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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
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8  The Ubiquitous Pillar


We experience the column as a structure firmly embedded in the field of gravity. There it stands holding the heavy lintel. Base and capital by their very shape show us how strongly they are given over to the force of gravity. Thus the column is inevitably a vertical member. Yet, when looking earlier at the ‘coming into being’ of arches, a new factor revealed itself. When the dynamic upward drive of the column passes up through the check-point of the capital, it is released from gravity and is free to begin transforming itself. The metamorphosis is often dramatic and the secret often hidden, so the eye needs to train itself in perception. A slight excursion into Gothic might here be justified, since the point is constantly demonstrated. Figure 19A shows a grouping of pillars which at a certain point become flexible and bend outwards. No distinction is made between pillar and arch. In Fig. 19B the vertical drive is maintained to the capital and that which we conceive as having passed up through the capital becomes pliable. Rib above is a metamorphosis of pillar below and the capital is the point of change. In Gothic, all that fans out and burgeons above seems contained within the severer pillars below. The pillar bursts into strong life in the stiff-leaved ‘early English’ capital, in anticipation of the release and change. Once we have grasped that Rib is Pillar freed from gravity, most exciting things begin. Where curving ribs converge and merge they burst into the boss. This is capital transformed. Once freed from gravity, the outburst of leaf form first seen in the capital can happen almost anywhere – at either end or wherever a kink or angle is marked. Thus Fig. 19C shows what is truly a pillar freed so far as to become a floating rib, burgeoning into life forms at both ends and at each bend, as if overfilled with vital sap. The freed pillars, as ribs, become playful. Gothic is an architecture in which wall is reduced to the minimum and pillar is everything. Therefore the upper structures in rib, vault and flowing tracery are experienced as a realm of ‘pillar’ released from gravity into exuberant life and being. Classic and Renaissance architecture, based primarily on the static form of pillar and lintel, emphasize the great horizontal lines and spacious extension. Gothic is wholly devoted to the vertical drive. The two great styles present us with the primary polarity we have discussed earlier: the earth-bound weight of substance countered by the dissolving power of Light or anti-gravity, lifting towards the heights.

Something comparable with the freed pillar is found in the decorated ceilings of the neo-classical period. We recognized early in our argument that the vertical ‘style’ of a panel is an incipient pilaster. Compare Fig. 20A and B, the end walls of two neighbouring rooms. Obviously the pilaster is foreshadowed by the vertical between the panels in the first room. On the ceiling of the second, ‘lintels’ have appeared between the pilasters. Compare them with the glorious hall at Heveningham where these lintels have sprung up to make a great barrel vault (Fig. 5, p. 18). Here they have become pliable. The next stage is for them to become floating, freed entirely from their supporting pillars. Thus we arrive at the formal framework of the decorative 18th century ceilings as being simply the structure of the lintels lifting out of gravity and floating in space. This is accentuated when, as so often in Robert Adam’s ceilings, there is a cove. (Fig. 20C). The bigger the cove the nearer we are to the dome, and, remembering the significance of the dome, the more celestial becomes the ceiling area. Freed from earth gravity, the lintels are drawn together by the power of the central sun. No wonder that Laguerre and Verrio painted heavenly beings seated upon clouds and the Baroque ceilings sometimes show them float ing down even into the architecture of the room. We are looking through into the higher planes. What then has happened to the pifiars? They have been retracted like the under carriage of an aeroplane and are represented by the strong circles at the crossing points of the lintels. Adam often shows these medallions with flutings as on a doric column. Might this not represent the pillar, seen right from below, but now a vestigial organ with no function in the world of gravity? The great ceilings float almost like our projected space stations in orbit on a higher plane. In the Adam ceilings we must feel we are looking up towards a heavenly temple in which the pillars do not need to reveal themselves in substance. The Jacobean ceilings of pendants illustrate the same point (Fig. 21C). These are not so much ingenious forms dropped from the ceiling as small vaults above capitals into which the pillar has been drawn up. We may be in a hall of a hundred pillars but it needs the eye of imagination to see it.

Too often we dismiss a great ceiling at a glance or at best with a quick survey. The delights of ‘active looking’ are just as rich among decorative features as they are in the main architectural structures. The tip of the eye-beam must be con sciously used to relish and feel out the shape of the plaster frond or gilded flower. The eye moves between linear and spacial forms, the smooth background holding shapes as exciting as the raised forms. The Yin/Yang polarity is appar ent again. A sun-burst in the central panel begins to flame and dazzle when we have really allowed the eye to radiate over the whole form as one gesture of looking. In time we can ‘account for’ the whole ceiling and could almost draw it from memory. Since the experience is living and sensual and not merely intellectual we may find we can go on weaving our looking into the plasterwork forms for an hour without tiring. We deny ourselves this realm of delight by moving off before we have broken through to that inner state of dynamic looking.

It was at Harewood House that three of us, exploring together, reached such a state of sensitivity that everything seemed to be in a state of becoming pillar. The furniture, the rich panels above the fireplaces, the decorative features all seemed to be giving birth to columns. We laughed at the absurdity and then realized again the essential truth, that everything is indeed in process of taking on the character of ‘being’ and is becoming a form that in its symbolism approaches life. Therefore the pillar will be ubiquitous, though frequently much disguised. ‘Pillarization’ will be everywhere, though the metamorphoses will often be whimsical, since creative imagining is so fertile. Thus even the central boss of the great chandeliers were seen to be of the nature of capitals into which the pillar had been retracted. From them, like snakes from Medusa’s head, stretched the glass arms of the candelabra and these too were all pillar, base, shaft and capital, but wholly freed from gravity and able to float horizontally. The very candles were a living pillar form and every lamp standard was the same. Pillar variants around fireplaces are infinite in number and taken in relation to each other illustrate the direction of change. Look at the series in Fig. 21A, allowing each to flow into the next. Pillar shows itself as caryatid which is modified into the swinging volute and finally withdrawn into itself to become no more than a bracket. The form by the Victorian fireplace (Fig. 21B), simple though it is, clearly speaks of the same trend: a pillar uprooted from gravity so that the form of its base changes. The inner direction of movement is obvious and speaks in the improbable places. The fireplace form invites speculation. It was in the Tudor period that Italianate features began to creep into English architecture. Since England was ruled by an excommunicated monarch, direct contact with Italy and her Renaissance was cut off. Through Flemish émigré craftsmen, crude misinterpretations of the new Italian forms began to appear around portals and fireplace. They are frequently gross and crude pillar forms, often partially caryatid. Then the fireplace establishes itself as columns holding the mantleshelf which corresponds to the cornice. The remarkable persistence of this modified ‘temple’ form suggests that here may be some survival from the deep sub-conscious. Is it too fanciful to think that the pillared fireplace represents the entrance to the inner shrine of the temple in which the eternal flame is kept alight?

Having seen the bracket to be a pillar retracted, we can well turn to the volute in its many variants. The exterior volutes in the great Renaissance churches are to be seen as sheer pillar freed from gravity and become pliable so that it can twist and swing. In the Sta Susanna (Carlo Maderna, Rome) the full Corinthian capital is retained while the pillar shaft is wildly transformed (Fig. 22A). In Longhena’s Salute in Venice a glorious change has taken place (Fig. 22B). The capital is there, but the pillar/volute has swung so boldly as to create within its length a second capital bearing a sculptured figure. Below, it coils like a powerful spring. These examples are taken at random so that in our creative imagining we may develop this power of seeing architectural forms in process of dynamic change. We can experience a new delight and freedom within our own thinking. We have from the first recognized ourselves in the column. It is, then, ourselves we find in the released column, freed from the encumbrance of the body, able to dance and swing with the volutes and vaulting ribs. As a marionette has human qualities and is yet able to dance and leap without restriction, so a mental freedom and delight is experienced when we identify ourselves with these free variants on the staid and sober column. Architecture can become a mood of gaiety and release from puritanical strictures.

In the very grossness of some of the Elizabethan and Jacobean forms of corrupt classicism, important lessons can often be learned. On the Baroque stable at Bolsover Castle, unique and astonishing forms appear in the wall spaces (Fig. 23).

Pevsner writes in ‘Buildings of England’:

‘Between the two rows of main windows attached shafts run up column-wise. But they are not columns. They start by being corbelled out of the wall, carry on banded and vermiculated, end without capitals, and die into the wall. I know no parallel or precedent in England or abroad.’

Look close and you will see that, like ears, they have tiny and rudimentary Ionic volutes. With all respect to Sir Nikolaus, I suggest that they are columns coming to a monstrous birth from the very centre of the wall area and as yet unrelated to ground or entablature. Yet they illustrate the point that wall is everywhere the matrix from which columns may appear.

That strange Jacobean form, the strapwork, also begins to speak in a new way. Here we have a form of articulation solely concerned with the flat of the wall. When fully developed it has two levels, a surface area like an out stretched and pierced hide of leather, and an inner layer which becomes active and struggles to rise through the holes of the first. Often, when it has freed itself sufficiently, it rolls into tight coils like little vortices. In Hardwicke Long Gallery we find that these actually turn into pillars, capital and base peeping out of the roll. Strapwork therefore may be touched by the same eternal symbolism. Behind the outward plane of substance, another lively and energetic plane appears which penetrates through the first and gives birth to living beings. These need not have been a conscious symbolism, for we often find that the deep truths speak from subconscious levels into the forms of art.

These varied examples must suffice. First to last we are dealing with the apparent flow of life into form, the two-way appearance and fading of the shape that basically represents ‘being’. Thus it is not invalid to get the vision of the pillar as a ubiquitous form, revealing itself both in the great structures and the decorative features. Once the eye has been tuned to it and imagination has made its break-through, then discoveries are made everywhere about the life and death of pillars and, through this piece of architectural symbolism, the mind gropes to apprehend the redemptive workings of light and life in the realm of inert matter.



Next chapter: 9. Imagination into Gothic

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. .