The sources of architectural types

The sources of architectural types

[First published in The Leader for October 23, 1852.]

When lately looking through the gallery of the Old Water-Colour Society, I was struck with the incongruity produced by putting regular architecture into irregular scenery. In one case, where the artist had introduced a symmetrical Grecian edifice into a mountainous and wild landscape, the discordant effect was particularly marked. “How very unpicturesque,” said a lady to her friend, as they passed; showing that I was not alone in my opinion. Her phrase, however, set me speculating. Why unpicturesque? Picturesque means, like a picture—like what men choose for pictures. Why then should this be not fit for a picture?

Thinking the matter over, it seemed to me that the artist had sinned against that harmony of sentiment which is essential to a good picture. When the other constituents of a landscape have irregular forms, any artificial structure introduced should have an irregular form, that it may seem part of the landscape. The same general character must pervade it and the surrounding objects; otherwise it, and the scene amid which it stands, become not one thing but two things; and we say that it looks out of place. Or, speaking psychologically, the associated ideas called up by a building with its wings, windows, columns, and all its parts symmetrically disposed, differ widely from the ideas associated with an unsymmetrical landscape; and the one set of ideas tends to banish the other.

Pursuing the train of thought, sundry illustrative facts came to mind. I remembered that a castle, which is usually more irregular in outline than any other kind of building, pleases us most when seated amid crags and precipices; while a castle on a plain seems incongruous. The partly-regular and partly-irregular forms of our old farm-houses, and our gabled gothic manors and abbeys, appear quite in harmony with an undulating, wooded country. In towns we prefer symmetrical architecture; and in towns it produces in us no feeling of incongruity, because all surrounding things—men, horses, vehicles—are symmetrical also.

And here I was reminded of a notion that has frequently recurred to me; namely, that there is some relationship between the several kinds of architecture and the several classes of natural objects. Buildings in the Greek and Roman styles seem, in virtue of their symmetry, to take their type from animal life. In the par­tial­ly-irreg­u­lar Gothic, ideas derived from the vegetable world appear to predominate. And wholly irregular buildings, such as castles, may be considered as having inorganic forms for their basis.

Whimsical as this speculation looks at first sight, it is countenanced by numerous facts. The connexion between symmetrical architecture and animal forms, may be inferred from the kind of symmetry we expect, and are satisfied with, in regular buildings. In a Greek temple we require that the front shall be symmetrical in itself, and that the two flanks shall be alike; but we do not look for uniformity between the flanks and the front, nor between the front and the back. The identity of this symmetry with that found in animals is obvious. Again, why is it that a building making any pretensions to symmetry displeases us if not quite symmetrical? Probably the reply will be—Because we see that the designer’s idea is not fully carried out; and that hence our love of completeness is offended. But then there come the further questions—How do we know that the architect’s conception was symmetrical? Whence comes this notion of symmetry which we have, and which we attribute to him? Unless we fall back upon the old doctrine of innate ideas, we must admit that the idea of bi-lateral symmetry is derived from without; and to admit this is to admit that it is derived from the higher animals.

That there is some relationship between Gothic architecture and vegetal forms is generally admitted. The often-remarked similarity between a groined nave and an avenue of trees with interlacing branches, shows that the fact has forced itself on observation. It is not only in this, however, that the kinship is seen. It is seen still better in the essential characteristic of Gothic; namely, what is termed its aspiring tendency. That predominance of vertical lines which so strongly distinguishes Gothic from other styles, is the most marked peculiarity of trees, when compared with animals or rocks. A tall Gothic tower, with its elongated apertures and clusters of thin projections running from bottom to top, suggests a vague idea of growth.

Of the alleged connexion between inorganic forms and the wholly irregular and the castellated styles of building, we have, I think, some proof in the fact that when an edifice is irregular, the more irregular it is the more it pleases us. I see no way of accounting for this fact, save by supposing that the greater the irregularity the more strongly are we reminded of the inorganic forms typified, and the more vividly are aroused the agreeable ideas of rugged and romantic scenery associated with those forms.

Further evidence of these relationships of styles of architecture to classes of natural objects, is supplied by the kinds of decoration they respectively present. The public buildings of Greece, while characterized in their outlines by the bi-lateral symmetry seen in the higher animals, have their pediments and entablatures covered with sculptured men and beasts. Egyptian temples and Assyrian palaces, similarly symmetrical in their general plan, are similarly ornamented on their walls and at their doors. In Gothic, again, with its grove-like ranges of clustered columns, we find rich foliated ornaments abundantly employed. And accompanying the totally irregular, inorganic outlines of old castles, we see neither vegetal nor animal decorations. The bare, rock-like walls are surmounted by battlements, consisting of almost plain blocks, which remind us of the projections on the edge of a rugged cliff.

But perhaps the most significant fact is the harmony observable between each type of architecture and the scenes in which it is indigenous. For what is the explanation of this harmony, unless it be that the predominant character of surrounding things has, in some way, determined the mode of building adopted?

That the harmony exists is clear. Equally in the cases of Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and Rome, town life preceded the construction of the symmetrical buildings that have come down to us. And town life is one in which, as already observed, the majority of familiar objects are symmetrical. We habitually feel the naturalness of this association. Amid the fields, a formal house, with a central door flanked by equal numbers of windows to right and left, strikes us as unrural—looks as though transplanted from a street; and we cannot look at one of those stuccoed villas, with mock-windows arranged to balance the real ones, without being reminded of the suburban residence of a retired tradesman.

In styles indigenous in the country, we not only find the general irregularity characteristic of surrounding things, but we may trace some kinship between each kind of irregularity and the local circumstances. We see the broken rocky masses amid which castles are often placed, mirrored in their stern, inorganic forms. In abbeys, and such-like buildings, which are commonly found in sheltered districts, we find no such violent dislocations of masses and outlines; and the nakedness appropriate to the fortress is replaced by decorations reflecting the neighbouring woods. Between a Swiss cottage and a Swiss view there is an evident relationship. The angular roof, so bold and so dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly large when compared to other roofs, reminds one of the adjacent mountain peaks; and the broad overhanging eaves have a sweep and inclination like those of the lower branches of a pine tree. Consider, too, the apparent kinship between the flat roofs that prevail in Eastern cities, interspersed with occasional minarets, and the plains that commonly surround them, dotted here and there by palm trees. Contemplate a picture of one of these places, and you are struck by the predominance of horizontal lines, and their harmony with the wide stretch of the landscape.

That the congruity here pointed out should hold in every case must not be expected. The Pyramids, for example, do not seem to come under this generalization. Their repeated horizontal lines do indeed conform to the flatness of the neighbouring desert; but their general contour seems to have no adjacent analogue. Considering, however, that migrating races, carrying their architectural systems with them, would naturally produce buildings having no relationship to their new localities; and that it is not always possible to distinguish styles which are indigenous, from those which are naturalized; numerous anomalies must be looked for.

The general idea above illustrated will perhaps be somewhat misinterpreted. Possibly some will take the proposition to be that men intentionally gave to their buildings the leading char­ac­ter­is­tics of neighbouring objects. But this is not what is meant. I do not suppose that they did so in times past, any more than they do so now. The hypothesis is, that in their choice of forms men are un­con­scious­ly influenced by the forms encircling them. That flat-roofed, symmetrical architecture should have originated in the East, among pastoral tribes surrounded by their herds and by wide plains, seems to imply that the builders were swayed by the horizontality and symmetry to which they were habituated. And the harmony which we have found to exist in other cases between indigenous styles and their localities, implies the general action of like influences. Indeed, on considering the matter psychologically, I do not see how it could well be otherwise. For as all conceptions must be made up of images, and parts of images, received through the senses; and as imagination will most readily run in the direction of habitual perceptions; it follows that the characteristic which predominates in habitual perceptions must impress itself on designs.