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Tall Order

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A long time ago now, some people in Greece thought a column looked better if it had a base, a middle part that did most of the work, and another bit at the top. For quite some time after studying architecture became a thing, students have had to memorize the names Base, Shaft and Capital along with the names of the various types of columns – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian being the three main – though “Composite” was sometimes included as a fourth. Over the centuries, these Orders were invested with all manner of meanings but, as is they way with any choice of three options, Doric looked the cheapest and hence the least classy, Corinthian and Composite the most expensive and classy but a bit over the top, leaving Ionic as the Goldilocks option. In an early example of historical obfuscation, it’s never mentioned that all three did exactly the same job of spreading load to the Shaft and making the column and hence the temple building more stable. Doric was often thought to look more “masculine” and thus “stronger”, etc. while Ionic looked the most “feminine” and thus “not so much strong but elegant”. Somewhere along the way, it was forgotten that the shorter column with a low capital-width to shaft-length ratio will not just look stronger but actually be stronger. I suspect the ancient Greeks knew this but, this side of the Dark Ages, the default position of Architecture has been to value style over content without even being aware of the tradeoff.

There were other names and terms. I’d always been fascinated by entasis – which was making the shaft (or, I learn, its upper two thirds) a complex curve to compensate for the sides looking slightly concave and hence, again, not so visually weak. These are all ancient world problems. I’d always thought entasis represented some striving for aesthetic perfection but never bothered to wonder how those complex curves had been generated, or at what cost they’d been constructed. The image below right shows the geometry that, from a stonemason’s point of view, is do-able since what we thought were complex curves are actually faceted truncated cones of decreasing diameters, and the fluting just an application of the same guidelines. I imagine stonemasons had some handy wooden templates to assist both marking out with string and chalk as well as the actual shaping with hammers and chisels. I was disappointed to learn their columns weren’t carved from single pieces of stone but prefabricated from smaller slices, maybe because sufficiently long pieces of stone were too difficult to obtain let alone quarry and transport. Moreover, if it were possible to carve a column from a single piece of stone, it’d take I’m guessing at least eight times more time as less work could proceed in parallel. There’d also be a problem of quality control. Breaking a task down into smaller, achievable ones is the basis of project management. So the horizontal joints between those rock slices make sense in terms of construction cost, time and quality – those three corners of the project management triangle. This quest for beauty thus had a pragmatic side. I suspect the fluting was there to emphasize the verticality – which is always a good thing for places of worship – but it would have also diverted attention from those horizontal joints and the more earthly time, cost and quality forces they represented.

But whether those columns are monolithic or prefabricated, why were their now entasis-rich sides tapering anyway? Could this have been the root cause of the curvature problem? If so, it wasn’t the last time architects invented a problem in order to show how cleverly they solved it. All anyone can do is guess. As with many non-secular buildings and a good number of secular ones, it could have been to make the building look taller and more impressive to ordinary people standing on the ground and, if so, it wasn’t the last time for that either. It’s not as if the Greeks compression-tested each batch of rock so I doubt the tapering had anything to do with reducing structural redundancy as at Gio Ponti and Pier Luigi Nervi’s Pirelli Tower in Milan, SOM’s John Hancock Center in Chicago or Foster+Partners (& ARUP) The Index in Dubai, all of which may have stood up just as well without their famously tapering structures. To be honest, all three look all the better for their tapering structures but I think Pirelli Tower the best of the three for keeping its structure subservient to the building it holds up. It knows its place, and this is a good thing for structure to do.

The simplest explanation for why Greek columns tapered is that they wanted them to resemble the tree trunks from when posts were posts and lintels were lintels. Wood posts are very good at supporting things but if stone columns are going to be built to evoke ideas of tree trunks then postmodern thinking and having no absolute rules anymore began much earlier than we thought. If the ancient Greeks knew they were faking tree trunks with stone slices, then this could be why they distracted from those horizontal joints with expertly tapered fluting that doesn’t make sense in terms of construction. The column designers knew what they wanted from columns and the column carvers weren’t stupid. They could deal with entasis and tapered fluting and even thought to provide holes along the column axes for centering that was most likely stone cylinders that would even have offered some earthquake resistance. If only they’d thought to provide the bottom edge of upper slices with a drip detail and the top edge of lower slices with some angled pointing, then maybe less water would have intruded and the columns (and buildings) might have stood for longer than they did. The Romans are supposed to have been the smart ones more mindful of engineering and construction but even they didn’t think to fix this obvious design flaw. Here’s three views of some fallen columns that have probably been artfully shifted around. The image on the right is of the former Theatre of Zeus at Olympia.

The ancient Greeks could have taught us that prefabrication was nothing to be ashamed and that there was no reason to disguise it, but they didn’t. Perhaps if they hadn’t gone to the trouble of downplaying those joints, then today we might be thinking less positively about smooth and seamless surfaces and more positively about prefabrication and construction. As far as I know, Ricardo Bofill was the only architect who saw the links between Classicism and prefabrication. He didn’t bother with entasis though but he carried the thinking through to the proportions and the column positions in the interior layout.

Pilasters in any form or century are fake columns to begin with, but Bofill did apply the same thinking to post-modern neoclassical buildings that are more classical than post-modern. These are all examples of post modernism actually learning and applying some useful things from classicism via neoclassicism.

The modernist penchant for smooth surfaces denying the process of construction has more in common with the ancients than we’ve been led to think. The postmodern glorification of image over construction was a way of pretending there was no such thing as construction, and this carried on into the deconstructivist variant which was both modernist in its concealing of construction and post-modernist in pretending construction didn’t exist as either problem or reality. The most honest way out would be an architecture no more or less than the process that led to its construction but that seems too much to ask.

However, as long as floors and roofs need holding up it looks like columns are the best thing we have to do it. Sure those nice people at MIT are working on using carbon fibers to suspend office building floors from a structural umbrella held up by one very big column called a core but, before we even go there, we need to ask what it is we want from columns. We’ve been through several periods of fetishizing them as Neo-something or something-Revival. And then there was post-modernism where columns became the main event, with varying degrees of success.

We’d been there before, with this next image many students will remember – of the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower Competition entries. As students we were led to think Gropius’s design ought to have won but Eliel Saarinen’s design (third from left) was runner-up) and not all that different from Ludwig Hilberseimer’s entry that is usually omitted from polite histories of twentieth century architecture along with Raymond Hood and John Mean Howell’s entry that actually won the competition. Nobody remembers it a team led by Bruno Taut designed the pointy tower but everyone remembers Adolf Loos’ entry. Tongue-in-cheek it may have been but, having seen what Kengo Kuma did in Japan (rightmost, above), it’s not that bad. The windows actually work quite well the fluting and it has the necessary entasis but the crepidoma – the three steps leading up to it – seem overscaled and the building as a whole underscaled because of that podium that could be done without. If only Loos had just made the whole things larger someone would’ve built it by now.

As an idea, making buildings look like columns has stood the test of time. Back when people didn’t know what tall buildings should look like, someone had the idea of making them look like columns with a base bit, a middle bit and a top bit. Again, as far as legacy goes, is not a bad thing to do because, most tall buildings will sit on the ground somehow and be seen against the sky somehow and have some typical floors in-between. Doing this doesn’t mean they’re pretending to be columns and supporting anything other than themselves. This is actually what Raymond Hood and John Mean Howell’s winning entry did. Here’s the competition drawing and an image of what are now the Tribune Residences. The design is very much in the Greek 1-2-3 mode but with the middle floor levels disguised by windows recessed behind buttresses doing the same job as fluting before morphing into a Gothic crown. Finally, someone understood what a tall building should look like.

Philip Johnson said of curtain walls that “Whatever you do, you get a plaid” but this is only true if you feel you must have a curtain wall. Below are two examples by Aldo Rossi and two by Ricardo Bofill. All delineate floor levels by stacked columns and window openings of varying sizes giving the building a building scale and an occupant scale. They all work.

Rossi and Bofill were also both sensitive to how well columns and pilasters turned a corner, and so too were Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown with the National Gallery Sainsbury Wing, although it wasn’t a solution they found an opportunity to repeat.

It’s a shame these uses of columns went out of fashion because we still have buildings with bases that touch the ground, middle bits with corners and levels in need of articulation, and top bits seen against the sky. The first three buildings below I know very well. They each have a base, a shaft and the cornices along the uppermost four floors making the slightest suggestion of a capital. The building on the right does the same thing with a different colored base and a single, differently colored cornice separating the uppermost four floors.

The middle building below has a full-height bay-window column with a three-floor repeated cornice capital as well as partial cornices every four floors, tying in with the structure, whereas the building on the right has a full-height corner column broken by cornices every four floors in the manner of British Victorian era buildings with different string courses wrapping a differing vertical volumes.

This device can be applied to much higher towers such as these ones below (left and middle) that I watched being built. Decorating a building with shadows that change throughout the day isn’t such a bad thing to do. The building on the right has its many corners picked out with cornices and pilasters and to my mind this works very well but it’s a downscaling of the big corner columns above.

Two things are happening here. One is the entire building as a column and the other is what to do with the floors in between. The building on the left below that achieves the idea of a column and a capital using two differently sized floor plates is an exception, albeit a notable and elegant one. The middle building has the decorative banding that reduces the scale of the building and also has pilasters on every corner whereas the building on the right does not.

This too is not a new problem. The Georgian terraced house created the impression of the then aspirational columnar facade by a strict hierarchy of window proportions. Our preference for identical windows on each floor of a residential tower could be an aesthetic one or it could be a manifestation jof some belief that nobody should have more window than others when this is patently not true of windows in any street or city. It might be an idea for residential towers to keep having vertically repeated floors but a similarly strict hierarchy of window sizes and proportions. As it did with Georgian townhouses, this might be able to inexpensively recreate the idea of building-sized columns and at the same time assist a more human scale up and down residential tower facades.

My gut feeling is that the techniques Asnago & Vender used on their residential buildings will be part of a solution horizontally, but also vertically.

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  • says:

    Ah, but can you explain Knossos’ columns……apart from the fact that they are fake? I visited the site in 1983 and my partner (from a conservation background) was furious. Con(Crete).

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