The expression of human society exhibits a dynamic and enterprising appeal. Its physical surroundings are made of still and upright forms which we call buildings. All settlements, since the dawn of civilization, have demonstrated the need for man to build and affirm his presence through such acts. In buildings, we find the expression of the upright and the necessary. It is necessary, because to build is a statement—one which carries a symbolic appeal of our presence as individuals in society. Th act of building is so intertwined with our human condition that when Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai, he was also given a plan for a temple. A temple, which as the story unfolds, is destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt, redestroyed a second time by the Romans, before being built anew. Such is the symbolic importance of architecture, that we find it mentioned in the story of the Old Testament, side by side with the revelation by God to Moses of the Ten Commandments.
With this backdrop, it is important to retain the importance of buildings in human settlement. For as long as men congregated to form a social unit, society was built upon three premises, those being that of settlement, law and consecration; a reciprocal dynamic exists in this trinity: all three are conceived as one and require each other’s existence in the symbolic act of building. As the eminent philosopher Roger Stone stated, to settle is to abide, and to settle is to consecrate: we consecrate the land that we settle, and abide by the laws of this land; through such, buildings occupy the symbolic expression of human settlement.
This piece aims to investigate the symbolic importance of architecture in human society. We ask ourselves: is architecture but a utilitarian tendency to meet the functionalist needs of human activity or does it exhibit a higher status? To answer the question, we ought to first examine the role of aesthetics in architecture and then proceed to understand the tenants of building as conceived by the ancients and relegated to us moderns.
The classical notion of aesthetics, whether displayed in architecture, a beautiful painting or in a piece of music can be characterized as the striving to unite the yearning individual with the idea of beauty. One of the questions I ask myself in this essay is: if an objective beauty does exist, how does it exhibit itself in architecture? When contemplating a beautiful piece of architecture, we are taken to ponder on the tenants imbued in this piece so as to render it such. Is there an objective quality instilled in such an appreciation, or is it relinquished to the subjective state of the individual? To answer this question, we ought to understand that aesthetic judgment is not far removed from moral judgement; both are characterized by their universality and driven by our reason to defend and uphold them.
When we think of a particular thing that exhibits beautiful traits, we say that this thing is beautiful, and expect all others to feel the same satisfaction when contemplating this object. If someone disagrees with our judgment, we can easily be induced to an argument, since what underlies our judgment is a presumed universal validity: we demand or require agreement from other human beings in a way that we don’t for individual preferences such as my judgment of a chocolate bar or that of a glass of wine. Contingent feelings and sentiments, are determined by a myriad of factors, and not fit to be justified by a rational framework, but aesthetic judgment, like moral judgment, seeks to be reasoned and proved. Moral and aesthetic judgment, in their mutual proximity, are two faces of the same coin, both strive to represent our understanding of Truth through different lenses. As such, aesthetic judgment is a form of harmonious free play between our cognitive faculties of imagination, which is a subjective form of representation, and that of understanding, which demands objectivity.
Having stated that taste and aesthetic judgement find commonalities with morality, we ought to state the differences between both and the specificity of aesthetic judgment in relation to other forms of judgments. Aesthetic judgment is first and foremost perceived and absorbed by the means of our senses since it is exhibited in the realm of matter. A work of art is observed and a piece of music is heard; we exhibit a dependency towards our senses to connect with the object in question. Although art depends on the realm of matter to exert itself and be present, a good piece of art, however, molds matter to its calling so as to direct the attention of the observer to a higher idea. In such acts lies the universal quality that we seek in a piece of art.
As Schiller states: “For art to leave reality, it has to raise itself boldly above necessity and neediness; for art is the daughter of freedom, and it requires its prescriptions and rules to be furnished by the necessity of spirits and not by that of matter.” In his Aesthetic letters, Schiller clearly establishes that the true purpose of art is to transcend the temporal yoke of necessity which is exhibited by the rule of utility and lend itself into the hands of the spirit which it, and only it, is free. All fine art aims to freedom, and freedom is achieved when the laws of matter are transcended for the laws of morality. But man, being born into the hands of nature, is dependent on her until his coming of age; he comes of age when maturity gives way to intelligence and becomes independent of all necessities imposed upon him by nature. We call upon the arts to bridge this gap between the realms of matter and morality.
Man, through the arts as a loving medium, embrace both realms and seek for a middle ground to unite the extremes, through it, the savageness of nature is subdued and the loftiness of morality is humbled. To refer once more to Schiller, he says that it is incumbent to make the physical character of the arbitrary harmonize with the laws, and to bring moral freedom closer to the arbitrary by making it dependent on impressions. It is in such a medium where we find the nature and aim of art; in fine arts, we find both a material component which is necessary, but also a moral component which aims to divert the viewer’s attention to a loftier world. It is only with the fine arts that we find this hierarchical interaction in a piece of work: one where the laws of the universal molds and instructs matter in a rigid but harmonious way. Such a hierarchical interplay is forgotten with contemporary architecture, since the universal tenants which are held as unvarying principles since the Greco-Roman age are relegated and dismissed for the subjective arbitrariness found in the laws of matter.
We first stated that aesthetic judgment falls in the category of judgments which seek to establish a universal tenant, establishing itself through the faculty of reason. Later, we stated that art has a clear material element to it, but that its ultimate goal is to transcend the arbitrary and the contingent to strive towards freedom. We will now look at the role which temples or religious monuments play in shaping our understanding of architecture.
The enduring principles which were found historically in architecture reside in those architectural works which have religious significance. Whether it be the application of proportion, symmetry and harmony in architecture through our understanding of geometrical laws, or whether it be the application of distinct ratios to a figure, or again whether it be the idea of architectural motifs, or our discovery of architectural illusions: all are concepts derived from what we now call sacred architecture. An intimate rapport with the sacred is found in the birth of architecture. Since ancient times, those qualities that instill order and harmony in society—qualities such as measure, law, proportion and distinction—were perceived as carrying sacred traits since they are the expression of the ideal which contrasts with our fallen world, an ideal perfect enough that only the gods could afford to embody. As Roger Scruton mentions in his book: The Aesthetics of Architecture, buildings are places in which the fundamental needs of human communities – law, settlement and consecration – come together. Sacred architecture is therefore a paradigm, Scruton says, from which the lesser styles of architecture derive. The language of the temple informs the entire city, and survives in its façade, its alleyway, its window frames and doors; the tenants of scared architecture are captured in the temple which governs the city, and its essence is distilled throughout the fullness of the city. Such is the example of the Acropolis, standing high above the city of Athens, overlooking the city, defining and ordering it; in her form, she exhibits the symbolic idea unconsciously sought by the city and its people. The form of the classical temple is subservient to the idea; it molds itself to become the symbolic representative of the eternal here on earth. The classical temple is a precinct, where its façade, permeable to the city, offers free movement for its God with the city. Greek architecture is characterized by the three elements which contribute to its effect, those being: the column, the colonnade and the steps. The column, standing tall, symbolic of its supportive quality, resembles the upright man who released from his imprisonment in matter, now stands in the world of thought.
The column is the first element in Greek architecture: like the proportions found in humans, it can appear too fat or too thin, too tall or too short. The proportions found in a column, structures and orders the rest of the building. The colonnade exhibits the boundary between inner and outer and is permeable to the city, it sits atop of the city, raised as it were by its steps; its air, sacred enough to merit its height, but also loving enough to offer free commerce with the rest of the city. Sacred architecture, in opposition to modern architecture, represents an end in of itself and acquires its full merit by devolving from all utilitarian tendencies. Let us mention here that the classical temple was symbolic of a universality for all people and all times, since it strives to represent the qualities of justice, beauty, law and order, resisting all representations secular in nature. Aeschylus’s famous tragic work the Oresteia represents Athene the god of Justice, as displayed in her full glory among the columns of the Acropolis; the tragedy and the blood lust which results in the fall of the house of Atreus is resolved under the arms of universality and justice.
Ever since the Egyptians conceived their monuments, buildings had a certain harmony of form which seemed natural to the viewer’s eye. This underlying harmony was due to the implementation of distinct proportions brought to be through the application of measurement and ratios. When we compare the different parts that govern an Egyptian monument, we are taken to notice that between each part, a common measure, simple in nature, governs the monument; they are simple since the ratios used are in the order of 1:2 or 3:5. The Egyptians, due to their practical instinct, would relegate all dimensions to the metric unit which constituted, so to speak, an inevitable common measure which orders the whole figure. The idea of the Unit, as the basis of measure, renders all of its works harmonious to the eye of the viewer. In his book, L’Histoire de l’Architecture, Auguste Choisy would go on to say that the “idea of the unit in a piece of art is that of a law which dominates the whole: we feel the existence of this law, even though we ignore its formula; transcending all theory, in music that of a false note, in architecture that of a faulty proportion, shocks us like a derogation of a harmonic law which we carry in us an instinctive sentiment.” Auguste Choisy implies through this phrase that nature exhibits an inherent harmony which we humans cease to recognize since it becomes a normal phenomenon, but this harmony becomes the object of the musician, the architect or the artist who looks to decipher nature’s secrets and elaborate its laws ins all his work.
The Egyptians’ interest in simple ratios was also witnessed in their geometry. The Egyptian right-angle triangle which carries sides in the order of 3-4-5 was perceived by the Egyptians to carry a sacred quality; it was used in various combinations to produce distinct forms such as that of the arch. If we look at the figure below, we notice that the Egyptian arch, represented on the far-right corner, is built upon the 3-4-5 right-angle triangle and obtained by 3 different compass strokes.
The Egyptian arch, built on the basis of the right-angle triangle, is very close to the concept of the catenary curve which was at the basis of the Gothic and the Renaissance vaults and buttresses. The significance of the catenary curve is revealed in its geometry, since it carries more weight and exhibits more potential for “work” than any other form of surface. Curved surfaces have this special feature that allows them to have a larger carrying capacity with the same quality and quantity of material used. The ogival arches were not particular to only the Egyptians, they could also be found among the Myceneans, as seen in the Treasury of Atreus in the figure below.
The infamous use of the catenary curve can be seen in the genius of Brunelleschi’s Florentine Dome. The cathedral was completed in 1436, after being planned for construction in 1296 and taking some 140 years to build; the completion of the cathedral left the architects with a monumental challenge when came time to realise the construction of the dome. The constraints of the dome were numerous, it had to be built without any support (in gothic architecture, massive external buttresses were used for support) nor could the builders use the traditional form of centering through the use of scaffolding. These constraints led Brunelleschi to devise multiple solutions, including the use of a catenary shaped dome, a double shelled dome, internal stone and barrel chains serving as barrel hoops to resist lateral stress, and an ancient method of placing bricks resembling a fish-scale pattern whose use was to divert stress onto the whole structure. Most impressive was the manner in which the dome rose: an invisible geometry guided the dome towards the heavens. A full narration of the dome’s construction would be too long for the purpose of this article, but the example of Brunelleschi’s dome is mentioned as the quintessential genius of architecture, whose true role, under the guise of the sacred, was to transcend the physical and find in eternal principles a salvation by which reality continually strives to defy its inherent weight.
Architecture seeks harmony: one between man and nature, and one between man and Man. Early settlements built their cities from materials found in their surroundings, and buildings, borrowed their materials from the environment in which they settled. Chinese architecture for example, made use of wood as one of the main construction materials, due to the characteristic of Chinese geography which renders wood a widely available material. On the other hand, with Greek architecture, stone was the material of choice and many of their buildings and monuments made use of stones. As Vitruvius states, architecture is an imitation of nature, in the way birds and bees build their nests, so did the first human societies borrow from nature to build their settlement. With human evolution, the type of borrowing evolved from that which sought to borrow solely from the visible state of nature to that which sought to decipher the invisible laws governing nature by uniting the principles found in mathematics, geometry and art.
The aim of architecture as one which seeks to instill harmony in human society is prevalent in all classical cultures from ancient China, India, Persia, Greek, Arabic or Egyptian societies: all have sought for a sense of proportion in their works to attain harmony with nature. All cultures feel a sense for the universal, albeit, the expression of such sentiment naturally differs from one culture to the next. Harmony means measure, and measure implies proportion. Classical civilization found the principal source of proportion in the human figure, expressed symbolically by the Vitruvian Man which exemplifies the essential symmetry of the human body and by extension of the universe as a whole.
To conclude, the classical notion of art seeks for a symbiosis between the physical realm—characterized by necessity—and the universal realm—characterized by the idea of freedom. The classical notion of aesthetics seeks to bridge the aforementioned gap by a proper form of education to instill in man a sense for the beautiful so as to create harmony in human society. The industrial revolution and more so the advent of the 20th century led to the rise of functionality and relegated art to the unfettered subjective sentiments of man. Architecture is but the expression of an age, and like all works of art depicts outwardly the constitution of an era. Art sets our standard for normality, and occupies a noteworthy place in our unconscious from which society’s beat is dictated. The radical shift in our sense of normality is the achievement of 20th century vacillation which led unmistakably to a radial mutation in our sense of beauty. What are the consequences of post-modern aesthetic taste for society? How has it altered our present age? And if the old tune has run its course, what is the nature of the upcoming one?
Ryan Hamadeh is a writer with interests in philosophy, society, politics, and history. More of his writings can be found on his Medium page.