Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Doric Order

The Doric order is the earliest of the classical orders developed by Archaic Greek civilization and was by far the most popular of the three. The eponymous Dorians were the dominant tribe of the four main peoples forming ancient Greece and the Dorian dialect was spoken in a great southward arc stretching across the Aegean from Corfu to the lower Peloponnesian Peninsula and on to the islands of Crete and Rhodes. (Above, the Hephaisteion or Theseion, a remarkably preserved Doric temple located on the north-west side of the Agora of Athens.)

Already well-established in the 7th century BC, the Doric order reached its apotheosis with the stunning achievement of the Parthenon in 438 BC but eventually fell from favor by the end of the 2nd century BC. It would spawn both the Roman Doric, an embellished version with lighter proportions and the addition of the Ionic column base, and much later the highly simplified Tuscan order, developed in 16th century Italy by Serlio and Palladio and employed principally for rural architecture, as embodied by Palladio's villas.

In Di Architectura, Vitruvius, a Roman architect who practiced during the reign of Augustus Caesar, remarked that the Doric was masculine in character and wrote that its fundamental proportion, a column shaft six times its diameter, deliberately mirrored "the proportions, strength and beauty of a man's body." (The length of actual shafts varied between 4½ and 7 column diameters, with the shaft almost uniformly bearing 20 flutes.) He also noted that the Doric was suitable for temples dedicated to such masculine gods as Hercules and Mars, while the Ionic and Corinthian were more feminine.

Though in truth the Romans used the Corinthian order for just about everything, Vitruvius's comments reflect the Doric order's thicker, squatter proportions, its traditional lack of naturalistic or floral ornament and its underlying static, rectilinear æsthetic logic. There is no point in cataloguing Doric elements here for the umpteenth time, rather we will examine the Doric column and its all-important capital and attempt to discern greater meaning than the ancient tidbit Vitruvius has tossed us—and also something beyond the obvious modern observation that many of its rectilinear elements (triglyphs, abacus, mutules, and so on) almost certainly are inspired from earlier timber-frame construction techniques, translated into stone decoration.

The first things to remark about the Doric capital (above and below, examples from the Parthenon) are its remarkable simplicity and unity. In contrast to the elegant, complex bifold geometry of the Ionic and the florid outburst that is the Corinthian, the Doric capital is composed of two visually balanced elemental elements: a thick, squared slab called the abacus and a flaring, circular pillow beneath named the echinus. Usually, but not always, three concentric fillets transition the echinus to the shaft, known as annulets.

Even more so than the Ionic order, the origin of the Doric is too diffuse to pinpoint, but the Archaic Greek impetus to erect monumental dressed stone temples to their gods obviously sprang from the example of the sacred architecture of ancient Egypt, a civilization then already in terminal decline. In the late Archaic period the Greeks and Egypt were carrying out extensive trade and by the 7th century BC Greek neighborhoods and trading centers had become established in Egypt's most important cities.

The general influence of Egypt is clear, as is the direct precedent of the colonnade at Saqqara (above). We find fluting, inverted from the bowed ribs at Saqqara , and the same æsthetic/geometric/volumetric rigor, elegance and abstraction. What is so fascinating with the Doric is exactly this deliberate abstraction, this remarkable renunciation of naturalistic ornament—exactly as we find at Saqqara. In fact, the Doric appears deliberately conceived to embody austere geometry and clear, rectilinear volumetrics.

A circular echinus supporting a square abacus. (Above, a capital at the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.) The circle and the square: Heaven and Earth. The ancient Egyptian principle of "as above, so below" has been purified and abstracted and, I believe, a unity of opposites is being expressed. The Egyptian duality is transformed into a single, fusional idea, most clearly palpable in the overarching æsthetic sense—this volumetric, geometric, abstract rigor I keep referring to—that is the glue that bonds these constituent ideograms together: the concept of consciousness itself. Man, the abstract thinker.

It is no coincidence that the Doric temple makes its appearance in the midst of the intellectual ferment that also sees philosophy's tandem birth. In a nutshell, the Doric order expresses, quite self-consciously and deliberately, the celebration of man's conscious rationality, the blossoming of Greek thought. In fact a parallel to the first recorded Western cosmology, that of Anaximander of Miletus (an Ionian, about which we'll have more to say in our next post on the Ionic), can and indeed has been drawn, but I'm not in agreement with Robert Hahn that Anaximander's vision of the earth as a thick, cylindrical wafer suspended in space finds a literal equivalent in the actual cylindrical stone blocks, or "drums" that make up a Greek column—first of all, because they are construction components and not the column itself. This is like some future archeo-anthropologist concluding that skeletons from our era exhumed with polyester clothing were doubtless acolytes of string theory, because their garments are composed of a complex interweaving of imperishable threads. Columns were conceived to be—and were preferably executed as—monoliths; assembling them from stacked drums was an expedient, a quite-literal "short-cut" never meant to bring attention to itself, let alone be celebrated as a metaphor for the divine order of creation!

But Hahn's thesis isn't totally wrong, though misplaced (and mostly irrelevant as Anaximander was born too late to have any decisive influence on the development of either the Doric or Ionic orders): Anaximander's cosmology is congruent with the column's symbolism, as both share the idea of a centered infinity and, just as importantly, an axiality that can be linked to the cosmic axis of earth and the zodiac. Vitruvius is much closer to the nub of things in symbolically equating the Doric column with man, and thus the capital with man's head, the locus of consciousness. The columns (humanity) support the roof (heaven) which shelters the sanctuary (the abode of the gods). This is the fundamental cosmology being expressed in any Greco-Roman temple. Not by accident is the word pediment, denoting the triangularly shaped wall found between the cornice and the sloping roof ends of a Greek temple, a workman's corruption of the word pyramid.

Vitruvius was certainly correct, the Doric order is the measure of man, but not in the literal sense: What is being measured is not man's body but his mind.

Coming soon: the Ionic order.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Origin of the Orders: Egypt

The colonnade at Saqqara

The origin and meaning of the classical columnar orders has been debated for centuries, with quite some fanciful ideas tossed about to explain how the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders came to be.

This is the first in a series of posts that will re-examine the elements and origins of the classical orders and posit new interpretations of their meanings. But before we look at the classical orders, we should first examine the sacred architecture of the ancient Egyptians, who after all invented the column (not to mention architecture itself), and who were also the source and wellspring for high learning in the Classical world.

The first historical architect (and also engineer and physician) is Imhotep ("he who comes in peace"), one of the greatest intellects ever to walk the earth. Imhotep (2635-2595 B.C.) served as chancellor to the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Djozer and was high priest of the sun god Ra at On, better known by its Greek name of Heliopsis, "city of the sun." He was also a poet and philosopher and one of the few non-Pharaohs in the long history of Egypt ever to be depicted in stone. Eventually, 1400 years after his death, he was deified.

The stepped Pyramid of Djozer at Saqqara

In traditional Egyptology (though the simple existence of the Osirion at Abydos, as well as the advanced erosion of the Great Sphinx and Valley Temples at Giza should give one great pause in blindly accepting the conventional, increasingly untenable chronology), Imhotep is credited with the first systematic use of dressed stone construction, embodied in the design and construction of Djozer's stepped pyramid and temple complex at Saqqara from 2630 to 2611 BCE, and the invention of the column is often attributed to him as well. An altogether astounding personage.

The ceremony of raising the Djed pillar

The concept of the column is ultimately traceable to the Djed pillar, a truly ancient phallic fertility symbol depicting the base of the spine of Osiris (and also that of a bull, or Taurus). The ceremony of the raising of the Djed was a festival of fertility and renewal (Djedu was the Egyptian name for Busiris, a center of cult worship for the Pharaoh, and many pharaohs, Djozer among them, bore the title of Djed among their honorifics).

It is also I suspect the origin of the phrase "raising the dead" and the traditional English wordplay of confounding death with ejaculation. For example, Shakespeare was quite fond of the phrase "I die in your lap," which appears both in Hamlet and Much Ado about Nothing ("nothing" also refers to a woman's sexual organs). This use of double entendre, homonyms and multiple meanings in language and literature has always been an important element of occult and esoteric knowledge. Philology and etymology are rife with such resonant convergences; to give but one well-known example, right and left: right comes from the root reg- and means good, straight, righteous, royal and wise. Then there are write and rite, right? Left derives from the Old English lyft, foolish or weak, and ultimately from OE slinken, to crawl (like a snake). Left in German is links and sinister in Latin, the English synonym for evil.

Now that we've dealt with how Shakespeare entertained the groundlings, let us consider the surprise of surprises: columns are ultimately phallic symbols. Who ever would have guessed? To underscore the fertility symbolism, even the earliest columns were depicted with abstracted vegetal motifs. Though much of the architecture of Saqqara is remarkably modern in its abstract geometry and volumetric lucidity, its columns are among the few elements that incorporate recognizable decoration, all of it vegetal in inspiration.

A frieze of Djed pillars a Saqqara
Actual Djed columns appear as ornamental motifs at Saqqara (above) but others, such as the magnificent colonnade, are quite abstract, while the elongated engaged columns decorating the false shrines of the so-called Jubilee (Heb Sed) Court (below) feature exaggerated lotus-flower capitals.

Saqqara, the colonnade

Engaged columns with lotus flower capitals at the Jubilee or Heb Sed Court at Saqqara

The convex fluting of the majestic colonnade at Saqqara, one of the most beautiful spaces in all of Egypt, abstracts bundled papyrus stalks and in Egyptian cosmology the papyrus, along with the lotus flower that gives its form to so many Egyptian capitals, was found at the primordial mound at the beginning of time. Papyrus stalks held up the arching goddess Nut, the sky, just as the lotus flower opened to give birth to the sun. The papyrus also symbolized Lower Egypt, while the lotus represented Upper Egypt; thus the two main symbols incorporated into the columns that held up the roof or sky of Egyptian temples also symbolically united the Two Lands of Egypt itself and encapsulated the origins of the universe. As above, so below.

Nut the sky goddess arching over her lover Geb, the earth god; note the Djed pillar at left, found just beneath an Ankh

But we should not stop there. The papyrus is also the source of paper and thus also a cipher for knowledge and for civilization itself, the pillar or spine of consciousness which holds up the vault of Heaven which shelters man.

Isis stands at far right, bearing a papyrus staff indicating her divine stature, from Kom-Ombo
In turn, the sacred lotus, or the blue water lily also held feminine attributes and was linked to fertility, as well as the sun, rebirth and resurrection. It is also intimately related to the goddess Isis, wife and sister of Osiris and daughter of Geb and Nut.

The Egyptian lotus, or blue water lily (Nymphaea Caerulea)
Its flower has also recently been recognized to contain mild psychoactive properties when steeped or eaten, offering episodes of mildly heightened awareness and introspection, and a new generation of Egyptian researchers posit that the lotus flower, known in ancient Egypt for its healing properties, may also have been used in divination rituals, much like the well-known sacred hallucinogens of native North and South American cultures. Though this thesis may shock those who might reflexively attribute our own society's condemnation of psychoactive substances to other cultures, the ancients had no such scruples.

The great hall of Amun-Re at the temple complex of Karnak, ancient Thebes
The column is an Egyptian invention and so must embody the unity of opposites that is the basis of all Egyptian thought, just as it must also incarnate Egyptian cosmology. The male Djed is wed to the female vegetal symbols, just as Geb is wed with Nut and Osiris is wed with Isis. Papyrus, symbol of divinity, logic and civilization itself, is wed to the spiritual and the mystical, embodied by the sacred lotus.

As above, so below.

Coming soon, the Doric order.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

AD Features our Holiday Cards

Our friends at Architectural Digest have released their December issue and we're delighted to finally be able to report that our holiday cards are featured in their Christmas gift and shopping pages.

There are a baker's dozen of our architectural and garden-themed note cards that are exclusively available at our online boutique, link here. (Our other cards are found in a few select retail stores, such as the Frick Collection gift shop and Archivia Books in Manhattan, and Librarie Galignani here in Paris.)

They are large format, 6 x 8 inch folding cards, richly printed on a sturdy, heavyweight laid paper with matching envelopes, and the motifs are meant to be a refreshing change from the normal seasonal subjects.

There are four themes, and hopefully enough motifs for any taste: Chinoiserie Pagodas, Garden Tents, Treillage Pavilions, and Silver & Gold. Each card is bordered by deep red or forest green fillet lines to give them a seasonal snap.

Orders are shipped worldwide next day, just be sure to place your order earlier rather than later to receive them before the holiday rush.