Protection and Connection Part III: Pre-Modernism

Typical Villa in Pompeii (photo by Argitect)

As I’ve pointed out earlier, the concept of protection and connection in architecture has been around since the beginning of building. This post will show the protection/connection devices of pre-modern architecture.

The rhetoric and technology of ancient architecture inclines itself towards a protective nature. The architecture is heavy, thick walled, and sparsely windowed. This is done for two pragmatic reasons. First; the ancients needed to protect themselves from invaders. Second; the limited building technology available at the time (monolithic post and lintel) prevented architects from creating large light filled spaces. For non-pragmatic reasons one still felt the need for architecture to be a buffer against the true harshness of nature. In other words, architecture is a corporeal force that keeps death and hardship at bay. For a time this rhetoric outweighed a desire for a re-connection with nature. The first civilizations had their fill of nature, it was time to go indoors. The stake of mankind in the realm of nature is assured. Nature is alleviated, mitigated, conquered!


Portico and Courtyard:

The Ancient Egyptians did desire a connection with nature within their limited technology. This was accomplished with spaces that had the ambiguous quality of being neither indoors nor outdoors. The portico and courtyard (which are used in architecture throughout history), create a connection to nature while at the same time protecting. The early Pylon facade temples of Ancient Egypt usually had an interior court skirted by a column-supported portico. Under the portico, one was protected from the most basic of nature’s torments: sun and rain. The portico does not protect from wind and temperature. It provides a view to the sky and landscape. The view is framed and thus given more order. The interior courtyard, with the porticos eliminating all views of the outside but the sky, also seems to be a place of ambiguity. It is connected with nature but quarantined from it. It is a space demonstrating protection and connection. The contrast between the courtyard and the interior temple are profound and will be discussed in a later post about dual density.

Le Corbusier sketch of Greek Ruins

The portico was famously developed in Greek temples. A traditional Greek temple would house a usually windowless and dark, thick walled temple. This temple would be surrounded by a columned portico. The Parthenon is the most perfect example of the Greek Temple and it’s supreme archetype. The portico is vast and set upon a pedestal that distances itself from the earth. Fluted columns frame carefully planned and beautiful views of nature. One is neither inside nor out. Protection and connection is in balance. Roman temples added nothing new to the archetype except for the arch and the dome whose best example is at the Pantheon (Whose Oculus is another great example of protection/connection). The arch and the dome allowed for large interior spaces. One could argue that this actually hindered the buildings from further connection to nature. The large vaulted basilicas and public baths usually had small windows that perhaps didn’t let much light in. These buildings had a hermetic tendency.

The typical house of Ancient Rome made use of an interior courtyard that would allow for the entrance of fresh air and light and the exit of smoke and funk. The courtyard is surrounded by thick walled living quarters that are unfriendly to the street. These rooms had very small windows if any. They opened inwards toward the courtyard. A donut of protection surrounds an island of connection.

Gothic Glass.

Translucent Glass:

In the Gothic Cathedral one finds a desire for the buildings to have more light, to look more lightweight, but also to remain sealed in upon themselves. Just like in Egyptian Temples, the front of a typical Gothic Cathedral is bold and has terrifying proportions. The inside however utilizes much more glass than has ever been seen before. The glass, is not transparent but translucent, and consists of colorfully rendered biblical scenes. Had the large expanses of glass been transparent the connection with nature would be much more pronounced. The murky glass, while letting light in, buffers one from the outside world. So, with Gothic Cathedrals, we see a style that develops the flying buttress to allow for more windows, but keeps the windows from connecting with nature fully. It is a strange Pro/Con duality.

Campidoglio by Michelangelo.

Perspective:

The Renaissance contributes little to the protection/connection duality. The discovery of perspective did find it’s way in some buildings. This perspective manipulation had the potential to aesthetically draw nature within. I’m sure there are better examples of this but the one that comes to my mind is the courtyard of the Campidoglio in Rome by Michelangelo. The two flanking building of the Campidoglio are at angles in such a way as to make the courtyard between them become a trapezoidal shape. This manipulated courtyard when seen from the steps of the central buildings can trick the eye and make one believe the courtyard is larger than it is. It can also be used to lure the horizon toward it. This embrace could create a closer connection with nature.

Schinkel: Altes Museum Entry

Schinkel Villa

19th Century:

Just before the aesthetics of architecture were influenced by the Industrial Revolution Karl Friedrich Schinkel was perhaps the last major architect to utilize some pro/con techniques. His Altes Museum had a central entry portico that reached inside the building so effectively it created a wonderful interstitial space that bridged the gap between exterior and interior. His villa projects also utilized portico spaces to create an ambiguous transition between inside and out. The “Roman Baths” at the Villa in Chalottenhof has an ivy covered portico that branches off of the main building and wraps around a tailored garden. The device is effective as a protection connection element.

Joseph Paxton: Crystal Palace.

Early Industrial Revolution feats include the Crystal Palace. Here the concept of protection and connection is complete. Walls and roof are made of transparent glass and held up by a light filigree of iron structure. All visual barriers to outside are eliminated while all the negative effects of nature are mitigated. (Well…. not entirely. I imagine the greenhouse effect could be quite high in such a space as that.)

The concept of protection/connection throughout architectural history has been an important motif since the earliest days of building. The demands of architecture by the people are the same as they have always been: a building that protects one from nature, but done in such a way as to not cut one off from nature. What a defiant and comforting feeling we have when witnessing a thunderstorm from behind glass.

A sketch by Mies Van Der Rohe of a garden proposal for the Tugendhat House. View from window of main house.

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