Thursday, November 06, 2008

John Onians and His Method

To understand the role of architecture in the formation of European culture, and the European mind, John Onians employs two methods.

  1. Recording how the forms were employed, establishing patterns of usage, and suggesting reasons for those patterns.
  2. Providing an account of what was said about the forms in texts, exploring the background to those observations, and analysing the intellectual framework in which they developed.

His essential question is this: How did the people of Western Europe formulate and articulate a relationship to gods, each other, and themselves through the use of columns, capitals, and mouldings?

An example of John Onians' argument follows:

  •   “Architectural forms in the Greek world of the sixth century thus had primarily regional associations.”
  •   Social, religious, and political identifications were not as pronounced as regional identifications; the usage pattern of different orders manifests itself strongly along location boundaries.
  •  Regional loyalties account for a prevalence of Doric temples in Mainland Greece and the Western colonies, while Ionic temples dominate in the East and on the Aegean islands.
  •   The two reasons for the regional disparity are thus: Doric markets depended on repetition and stereotypes for trade while sophisticated Ionic markets did not, and Doric athletic contests in which each athlete performed the same task were not a favourite communal activity of Ionians.
  •   General preference for disciplined regularity characterises a Greek society that developed a standardized architecture and the phalanx; this regularity and strength is related directly to the values of the Doric Greeks who invaded the Peloponnese peninsula from the North, and the prevalence of a less ornate temple order in the Doric West than in the Ionic East.
  •  Regional architectural habits became linked with political realities when Persia pushed to the shores of the Aegean.
  •  The Eastern Greeks who built of marble and pretty volute capitals quickly surrendered to the Persians, whilst the Greeks of the mainland and the West who built simpler limestone structures and austere disc capitals were able to resist.
  •  It is no surprise that the rear chamber of the Parthenon was supported by four Ionic columns when the rear chamber was a treasury that housed the payments for an Athenian fleet that protected Eastern Greeks.

Given the fragmented nature of the evidence available, it is a plausible positivist narrative. 

However, such an argument stands in contrast with a Hermeneutics of culture, whereby the presence of supporting documents need not presuppose an understanding of architecture.  I mention hermeneutics for the following reason: Hermeneutics emphasises the allegorical nature of architecture, and therefore lends itself easily to an understanding of medieval Christian architecture.  Despite the circular reasoning, allegorical understanding of the medieval period is appropriate because allegory was ubiquitous during the 11th and 12th centuries.