I have had a fixation with classicism for as long as I have been thinking about architecture. I find it to be a very simple, yet very sophisticated language, all at once. Many of its details derive from earlier constructions. Certainly this is the case for the Doric order, where we can see the timber pegs and beam ends of a timber structure in every guttae and triglyph. I have heard Peter Markli elucidate on the softly curved leaves on the Corinthian order, giving a lightness to the construction that renders it weightless; the subsequent architecture only serving to describe the delight and occasion of the space within. These are ideas that, for me, have a huge resonance for how we think about architecture.
Of all the orders, it is perhaps the Ionic which I have found the most interesting. I am fascinated by the tightening scroll of its capital- an almost hypnotic mathematical moment within the order. Of course the doctrine of Vitruvius tells tales of the tight curls of a fair maiden’s hair, (with the folds of her linen caught in the column’s fluting), but I suspect the story is older, and more multifaceted, than that. Classical Ionians (established by the 6th century BC, but certainly much older), were not ones for fairy tales. They challenged traditional recourse to myth and religion, forming hypotheses about the natural world based on ideas gained from personal experience and deep reflection. They sought purely mechanical and physical explanations. They are credited as being of critical importance to the development of the ‘scientific attitude’ towards the study of Nature.
Looking at the Ionian areas of ancient Greece, they primarily centre upon what is modern day western Turkey. This area has a mixed geological make up, but does have areas of mass ammonite occurences in layers of rock layed down during the upper Triassic period (approx. 225m years ago). These fossils capture the spiral shell forms of their prehistoric predecessors perfectly, and must have seemed a miracle to any primitive quarryman or mason.
As mentioned earlier, the Doric order has a clear relationship with timber construction. I wonder if the Ionic order has a similar relationship with stone construction- with found ammonites, apparently plentiful in this region, being used to adorn some of the earliest stone capitals, in the spirit of truth in nature. As for the fluting of the order, if these were some of the earlier stone columns, might it not be that the fluting offered a strong vertical foil to the otherwise horizontal joints in stacked stone? That would be a simple craftsman’s response to the aesthetic challenge.
I can’t be the first to have suggested this, and certainly, Amon Henry Wilds (1762 – 1833), alludes to the idea in his “Ammonite Order” buildings in Brighton (when the fervour for all things geological reached its peak in Britain).
I find it tiresome when forms such as these become so overscaled as to become the architecture themselves; but I love the idea that some of the earliest architectures could be so plainly based on their most immediate and beautiful resources, a sound scientific basis, and a dignified social framework. As well as architectural, I suspect there are environmental and cultural lesson to be learnt here. Certainly for me, classicism continually calls for a deeper reflection.