This way! Click me and I'll take you to the next page!
The Active Eye in Architecture
Sir George Trevelyan

First published in 1977 by The Wrekin Trust
This book is out-of-print, available only on this website
Next page
Previous page


Start of the book
Download a zipfile
HOME
Articles   Books
Brief biographies
Close encounters
Photos


3  Birth of a Column


ColumnsWe must not fear to speak and think of architectural forms as having their own inner life and intention. They are all, seen imaginatively, developing in some direction, as if they possess an inner dynamic. We can sense the direction in which they hold possibility of evolving. Then we shall feel them livingly related to other decorative or structural forms around them. We shall also be able to carry the recollection of a feature in one building over to another. There may be metamorphosis between buildings. What one building tries but fails to achieve is successfully carried out somewhere else. Let it also be noted that the secrets are often revealed in second rate buildings. We may look everywhere and learn from most improbable sources. The basic proposition is that column in all its variants is wall transformed. Every section of wall holds the potentiality of pilasters, when viewed with active imagination. Like Michelangelo's slaves, columns are struggling to come to birth all over the place out of solid chunks of masonry.

Consider Fig. 7A. Is this the interior of a solid cube of stone walls with holes cut in it for arches, or is it an arcade of big square pillars around an open court? Take your choice. Pillar and Wall are in absolute balance. The potential pillar has so far only taken to itself a rudimentary capital to show its intention and the capital itself is at the same time a humble string course. The process of articulating wall into column has clearly started. Innumerable examples of this balance can be found. Once you start on the game of detecting the birth of columns you will discover surprises everywhere. Look at Fig. 7B, a feature on the Victoria and Albert Museum, where wall turned end-on as a kind of buttress flowers into pillarhood.

The quoins at the corner of a building should be seen as a hardening process which is the first step towards a column (Fig. 8A). We may need to look at a number of examples until we are fully convinced of this. Even quite simple forms may show the latent potentiality. Look at the gable (Fig. 8B) which is faintly suggestive of a pediment. The horizontal corner member has half become a capital and a pilaster could easily form in the corner. There is a frequent 'mannerist' form of a column with solid square stones spaced throughout its length (Fig. 8C). Here clearly we see the struggle going on between the wall and column principles. In interiors we constantly find that a string course runs along the length of a wall and turns round the narrow width and has at once become a semi-capital, inviting a pilaster below it. These are random examples which would signify little enough if we were looking statically. But if we can look dynamically they should suffice to start the real game of hunting columns as these shy creatures emerge and hide themselves again. The process is happening everywhere and we can discover it in the interiors of buildings as well as the façades. Once we have learned to find complementary images and discover their differences by active looking from one to the other, we shall find that pillars in process of becoming are the chief feature revealed.

Now as a further exercise we will consider the build-up of a Renaissance façade. This is not to be thought of merely as a recapitulation of the well-known arrangement of the three orders – Doric, Ionic, Corinthian – which became so important a feature in Classical and Renaissance architecture. Rather are we asking

What is a column?
Why is a column?
Why the orders?

The little drawings in Fig. 9 may suffice if the reader will look strongly from one to the next and through the series so as to get the feeling of changing and evolving images. A is a plain unbroken wall holding all potentialities unrevealed. In B the action has begun of 'softening up' the surface into recesses indicating the direction of development. C shows the break through which we shall expect to be accompanied by the beginnings of columnar hardening. This is shown by the appearance of a moulding which for all the world is an elementary capital, with another as potential base. Wall begins to change its character. In D a brave thing has happened and a giant column has planted itself midway between the arches. At once the wall space shows more as two heavy square pilasters supporting the column. The columns hold an entablature, (ie, architrave or lintel, frieze and cornice). What is the real function of the heavy shadowed cornice which cuts right across the façade of a building? Surely it is to say 'Here endeth an image, to be born again above in a more refined state'. E shows this refinement. Place one image on the next and the differences become visible through the movement. The Doric column has refined itself into the slenderer Ionic, standing on a plinth with a balustrade. The wall member has articulated itself into two free columns showing open space behind. F repeats the process. A third-storey image appears. Still slenderer are the large columns now changed into Corinthian and the subordinate columns have broken away entirely from their parent structure to be absorbed by the arch which has transformed itself into a window. The Renaissance façade with threefold orders, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, is so familiar in its thousand variations that we tend to take it for granted. What are these orders? Why threefold in this way? So dominant a feature must surely hold a deeper symbolical meaning than merely a selection of designs. It comes alive to us when we recognize that the shadowed cornices invite us to treat their stages as a series of images flowing one into the next. There are of course a number of interpretations. Here I offer one which seems to arise out of our manner of looking.

Let us briefly restate the case for the emergence of the column. In our early exercise we practised looking from pilaster to its column, until we experienced the living relationship of the two. As far as the image is concerned, column is born out of pilaster and has shaken itself free from its parent wall. The pilaster stands at attention like a lieutenant in the presence of his colonel. Free column is nothing other than wall metamorphosed. Freed from its wall nature it becomes round, as a tree trunk is round. Any part of a wall surface can become sensitized and release a pilaster, which can emerge like a ghost on to the wall face, preparatory to the column stepping forward. The column takes on entasis, that subtle swelling that gives it life. The sensitive experience of the entasis is achieved when you run your eye up and down and around the column, realizing the swelling in movement. Your eye has really made an infinite number of 'stills' as in a film and the series give the sense of movement. Consider again the Greek Doric column. You experience the column actively in your own body. The dynamics of its standing is felt through the entire body, strong to hold the weight of the entablature. The swell of muscle is echoed in the entasis. You are that column and the meaning of the intuition of the Greeks is born in on us. The Doric column represents the truth that the column has 'being'. It is nearly a creature. It approaches the attributes of a man – or a God. This is the advanced stage of the metamorphosis of wall. Move the sensitive eye-beam up and down the subtle flutings. The lines, unbroken by any base, pass down into and seem to merge with the willpower of the earth. The Greek Doric gives us the most powerful experience of the limb-system of man, the seat of will. It is indeed the athlete's column, in which the capital, not greatly developed, serves primarily a structural purpose. Now approach with reverence a great Corinthian column. As you make it alive in your looking it will take on a kind of royalty. It stands like a king, silent and full of power, gazing out and supported by its attendant pilasters. Capital (caput, capita) indeed becomes a head, capping the great coordinated body structure. If with your eye-beam you really feel through the rising acanthus leaves, you will experience it in your own head, like the complexities of thought. It has been rightly called the philosopher's column, a representative of thinking man. Hence the feeling of royalty.


What then of the intermediary order, the Ionic? Take that capital, touch it with your looking and see what the eye does. It must move in a swinging motion from one volute to the other. Turning into the centre of the whorl it is thrown gently back to the opposite side. It is a rhythmic process, a kind of breathing. This is a suggestion that it seems to represent the rhythmic system of man, the heart and lungs. Man is a threefold being of head, heart and limb, the bodily centres for thinking, feeling and will. The thinking system relates to spirit, the limb system to will and between them the heart system represents soul. Soul qualities are apprehended in meditation, in the art of inward listening. An inner stillness is created in which the whole soul is listening for the breath of the Word. Set the Ionic volute sideways and we have the symbol of the ear. These are hints and guesses but may have validity, and remember that a symbol has manifold different meanings which can all hold truth. If a symbol speaks to you and enhances the meaning of life who dare say it is not true? All organic unity is threefold in its nature. The threefold aspects of the central nervous system (head), rhythmic system (heart) and metabolic system (limb) working in absolute harmony make the living unity of the human organism. As a column, seen imaginatively, contains 'being', so it is surely valid to see the whole of threefold man represented in the three orders, superimposed upon each other on the Renaissance façade. Each is metamorphosed into the next and the three together represent the Whole Man.

We found that the shadowed cornices dividing the building so strikingly invited the eye to leap to a new image. What then of the last and most splendid cornice, dark against the sky? Does it not suggest an ultimate and great metamorphosis? Is it not right and indeed inevitable that above the final cornice the real secret is revealed and the process consummated? Man or the Divine Being within the column is released and stands as sculpture against the blue of heaven. This is the ultimate triumph, the passage of metamorphosis from the coarseness of mere wall, the bursting into flower of leaf/wall articulated into column, and finally into released sculpture. Divinity has been drawn from the basic substance 'wall'. Throughout much architecture runs this process of redemption and refinement. Of course no one building can show more than a facet or fraction of the huge eternal process. This is why the eye must learn to detect the principle at work through infinite variations of form. Now return to drawing G roughly based on the Procuratie Nuove in the Piazza in Venice. A wonderful suggestion of the release of life is given in the three stages of development. On the ground floor imprisoned figures struggle to escape from the enclosing spandrels, on the first floor they are free, on the second they are fully liberated and lie sunning themselves on the slopes of the window pediments. Thus the hidden life process is again emphasized. The architect might well have completed the series by figures against the open sky.


Column has been seen as wall matter endowed with the nearest thing to life and being. Hence its enormous importance as an architectural form in those styles in which Man was still the measure of all things.


Next chapter: 4. Interlude on Metamorphosis in Plants

This way! Click me and I'll take you to the next page!
The Active Eye in Architecture
Sir George Trevelyan

First published in 1977 by The Wrekin Trust
This book is out-of-print, available only on this website
Next page
Previous page


Start of the book
Download a zipfile
HOME
Articles   Books
Brief biographies
Close encounters
Photos

© Copyright Sir George Trevelyan and estate, 1977. This book may be downloaded and printed on paper in single copies for personal use and study only, in a spirit of fair play and without financial transaction. .