Palpitating Stones

Roger Scruton

  • The Dancing Column: On Order in Architecture by Joseph Rykwert
    MIT, 598 pp, £49.95, May 1996, ISBN 0 262 18170 3

Subtitled ‘On Order in Architecture’, Joseph Rykwert’s exploration of the classical Orders, and their meaning for the many architects who have made use of them, has the shape, size and trimmings of a magnum opus. Footnotes and bibliography take up one third of its six hundred pages, and the text is burdened with photographs, plans and drawings illustrating each period of the classical style. On some pages almost every sentence is fortified by a footnote, and scarcely a paragraph passes without introducing some new writer or architect relevant to the theme. No doubt Rykwert has read even more items than the two thousand or so listed in the bibliography; but I cannot help wishing he had read less. For his theme is of the first importance, and deserves the utmost clarity of argument, and a willingness to come forward with a plain statement, whether or not an authority can be found to back it up. As it is, I was led groaning with redundant knowledge through the maze of Rykwert’s text, no more convinced at the end than along the way that it really has an argument.

Its one important idea – that the classical column should be understood as a metaphor for the upright human body – gains little from the abundant illustrations, and is obscured throughout by Rykwert’s failure to distinguish metaphor from simile. A metaphor is not a likeness, but a bringing together of things unlike. It does not describe a relation, but creates it, and in the course of doing so transfigures both its terms. If the column really is a metaphor for the body (and to describe a column, rather than a word, as a metaphor, is itself a metaphor), then we must show how the human form has been shaped by the ‘palpitating stones’ through which we commemorate it. This Rykwert does not do. Instead, he addresses us, through his title, with another metaphor: the metaphor of the ‘dancing’ column, which seems appropriate, if at all, only to those Modernist pilotis which are the furthest imaginable structures from the ideal of classical repose.

I share Rykwert’s sense of the importance of the column, and of the classical Orders as an attempt to reveal its spiritual significance. I also agree with his view – expressed with less force or anguish than it deserves – that the mute ‘developers’ architecture’ of our time has, in turning away from the column, turned its back on human life, and contributed to the untold misery of the modern city. Without the column as unifying principle, modern buildings degenerate into piles of horizontally-conceived slabs which face in no direction, which are antagonistic to the street and therefore to the passer-by, and which contribute massively but ineffably to our perception of the city as a waste land.

I began Rykwert’s book in high spirits, convinced that so cultivated an observer would help to put the case for a civilised architecture, to show why architecture matters, and to defend, not the classical styles perhaps, but the underlying vision which they exemplify: the vision of man at home in his world, and of the world made home. The book that I hoped for was to tell us why the column cannot stand alone as an upright shaft, why it must rise from other elements, be shadowed out with mouldings, and lead into an entablature. It was to explain not only the Orders themselves, but the nature and function of the ornaments required by them, and the effect of the sculptor’s hand as it chafes out the shadow of a cyma reversa, or conjures light into stone through fluting and foliage. Interestingly enough, the best literature on this all-important topic – Sir William Chambers’s Architecture, for instance, or Adrian Stokes’s Stones of Rimini – does not feature among Rykwert’s two thousand volumes, and even Ruskin (who, for all his impetuous dismissal of the Greek and Roman styles, showed more understanding of their point than most of their defenders) is mentioned only in passing. As I progressed through the scholarly accounts of Beaux-Arts, Neoclassical and Renaissance theorists, through systematising philosophers of art, and Modernist critics, I realised that my hopes would be dashed, and that I must read the book for what it is – one man’s record of a lifetime’s study.

As such, the work does credit to Rykwert’s intelligence in bringing together, and prowess in summarising, a great many otherwise barely related lines of thought. Vitruvius and the Vitruvians loom large, but so do Aristotle, Plato and Hegel. A routine summary of Alberti, Serlio and Palladio is spiced with excursions into Fréart de Chantelou, Quatremère de Quincy and Diego da Sagredo. Le Brun’s physiognomic drawings are set in the context of Cartesian psychology and the cult of Theophrastus. A thousand curious by-ways of the classical tradition, from Egyptian temples to Gaudi’s hypostyle, from Renaissance manuals to American 19th-century pattern-books, are called in witness to the enduring importance of the column, and to the vast amount of thought and emotion that has been expended by architects, philosophers and critics on the technical and aesthetic problems of the post and beam.

Rykwert is not content with theories only, and leads us back to the classical ruins, to the surviving fragments of ancient thought about building, and to the familiar problems of the triglyph, the acanthus leaf and the Ionic capital. He describes both the buildings and the rites that occurred in them; he ranges freely over Greek, Egyptian, Hittite and Assyrian sources, and generally leaves no stone unturned in his account of the human impulse to leave no stones unturned. The resulting mass of information, some new, some old, some humdrum, some surprising, some scholarly, some anecdotal, will produce overload in many readers. But I am sure Rykwert’s instinct is right, that it does all hang together, and that if we shake it around for long enough, we may discover the secret of the column.

Classical and Renaissance thinkers endorsed the metaphysical theory of the microcosm, as the true principle of order. According to this, the human body and the ideal building both reflect the order of the universe. The body metaphor therefore becomes a dual metaphor. In the classical vision, ‘a body is like a building and the building in turn is like the world. That metaphor returns in a more global similitude: the whole world is itself understood as a kind of body.’ Those ideas have a fascinating history, and Rykwert devotes several interesting sections to them. But they make it all the more urgent to understand what is meant by the ‘body metaphor’.

Rykwert is aware of the problem:

A repeated recourse to a metaphor in a book devoted to building requires a general apology, since, for many readers, metaphor will seem a surface dressing, embroidery on the real business of utilitarian and even of abstract-formal concerns. Such is not my view: I think it an essential part of the business of building, as of all human activity. The particular and neglected body metaphor provides a key to some puzzling features of Greek architecture. I have come to think that it may direct the way all men and women relate themselves to what they build.

He returns to the point at the end, after many detours. What exactly might he mean? Obviously, the human body is, for us, an important measure, and establishes not only our sense of scale, but also the comfortable proportions for roofs, windows and doors. But Rykwert means something deeper and more important, something which is extremely difficult to put into words, without lapsing into the unconvincing analogies between column and body, entablature and head, mouldings and eyebrows, that he extracts from the works of Renaissance theorists. Metaphor comes into play precisely where analogies expire. It is because the column is not like a human body, that our disposition to see it in terms of one is so full of meaning. The caryatid is not a prototype of the column, but a degenerate version of it, stolen from the serene world of architecture and put on figurative display. The versatility and beauty of the classical Orders is of a piece with their abstract character. They have both uniformity and elasticity, of a kind that no phalanx of sculpted human figures could possibly imitate. If all we saw, when responding to a classical Order, were analogies with the human figure, then we should not see the Order. It is because we pass over the analogies, and see the colonnade as composed of stone, arranged in a pattern, and counterpointed by shadows which have no direct human significance, that we grasp the power of the classical temple.

Nevertheless, it is true that the column, like the human figure, stands before us; we attribute to it a certain posture. We do not see analogies; rather we see metaphorically, transferring to the column the responses that we reserve for each other. This fact has often been noticed, though not necessarily in those words. The theorist who made most of it – Geoffrey Scott in The Architecture of Humanism – is again strangely absent from Rykwert’s bibliography, as is the entire literature on which Scott drew for his psychological theories. It seems legitimate to complain, when Rykwert is so keen to impress his knowledge on us, that important knowledge should be absent from his thought.

Although metaphorical perception is important, we should be aware of its limits. We experience our own body through movement, through will, strain and the daily dose of entropy. Only rarely does posture come to the fore, and then it is always in the context of strain, artifice and unsustainable rigidity. If we transferred this experience unaltered to the perception of architecture, buildings could never look serene, restful or permanent. Yet the classical temple is all of these. It does not ‘dance’ for us or with us; it provides the genial, motionless background to our civilised life, of which dancing is a part. If it also smiles on us, it is as the sun smiles, not literally, nor even by analogy, but because that is the best description of what we feel in its presence.

That thought, however, suggests what might be true in Rykwert’s underlying idea. Civilised life is a complex artefact, founded on respect for the human being and the human body. It involves restraint, law-abidingness and decorum – the three virtues of the dance. But, like the dance, it also requires a massive accumulation and expression of social feeling. Although the classical column does not dance, it has the spirit of the dance: it is graceful, restrained, decorous, law-abiding and replete with social feeling. The Modernist office types deplored by Rykwert do not have the spirit of the dance. In this they resemble what passes for dancing at the Ministry of Sound. Social feeling, the consciousness of the other as an object of respect, the restraint and law-abidingness which are our tribute to the public world – all these have disappeared from building-types, as they have disappeared from dancing.

That said, we are no further towards discovering what it is that has endowed the Greek and Roman Orders with their lasting appeal, and made it possible for architects to use them in so many circumstances and at so many periods of history. Rykwert doubts that we can use the Orders now, because he believes that the perception and use of the body have been too much changed by technology and social upheaval. I am disinclined to agree with him, largely because I see the virtue of the Orders in more concrete terms. For me, the Orders show how architectural composition may be achieved in a single vertical unit, by the use of mouldings, and the emphasis on joints, transitions and lines of force. The order achieved can be spread horizontally and therefore lends itself to façades, streets and walls. In other words, it delivers structures which look on us, which face up to us, which make room for us. Have I used the ‘body metaphor’ in so describing them?