Essay on the Metaphysics of Architecture

The Architectural Magazine and Journal, Volume III (1836)

Some of the most visible examples of nineteenth-century American Egyptomania were in the field of architecture. Nineteenth-century America was home to many buildings built specifically to emulate the monumental buildings of ancient Egypt. Known today as the Egyptian Revival, this style of architecture was closely related to other nineteenth-century styles intentionally based on ancient styles; ancient Greece and ancient Rome were by far the most popular, but other ancient lands were copied in America as well. The most famous Egyptian Revival structure in America today is undoubtedly the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., but the style was popular throughout the nineteenth century, and appeared in many buildings across the country.

The Egyptian Revival was controversial, too. Not only was it thought to conjure some unpleasant images – death, for example, due its popularity for cemetery design – but it had to compete against other revivalist styles as well – the Greek, the Roman, the Gothic, the “Oriental.” A colony turned into a country though a revolution from its parent country of England, America was without a national tradition of architecture, and so nineteenth-century Americans had to decide on what style or styles of architecture best suited their young country. The democratic connotations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome had to battle against the Christian connotations of the Gothic style, and these three styles had to compete with that of ancient Egypt for its connotations of wisdom and endurance.

Thus the 1800s saw an explosion of treatises on American architecture. Various authors sought to weigh in on the relative beauty and value of each revivalist style, and, in the context of debates over American national identity, architectural treatises took on a kind of self-importance all their own. Hence the title of this treatise from 1836: “Essay on the Metaphysics of Architecture.”



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Essay on the Metaphysics of Architecture.
By J. Dowson, Esq.
EVERY one who has studied the nature of his own mind, or been accus• tomed to watch its operations, knows how great an influence external objects exercise over its powers, even when it is not particularly dwelling upon them. He knows how the objects before his view become insensibly associated with whatever thoughts may be passing through his mind, and produce, according to their nature or appearance, a degrading, an exalting, or a beautifying effect upon his ideas. Thus, in recalling the thoughts which have engaged him at some particular time, he also generally recalls the scenes or objects which were before him at that time; or, in recalling the scenes to his memory, he also recalls the thoughts that attended them, though no necessary connexion might have existed between them ; and he finds that his thoughts have become ennobled and enlarged by their association with magnificent scenery, or that they have become degraded and contracted by association with inharmonious and mean scenery or objects. All this, I say, will be known and felt by him who has studied the nature, or watched the operation, of his own mind. But not only by him will it be felt, but, also, by all those who have minds that can enjoy the beauties of nature, or the charms of art. They find that their ideas become purified, raised, or expanded, according as they are surrounded with that which is beautiful, harmonious, or high. And he who unites with this sensibility a philosophic mind, will delight to surround himself with the beauties and sublimities of nature and of art : not that he may sit for hours to contemplate them, but that, by their association with, they may give to, his thoughts and imaginings a higher and purer character, and vigour to reach, and power to grasp, things of higher import, to expand his views of existence, of the wisdom and power of God, and of the mysteries of nature and of mind. And this power over us, belonging to external things, may be easily accounted for. We know that without ideas we could not think at all, for they are the materials for thought; and we know, also, that all ideas are, in the first instance, communicated to us through our senses : of course, I mean here, by ideas, only those which are of mat-ter, and not those which arise from reflection upon our own feelings of existence and identity, and thence upon the nature and attributes of spirit; although these, however abstract they may be, will always associate them-selves in our minds with ideas or images drawn from matter. Of the ideas which we receive through our senses, we may, indeed, form almost an in-finite number of combinations, differing from every thing we may see around us; yet still they are only combinations whose beauty and elevation must depend wholly upon the quality of our materials, and our power to use them. Thus, then, must our minds continually be under the influence of external objects; the scenes around us becoming, as it were, the pedestals upon which our souls naturally exalt themselves to take a view of the things beyond; their view being, consequently, enlarged or diminished, according to the height which they thus ascend. Ideas may be called the atmosphere, as well as the food, of the soul; upon the quality and purity of which depend its vigour, and the loftiness of flight which it can take.

Seeing, then, that such is the effect of external objects upon our intellect,

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