Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Architectural Symbolism 101: Geometry
Classical architecture has a rich and intricate symbolic repertoire reaching back to earliest recorded history that today can be compared to ancient Latin: a language once in common currency but today understood only by a few adepts. Well into the 19th century, the educated viewer could read a building as one reads a book, but today the language of classicism is largely mute to us, much of its meaning lost and eroded by time and the relentless evolution of human societies.
The first step in deciphering the meaning of the built world is to understand a structure's geometryboth its two-dimensional plan and in three dimensions. The origins of geometryliterally, "the measure of the earth"are as obscure as the origins of civilization, and much that was "discovered" by the likes of Pythagoras was actually obtained from the priestly caste of ancient Egypttheir own knowledge so lost in the mists of time that it was attributed to Toth, god of language and knowledgeand was simply openly disseminated by the Greeks for the first time.
Pi, for example, often attributed to Archimedes, is clearly encoded in the measures of the Great Pyramid of Giza (and was also known in ancient China, the Indus Valley and in Sumer). Likewise, the symbolic meaning of geometry and number can be traced through the Greeks and the other ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean basin to Egypt and Sumer, and when we continue farther in time we encounter the evidence of monolithic civilizations destroyed by the last ice age, about which so much has been projected and too little known. The point here is to identify the origin of the symbolic meaning of geometric figures: Egypt, transmitted to us via the Greeks and their neighbors.
We will use a very simple example to illustrate geometry's symbolic power: the Bosquet of the Three Fountains in the gardens of Versailles (depicted in the watercolor reproduced at the top of the post). This elaborate garden-within-a-garden was built in the early 1700s by order of Louis XIV, and tradition holds that the king acted as his own architect and directed the bosquet's design.
The bird's-eye-view watercolor above was commissioned by the Société des Amis de Versailles to aid in fund-raising efforts to rebuild the bosquet. As you can see, the garden is laid out on three levels: each parterre with its central fountain is linked by grass steps, ramps and low cascades to the level below. Like the other baroque bosquets in the park of Versailles designed for Louis XIV, the Three Fountains is rigidly geometric and features elaborate water displays.
Though difficult to see in this small reproduction, the highest, farthest fountain has a circular basin; the middle basin is square and the lowest is octagonal. And here we have the crux of the bosquet's symbolic meaning: the circle (and its three-dimensional counterpart the sphere) represents the arcing vault of the heavens.
The square represents the earth, literally its four "corners," or cardinal directions (as well as the four known continents of the Renaissance age: Europe, Asia, Africa and America).
Finally, the octagon is the symbol of kingship, standing halfway between earth and Heaven, the square and the circlea perfect geometric form that perfectly incarnates the French conception of the sovereign as the essential mediator standing midway between God and the people.
The traditional method of constructing an octagon begins with a square, upon which one inscribes the arc of a circle. Constructing an octagon also generates an infinitely regressing triangle, further adding to the figure's symbolic power (in fact, Louis XIV became linked to Descartes' idea of a centered infinitywith himself as the central point from which infinity was referenced, of course).
You will also notice that Louis XIV did not place the octagon between the circle and the square, as one would expect, but rather he employed it as the summation of a progression, or an equation: Heaven (circle) and earth (square) give rise to the king (octagon). And here we have a simple but profound insight into the mind of the Sun King: unsurprisingly, he considered himself and his position as the summation of the union of Heaven and earth, rather than as the mediator between them. No one ever said Louis XIV was afflicted by self-doubt.
Finally, what we have here is a perfect symbolic expression of absolutismno surprise really, as the bosquet was conceived by the man who literally defined the age. France, in the Age of Louis XIV, superceded Italy to claim first place among the powers of Europe in all spheres, including for the first time, culturally. Though it used the art and architecture of Italy as its template, France constructed its cultural hegemony upon the foundations of absolutism, not humanism, and Leonardo's humanist vision of man as the center and measure of all things was replaced by the idea of a single mana king.