Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Sunday, February 20, 2011

It ain't necessarily so....

I'm taking a course on the history of Western architecture with Shannon Kyles through Mohawk College this winter. It's great fun, revisiting places I studied in my undergrad history of art courses - pulled out my old Janson History of Art text to work on an essay recently. Purchased it for a whopping $12.95 in my sophomore year! It's funny how the long-term memory works - terms and structures I studied in 1966 are etched in my mind...the names pop out almost without bidding - whereas the new ones take some serious work to fix in there.
I recall one of my big disappointments in my early study - it comes back even today. What I see in the photographs (or in real life in the case of some we've visited over the years) is not at all what people saw when the structures were new - as I write this I ask myself "what did you expect?" - but still,who knew...

-that Lincoln cathedral's exquisite early 14th century stone screen was originally brightly painted?
-that the statues and carvings in those brilliant white Greek ruins we see were once bright reds and blues?
-that the arches in triumphal Roman arches and coliseums were boarded up and used as public housing in the middle ages? Nicks in the walls show where roof supports were once anchored, and carved niches were used for fireplaces and dovecotes.
-that the Parthenon was originally covered with sculpture (poached by a British collector); that its 40' tall ivory and gold statue of the goddess Athena disappeared somewhere along the way, likely in a fire; that its romantic ruin today is in large part due to an explosion in 1687 when the temple was being used by the Turks as a munitions dump?
-that the marble, gold and bronze fronts of great buildings were removed and used in the building projects of kings and emperors of subsequent empires? (and popes were good at that too)
-that many of the wonderful stone houses in England were constructed of stone from nearby abbeys, disgraced and destroyed in 16th century, and that the romantic ruins we see today (think Tintern Abbey) were just the churchy bits that would be too obviously nicked to be useful?
-that stone structures like Stonehenge may only exist today because the stone was too heavy for subsequent civilizations to remove for building material?
-that the cathedrals of Europe and England were 'improved' over the centuries; Romanesque carving removed in favour of Gothic sophistication, new styles for old??
-that the brilliant palace of Knossos (how amazingly well-preserved I thought) built in 1900 to 1450 BC, was buried by an earthquake, rediscovered and rebuilt in early 1900's by Sir Arthur Evans? He did the best he could, but scholars have disputed its authenticity over time.
-that so much of what we see today is the result of passionate and painstaking preservation work by governments and individuals, and that for all that we see, there is so much more lost to us?

The fires, the earthquakes, the wars, the changes in taste - deliberate and accidental tragedies, the rich history of accomplishment and catastrophe that these structures represent - I've observed before in connection with old Ontario houses that old buildings are a portal to the past. I am experiencing this so powerfully in this course. Wouldn't care to guess how many European and British history books I have piling up around my desk?

Back to the Palace of Knossos for a minute. I recall my first visit to Minoan civilization in my sophomore year at Carleton (since Grade 9 mythology with Mrs. Ross), and the palaces of this peaceable artistic Mediterranean kingdom. The Palace of Knossos was rebuilt by Evans during a lifetime of work, using the knowledge and tools available to him in the early 1900's. And even he got it wrong, according to scholars. What remains is only a hint of the brilliance of that culture, an invitation into the history and the myth about this kingdom, its rulers, the palace, bronze age civilization.

The other day I made up a term for what happens when I see a ruin or a reconstruction and imagine it to be 'the real thing". (It's a great conceit to think it's original, but I haven't seen anyone else use it yet.) I call this the Knossos effect - reconstruction using modern materials, rebuilding based on what we know, what we wish, what we need (tourism leaps to mind). From ancient structures right up to c19 Ontario houses - all an invitation to do our research, do some time-travel. Because in the words of Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward....what we see today? "It ain't necessarily so".

1 comment:

  1. Having looked around England and Wales with this same pair of eyes, I particularly enjoyed the mention of Tintern Abbey. Could easily devote the remainder of my life to a study of the old buildings of the UK, or even just a select few!