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Essay on the Metaphysics of Architecture

The Architectural Magazine and Journal, Volume III (1836)

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Art & Architecture


Metaphysics if Architecture.

greatest intricacy and variety of beauty. Its multiplicity and variety of members and mouldings, and the weaving and intersection of its lines in vaultings, &c., being so analogous to the union of the foliage and branches of vistas of trees, give great scope to the fancy in producing variety and agreeableness of effect. Yet, in the generality of the exteriors of our Gothic structures, there is so much heaviness and confusion, that we seldom see any effect produced by them, saving that of grotesque piles, elaborate in the confusion of small carvings : and yet these are much admired by some persons; for which I can only account by supposing their admiration to arise from the association of such buildings with their ideas of the past times of their country, over which, however barbarous they were, romance has thrown a charm.

The Grecian style is capable of a much higher order of beauty than the Gothic. Its columns, the proportions of which are taken from those of the human form, are remarkable for their exquisite elegance and grace; and the members of its various orders, when properly applied, and their proportions properly observed, produce the most perfect symmetry and beauty. Yet it is not capable of much variety of beauty; and, when any attempt is made to make it elaborate, or intricate in effect, its beauty becomes in a great measure destroyed, as it is characterised chiefly by its graceful simplicity of form.

Of the Egyptian style I need not speak under the head of beauty, as its characteristic heaviness and monotony render it incapable of it to any very great degree. Neither is it necessary that I should speak of the other styles which are practised; for the characters of all, 1 believe, assimilate, in some degree, to one or other of those which I have already mentioned; and, if they do not, their qualifications for producing beauty must be judged of in the same manner.

Sublimity may be said to consist in the high and the awful. In architecture, vastness of design, with largeness of parts to correspond, will produce this effect. To illustrate this, let us imagine rocks piled upon rocks, as columns, to a great height; let us imagine whole arcades of supporting arches of like ponderosity; and the effect will be that of the sublime. Yet smallness of parts, in a structure of this kind, would destroy such an effect, let the structure itself be ever so large; and the explanation of this is simple : your eye receives only the effect of a multiplicity of small things; and, as littleness is the very antipodes to the sublime, the effect of the whole, as to its size, is destroyed.

We can easily see, from this description of the sublime, how far the styles of architecture already spoken of are capable of it.

The Gothic, from the smallness and multiplicity of its parts, is the least adapted for its production; for, however large a structure in that style may be, still must its members be small in comparison to the whole; although, in the depth of its shades, and the boldness and loftiness of its arches and groinings, it may be produced to a very high degree. The Grecian style is capable of it to any extent. Its proportions are such, that, let the scale upon which it is practised be small or large, to any extent, it will always appear only as a whole : here there is no complexity of lines, or profusion of ornament, to distract the eye. The columns are so simple, though fine, in their contour, and so proportioned in their distances from each other, and to the entablatures which they support; or, rather, their entablatures are so pro-portioned to them, and the various members of that entablature to itself; and the whole of any of its orders is so perfectly symmetrical ; that, let it be enlarged to any extent, still must that order, with all its members, produce the effect of a whole; and, therefore, we conclude that it is capable of any height of sublimity. Even its columns themselves, independent of what they might support, would produce that effect, such is the nobleness of their form. Of the capabilities of Egyptian architecture for producing the sub-lime I scarcely need speak, as it will be seen at once, from what I have already said of it, that, although it is not capable of any very high degree of

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