jumble of what appears to be randomly place temples and
peripheral structures far removed from the symetrical order we usually associate
with Greek architecture.
By today's standards we would find the finished temple more than a little gaudy and quite over embellished. The pure white marble, which has since matured to a warm, honey colour due to trace amounts of iron in the stone; was painted with a myriad of different colours. Sculptural decorations bordered on the excessive. They and the frieze running around the entire structure were done in bright polychromatic hues to heighten their visual impact. The total cost of Pericles' cultural imperialism, including the Parthenon, the statue of Athena, and the Propylaea (the gateway approach to the hill), has been estimated at about 12,072,000 drachmas. All this, and the site served its original cult function for less than fifty years before the onslaught of the Peloponnesian Wars. Since then the Parthenon has been a church, a mosque, a citadel, an armoury, and a Nazi stronghold.

Despite the Greek economy, the Parthenon seems to be perpetually under reconstruction.
When I was there in 2010, the dominant architectural style seemed to be "scaffolding revival."
Today, the Parthenon is an outdoor museum, some eighty percent in ruins after centuries of earthquakes, armed conflicts, and the explosion of a cache of Turkish gunpowder stored there in 1687 (which did by far the greatest damage). The statue of Athena was removed to Constantinople in 400 CE. and subsequently disappeared. What we see today is nothing more than a skeleton, stripped bare by centuries of plunderous treasure hunters. (England's Lord Elgin carted off most of the exterior sculpture to the British Museum in the early 1800s.) Yet, so indelible was the spark of genius unleashed by Pericles, Phidias, and their engineers atop the Acropolis nearly 2,500 years ago, that the Parthenon continues to live and breathe today in the design of our homes, our banks, our libraries, museums, and halls of government. I've even seen a small Ionic temple not far from here housing an ATM.
This early "ATM" dating from 1922, took on the shape of a Greek Revival bank. (It was one-way.)


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