John Summerson (1904-1992) who is a British art and architecture historian has a long and distinguished career as an expert in architecture in England and London, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Born in November 25, 1904, in Darlington, the author had numerous contributions to architecture until his death on November 10, 1992, and he left several significant works behind such as “Georgian London” (1945), “Architecture in Britain, 1530 – 1830” (1950) and “Heavenly Mansions” (1949). “Georgian London” was entitled as a masterpiece of British art history. The author has worked as a curator at John Soanelars Museum and Fine Arts departments of Oxford and Cambridge University and as well as lectured on the history of architecture at Birkbeck College London.
Architectural publications have not only been followed by architecture students or architects but also by many readers interested in this profession. The reason behind it is undoubtedly their effect on people’s lives. Our world has changed rapidly especially after the Industrial Revolution and continues to improve with rising momentum. This rapid development has brought many transformations. Now, people want to live in more livable cities. They demand the planning of their housing to increase their quality of life. Living in a sustainable world should be our common goal.
Architectural works, publications, television programs, etc. are followed because of their direct effects, requests, expectations on people’s lives. In addition to the works that include the designs of public and private spaces, all branches of architecture such as decoration, landscape, and urbanism attract attention. The history of architecture arouses interest because of its association with our cultural life.
The book called “The Classical Language of Architecture” is my choice on this issue. It has been regarded as a “classic” among the architectural books ever since the first time it was published and it’s a book about the classical architecture. For students who are the architects of the future to find out about the classical architecture in every aspect would be a unique advantage. The main objective of classical architecture is to obtain an unmistakable harmony between the components.
The success in the design of each architectural project should be evaluated independently from the style it belongs to. Designing a harmonious architecture within itself is based on creating an environmentally compatible design. To do all these is possible by understanding the essence of classical architecture in a good, complete and accurate way. For this reason, architecture students should read the publications accepted as a masterpiece of architectural history, from the early years of their education. This is one of those must-read classic books. It’s a masterpiece not only for architecture students and architecture followers, but also for professionals who want to consolidate their professional knowledge.
“The Classical Language of Architecture” is originated in a series of six talks broadcast by the BBC in 1965. These six talks are converted into the text, almost unaltered. In order to increase the richness and depth of the subject, the book was enriched with visuals.
The book consists of six chapters.
“I shall be talking about architecture as a language and all I want to assume at the moment is that you do recognize the Latin of architecture when you see it.” (The Classical Language of Architecture, John Summerson, 2005, p. 9)
The classical architecture, which the author interpreted as the Latin of architectural languages, does not take only Roman and Greek architecture as the subject in this book. The birth and development of classical architecture is not the sole subject of the book. “The book is about the nature and use of classical language.” (The Classical Language of Architecture, John Summerson, 2005, p. 9)
The book begins with its first chapter “The Essentials of Classicism” and continues with the chapters “The Grammar of Antiquity”, “Sixteenth Century Linguistics”, “The Rhetoric of the Baroque”, “The Light of Reason and of Archaeology”. “Classical into Modern” is the last chapter of the book. I will follow the same order in my article.
“With the woodcut of 1540, Sebastiano Serlio introduced his treatise on ‘The Five Ways of Building’. The Tuscan, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders had been named by Vitruvius. Alberti had named the Composite. Serlio was the first to exhibit the five orders as a closed series to which no additions were admissible.” (The Classical Language of Architecture, John Summerson, 2005, p. 2)
The ESSENTIALS of CLASSICISM
To begin with the definition of classicism does not correspond to this section. To start with the question of “What are the criteria to define a structure as classical architecture?” would be a better choice, I suppose.
Under what circumstances could a building be classified as “classical”? The examples we talk about are a museum and a cathedral. Both are historical buildings.
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a classical building, whilst Westminster Abbey is not. The Houses of Parliament is not a classical building as well. The British Museum is a classical building, the Natural History Museum at South Kensington is not. These are the pieces of information that have already been arrived at a consensus. Not every historical building is classical. It may look classical; however, it is necessary to have certain characteristics in order to include it in the classical category. The lack of these features is neither a deficiency nor redundancy.
“Are not the important qualities of architecture deeper than and independent of such stylistic nomenclature?” (The Classical Language of Architecture, John Summerson, 2005, p. 9)
Different styles can always be confused with each other. This distinction can be quite difficult, especially for those which are periodically close.
Gothic and Classical are different styles. Both of them have similar points. One does not separate from another as thesis – antithesis. But these two are different from each other.
Let us look at the term of “classical” and how it should be identified within the scope of architecture.
“A classical building is one whose decorative elements derive directly or indirectly from the architectural vocabulary of the ancient world – the classical world as it is often called.” (The Classical Language of Architecture, John Summerson, 2005, p. 9-10)
For example; buildings containing five orders of architecture namely Tuscany, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite which are in Vitrivius, Alberti and Sebastiano Serlio’s description are classical buildings. Buildings containing five classical varieties and that in the gaps between these, on windows and doors using structural elements of classical order such as cornices and mouldings which also classify them “the classical”. At the same time “The aim of classical architecture has always been to achieve a demonstrable harmony of parts.” (The Classical Language of Architecture, John Summerson, 2005, p. 10)
Classical buildings are easily recognizable from the outside. They contain certain patterns in their essence, and they are very noticeable externally. At the same time, these patterns have been recognized by the humanity for centuries all over the world.
FIVE ORDERS of ARCHITECTURE
Order is a series of columns in architecture, which can be separated from similar structures with its proportion, characteristics, and distinctive details. It is a building with a series of components, from the cornice to the plinth. The fringe is an integral part of this series of columns. Plinth, pedestal, column, capital, architrave, frieze, and cornice are the components of this structure.
Sebastiano Serlio was a man of the High Renaissance, an exact contemporary of Michelangelo. Serlio’s greatest service to architecture was to compile the first full-scale fully illustrated architectural grammar. His books have been used as the main source for centuries.
Serlio’s book starts with an engraving – the very first of its kind – in which all five orders are shown standing side by side. The composite column is the fifth structure which comes into the scheme after the quadratic alignment. It is no longer necessary to add new ones. This family, which can be named as “five brothers of architecture” forms the basis of classical architectural language.
In his work ‘Encyclopedia of Architecture’, Sir William Chambers states “The proper understanding and application of orders is laid the foundation of architecture as an art.”
In each period, orders are always supposed to have something resembling personalities. The Doric, Vitrivius saw as exemplifying ‘the proportion, strength and grace of a man’s body’ – presumably an average well-built male. The Ionic, for him, was characterized by ‘feminine slenderness’ and the Corinthian as imitating ‘the slight figure of a girl’. Vitrivius having opened the door to personalization of the orders and Scamozzi echoes Vitrivius in calling the Corinthian ‘virginal’. Sir Henry Wotton distorts him by calling it ‘lascivious’. According to him, the Corinthian order was the symbol of luxury and ornament.
The Doric order has always been regarded as male. While the Ionic in between as something rather unsexed – an ageing scholar or a calm and gentle matron.
“Serlio says, the Doric should be used for churches dedicated to the more extroverted male saints (St Paul, St Peter or St George) and to militant types in general; the Ionic for matronly saints, neither too tough nor too tender, and also for men of learning; the Corinthian for virgins, most especially the Virgin Mary. To the Composite, Serlio awards no special characteristics, while the Tuscan he finds suitable for fortifications and prisons.” (The Classical Language of Architecture, John Summerson, 2005, p. 17)
Architects tend to use Doric when they want to express roughness, toughness and soldierly bearing. On the other hand, Composite is sometimes chosen because the architect wants to lay it on thick – luxury, opulence, no expense spared.
Consequently, the orders are crucial. First and foremost, no arrangement should be used without pairing. Otherwise, it would be a betrayal of classical architecture. However, sometimes this happens because of some non-professional master builders or unconscious practitioners. The arrangement provides expressions of durability, safety, fragility, elegance, grace, fanciness, and flashiness rather than roughness and primitiveness. The entire message to be conveyed can clearly be embodied through the preferred order. The story of the five primal elements representing classical architecture is, in fact, five different languages, five characters, five distinct identities that clearly express themselves.