Humanism in the Architecture of Past Centuries

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To decide if there should be a revival of humanist ideals in the 21st century, one must first learn about the works of men who died centuries ago and in doing so must see the undeniable truth that there are certain good, provocative, and inspiring ideas that can and should be put to use in relation to the dilemmas and problems of our own times.

The very essence of the word Renaissance speaks of a revival, a rebirth, a rejuvenated critical, pragmatic look at society. The very heart of what turns out to be a comprehensive effort to improve upon said society with the help of ideas that have come before. An outstanding example is the Medici family under whom Florence thrived in Art, Architecture, Literature, finance, and politics. The Medici bank was one of the most respected financial institutions in Europe, with flourishing branches in Florence, Venice, Rome, Geneva and eventually expanded to Pisa, Milan, Bruges, and Avignon. They were the pioneers of what the German-American Historian Hans Baron dubbed “Civic Humanism”. A movement that charmed and helped to shape Italian philosophy, art and architecture through the 15th and 16th centuries, which then influenced western ideals in following years. The praise of the Medici is not only in their ability to make money but their virtuous discernment in how to spend it. Cosimo de’ Medici enlivened philanthropy, through charitable activities, creating Italy’s first public library, which was then further expanded by his descendant Lorenzo de Medici; Whose researchers began to search through Europe’s monasteries, courts, and libraries for lost or overlooked texts from antiquity. Under his guidance, these philosophers commenced innovative investigations into Greek philosophy, art, and culture. They absorb the ideas of Epicurus and Aristotle and tried to harmonize Plato's theories with Christianity. With this, ideals of society, beauty, and faith changed. And as a consequence, these religious ideals then influenced the architecture of the churches, the architecture of Italy and eventually that of the western world.

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Architects such as Alberti were captivated by the work of Vitrivius, who was a great admirer of Greek architecture in general. According to Rudolf Walker, based on Alberti’s treaties, true beauty lies in proportions, more specifically, harmonic proportions. In practise, human proportions were the bedrock of measure, as shown in Leonardo Davinci’s drawing of Vitruvius where he lists that the “measurements of the human body are distributed by Nature as follows that is that 4 fingers make 1 palm, and 4 palms make 1 foot, 6 palms make 1 cubit; 4 cubits make a man's height.” With this being the case, it’s clear to see that there is an inherent relationship between man, nature, measure harmonic proportions. And as stated by Alberti, it is in these very measurements where true beauty exists. He said that observable beauty consists “in a rational integration of proportions of all the parts of a building in such a way that every part has its fixed size, and nothing can be added or taken away without destroying the harmony of the whole” just like in the human body. His understanding of this relationship can be shown in his first ecclesiastical work, S. Francesco at Rimini; Commissioned by Sigismondo Malatesta, lord of Rimini, who desired to convert the old 13th century church into a memorial to himself. The work began in 1447 and it was in 1450 that he conceived the idea of a brand-new exterior and a complete remaking of the interior. For the design, Alberti took from Roman antiquity, the motif of the triumphal arch. Taking from an older form was consistent with his declared belief that it was possible to preserve continuity between the old and the new, simultaneously improving upon the work of his predecessors, dabbling in antiquity. He revisited the design repeatedly claiming in a letter that “one wants to improve upon what has been built, and not to spoil what is yet to be built”. All of the new components introduced by Alberti in the façade including the columns, the pediment etc. would remain isolated features were it not for the all-pervading harmony which formed the basis and background of his whole theory which was that harmony is the essence of beauty. Beauty is shown in nature’s form through Vitruvius, beauty consists, in what some call “harmonic proportions”. as we have seen in the aforementioned exert from Davinci’s notebook. But in this case, beauty lies in the proportions of the building. Proportions recommended by Alberti are the simple relations of 1:1, 1:2, 1:3. 2:3, 3:4, etc.” Which are the elements of musical harmony and which Alberti found in classical greek buildings. The diameter of the pantheon, for instance, corresponds exactly to its height, half its diameter corresponds to the height of the substructure as well as to that of the dome, and so forth.”

The influence of antiquity can clearly be seen, as the Italian renaissance men have seen the value in the crowning architectural achievement of the Greeks; the acropolis. These buildings were made in tribute to the Gods, but their mathematical and architectural triumphs were made so to display the talent of Athenians. It’s obvious that such mathematical relations between plan and section cannot be perceived when one walks about in a building. Alberti knew, of course quite as well as we do. We must therefore conclude that the harmonic perfection of the geometrical scheme represents an absolute value, independent of our subjective and transitory perception. And the manufactured harmony is a visible echo of a celestial and universally valid harmony.

It could be argued that tapping into this celestial consensus provides architects with an opportunity to offer the occupants of a space a chance at experiencing a numinous relationship with the space around them and with themselves. Something that is evidently absent in contemporary architecture’s imposing large buildings. Rather than attempting to appeal to the superficial instant gratification of abstract forms that are different for the sake of individuality, this harmonic perspective of construction can offer citizens a much more profound and fruitful experience every time they step into a building. For example, when one steps into the dome of the Manchester Central Library, designed by Vincent Harris, they are greeted by a wonderfully crafted dome ceiling with the centre being made of glass, allowing light to enter. Columns align the walls, cascading around the space in a rigorous pattern that reverberates throughout the room. The library’s proportions are based on 3s. The Cullum’s are 3 metres apart. 9 metres from the wall and 9 metres from the desk. The central structure is 6 metres in diameter and also 3 metres from the first set of desks; which are 3 metres way from the 2nd set. All desks on one row are at their furthest 6 metres apart and at their closest 3 metres apart. The entire dome is 99 metres in diameter. Immediately as one walks through the library, they are reminded of how small they are in relation to the scale of the hall, instantly making them more self-aware. The hall revels in antiquity, acting like a time capsule for some beautiful artefacts. It becomes echo chamber of silence, independent of time, a space that channels extreme focus despite its large form. The atmosphere is reliant on the aforementioned proportions that transcend human perception. More than just being an appealing visual experience, the strict adherence to the ratios of 1:2, 1:3, 2:3, 3:4 etc. creates a space that gives the body an experience, offering a much more substantial reward that encourages study and productivity in an organic way. Mimicking nature’s construction of man, the ratios are, in a way, kin to the human body. And this relationship is independent of our subjective and transitory perception. E. Vincent Harris explored this link and managed to construct a space that many students, pensioners, tourists etc. can share the space despite their subjecting prejudices, because it transcends all of that, relying on a primordial rule of form.

Rules that were observed and noted to apply to the human form in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. The result is an outstanding example of ideologies from the age of renaissance humanism being applied in modern society. The library is a wonderful space that is used by people of all ages and of all creeds, children stay there after school to read, study, and socialise. The building uses similar shapes to those found in antiquity, a dome, columns, etc… But it could be argued that to perpetuate and preserve the ideologies laid by the great men of the renaissance, buildings can differ in form and still carry the same ethics. For example, the library uses the same Corinthian Columns to create a similar entrance to that of the Temple of Apollo and the Parthenon. But can the same special environment and relationship to the human body be achieved through methods other than imitations? Modern humanism has taken a turn, Aguste Comte said we may define humanism as “the emphasis laid on the dignity of humanity and the appreciation of human values”.

It’s reasonable to say that there is no reason for us to imitate their artistic forms in order to achieve a goal like theirs. Paul Zucker argued that “there exists not the slightest logical or historical reason to identify humanism with classical design or the organisation of past periods” and that “humanism merely means order… order where the logic of human forms is the centre and measure of all things.” Taking his argument into consideration, one can see the classical application of this humanist perspective due to the intense focus on Vitruvius and Leonardo da Vinci’s analysis of the human measure. It has been observed that modern architecture is rejecting the historic imitations of the 19th century, a rebuttal lead by the principle of Louis Sullivan “form follows function”. An ideology pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright, Tony Garnier, Auguste Perret and more. The advocation of practical needs seemed to have shed all superfluous decoration. Observing both schools of thought, one can see that there are redeeming characteristics within both sides. Modern society has created its own human imperatives. With this being said, a “revival” of classical humanist ideals would have to abandon the form and find a new way to facilitate the spirit that drove the renaissance architecture. For example, in Le Corbusier's Ronchamps, which overtly reveals an empathetic approach to the building image (in the Greek sense) of clearly separated sculptural entities co-operating with and opposing one another as an organic whole, an ideal that Alberti supported, further stating that, in an ideal building, nothing can be added or taken away without ruining the harmony of the whole. But where the harmony of the Parthenon reveals collaboration amongst the parts, the violence and strength of this new Parthenon stresses conflict. In this case as well as the sense of the miraculous through dramatic antithesis, the building shows ideologies of baroque humanism as well as Greek. When approaching the building. one immediately senses the leitmotif of the tilting and drooping wall supported physically by the prow at one side and visually by the rigidly vertical tower at the other. The black roof spilling over the wall like a wave seems to pull it backward and thus increases instability. But at the same time the upward curve of the roof over the entrance also visually stabilizes it.

Other themes, those of secrecy and surprise, are also stated. The tower is closed to our approach. We are encouraged to move around the building by the barest suggestion that, like the back of a nun's coif, it is open on the opposite side. Le Corbusier stirs our curiosity merely by the straight edge and the tiny cross on the far side of the tower. Just so at the prow, where a sliver of roof falls from its prop and mysteriously glides behind the wall. And there is the theme of hollownless too: the unexpectedness of the outdoor hollows of roof, of roof and walls, and the sense of hollowness within. All this and more Le Corbusier suggests through his uncanny genius with free sculptural forms so organized as to maximize the symbolic import of their combination as an empathetic structure. That he should evoke such spiritual response with hardly a reminiscence of conventional ecclesiastical forms is itself testimony to the power of a close-knit image which, like the Parthenon, works as an organic whole. In contrast to the elegance of its ancient predecessor, however, the crudity ofLe Corbusier's forms and the deliberate violence of their juxtapositions speaks more exclusively to human sensations close to the unconscious than does the Parthenon.

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