Architectural x-factor

I became the proud owner of my Cambridge Classics BA 2 years ago. This September I am taking up a place to study an Anthropology MA in Material and Visual Culture at UCL. I know it looks bad: this isn’t a Classics course.

But please don’t judge me, my heart is in the right place. What I want to do is to learn about clever anthropological methods for analysing buildings and landscape, and then use them to add a whole new dimension to our understanding of Ancient Greek architecture. So it is really quite legit!

In the meantime, I am currently living in London and wandering around interesting
modern buildings, pursuing an ongoing quest to put my finger on just what it is that makes a building feel ‘special’. I’m trying to see if I can make my brain come
up with something exciting by forcing it to look at ancient and modern buildings in exactly the same way. Obviously there are major problems with this. But hey, I’ve never seen the presence of problems as ruling out the possibility of success!

My theory is that the ‘x-factor’of a transformative space is all about the relationship between a building, its landscape setting and the viewer/user/visitor/resident (potential for endless common room debate on ‘best’ terminology).

I developed this idea in relation to the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, Samothrace, in obligatory 10, 000 word detail for my third year thesis (NB copy in the Fac library, comes up if you put my name in Newton, I found- it’s like looking yourself up on Google, only geekier!!)

Picture: Map of Samothrace (modern Samothraki) with contours (!!)

Anyway, to give a slightly shorter version: the Sanctuary of the Great Gods is folded down in a deep crevice in the landscape, hidden on the side of an island that is basically just a mountain with a small circumnavigable road around the edge. So climbing down into the landscape for the festival of the Great Gods, and descending to the Sanctuary buildings, themselves concealing spaces (no glimpses through ranks of pillars here- see pictures below) would be ideal for getting in the mood for the secret, hidden mystery rites that took place there. (Not just your standard sacrifice routine- the Great Gods were only distant cousins of the Olympians.) This looks to me like a great landscape/ architecture partnership with a potentially significant imapact on a user.

Picture: the Hieron, (c. 320Bc) Santuary of the Great Gods, Samothraki. Note clear sloping angle of trees on land to the right! Columns were only at the entrance, where they have been reconstructed. Uninterrupted walls all the way around on the other sides. 

Picture: Reconstruction of the Rotunda of Arsinoe, (c. 280BC)  Sanctuary of the Great Gods, Samothraki. Biggest circular building in the world at time of construction and pretty forbidding: there ain’t no gap between those columns, they are only half columns with stone in between, and the top band is continuous.  

If it is all about attention to user experience and a sensitivity to landscape setting, today’s best creative teams are playing just the same games for just the same gains. Check out the new Serpentine Gallery pavillion designed by artist Ai WeiWei, for example, which opened to the public in Kensington Gardens the weekend before last. The pavillion presents as a disc of water floating above the lawn. But that’s just the roof- underneath, cascades of cork-lined seating are just below the surface, a light but shaded, hidden space. Sunk into the landscape, just like the sanctuary at Samothrace, it too makes a place that feels set aside, secret- just right for learning and contemplation at the talks and discussions which is designed to host. (Okay, and also just plain cool for the Serpentine Gallery’s drinks parties!)

Picture: Serpentine Pavilion 2012

Picture: Serpentine Pavilion 2012

Perhaps veterans of Cambridge Classics may wish to consider how much their exam performance could have been improved by taking lectures in a Greek sanctuary or a parkland hideaway rather than a breeze-block lecture room…

But if you’re not buying all this at present, then let me get back to you in a year, with my anthropological pretensions fully matured!

Guest blogger: Rachel Taylor (Pembroke 2010)

Serpentine pics: http://tonicdesign.co.za/blog/serpentine-gallery-pavilion-2012/



2 thoughts on “Architectural x-factor

  1. Thanks for sharing, Rachel! Do you compare your architectural sources with literary and other historical sources to inform your thoughts about the kind of people that inhabited those spaces, and why a particular society built a structure in particular ways? If you do, then do unexpected connections jump out at you, and give you any new insights into ancient cultures?

  2. Yes definitely, I couldn’t do this kind of thinking if people weren’t doing a lot of amazing work on historical & literary sources. I think at the same time, sometimes you also have to try letting the building speak for itself. Obviously the words you are getting from it are coloured by yourself, and you have to kind of ground it in other sources, but I try to get away from the idea that written records are the ‘best’ record. Cool connections definitely happen though. I was looking at how the architecture in Samothrace changes in some ways in 4th century BC- differently to how it develops elsewhere, with a general theme of inviting verticality of gaze. It is often argued that there is a mood of change in historical and literary texts at this time- a feeling of uncertainty and looking in different places for answers. I wondered if the unique qualities of Samothrace meant this was a place this could be expressed uniquely- in a reaching upwards out of the earth as well as into it, symbolised by the famous Nike of Samothrace, in heavy stone but also reaching up, looking like she is about to lift off! I’m not saying this is the most ‘right’ interpretation, but that it should be one that has equal validity alongside other ones and can enhance them and nuance them.

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