Greek Architecture Versus Renaissance Architecture: Comparative Essay

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Indicated throughout the history of humanity, the relationship between man and architecture is seen to have intertwined inevitably with nature. Regardless as to whether it be influenced literally, for instance through the emulation of natural forms by means of biomimicry, or influenced abstractly, through the collectively shared virtues within human nature, it is clear the role nature plays within this relationship is incredibly significant. With an innate infrastructure of equilibrium and mathematics, nature has become the roots of architecture, and therefore, almost unknowingly, has been able to teach structural competence and demonstrate effortless aesthetic. The elements of the natural world are inherent to maths being construed with geometric principles and arithmetic components, all of which simulate proportions that are pleasing to the eye. Yet despite the obscurity as to whether these elements occurred by design or coincidence, they have been frequently adopted within architecture for a long time.

However, architecture has not only borrowed lessons from nature in its physical form, but the human nature of spirituality and religious beliefs have also influenced the way in which architects have designed structures. Philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, argue that spiritual or religious virtues are key traits in human nature, (Michael Sweeny, ‘What is Human Nature? – Definition, Theories & Examples’) and those traits have an instinctive impact on how architects have designed buildings. From the belief in divinity being greater than man, in such a way that humanity was incomparable to its power, to the humanist movement of realising humanity’s dexterous capabilities, architecture has evolved and thrived throughout these changes even despite these differing views.

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The evidently wide use of nature within architecture has been explored throughout time to describe beauty and proportions in many ways and is what I will be discussing about in this essay, specifically within the Greek and Renaissance period of architectural styles.

Greek architecture (900BC) is characterised by the humanities perspective of the gods at the time, where magnificent temples and shrines were designed to stand worthy of the deity. The Greek edifices were built to the utmost precision and expressed the integrity of workmanship, its substantial forms blossoming from wood and mud brick to large spans of marble during the sixth and fifth centuries BCE when the Greek mainland was firmly established during the Archaic period. Therefore, through the cities’ investment in resources for temples, the Classical orders began; first starting with Doric then following after is the Ionic and Corinthian. Perhaps the fullest example of the integrity in Greek architecture is the Parthenon (447-432BCE) in Athens with its use of Doric columns and incredible precision. The maturity found in Greek architecture influenced the ancient Roman architects and eventually its forms becoming prevalent and visible throughout the Roman architectural styles which the Renaissance architects became influenced by.

Renaissance architecture (14th century) was a rebirth of the Classical culture found in Greek and Roman architecture. It was a revival of many Classical elements like the columns, round arch and Classical orders in place of the medieval Gothic style in the previous centuries. The spaciousness and knowledge of balance and proportion came mostly from the ancient Greek architectural designs and the writings of Vitruvius. The definition of beauty during the 14th century was impacted by the findings of harmony in human proportion. The application of these findings and realisations characterized the sophistication and clarity of the Renaissance architectural style, especially with quintessential architects like Leon Battista Alberti whose books on architecture, inspired generously by Vitruvius, paved the way of design during the Renaissance.

It is only natural for the human eye to translate a space into perspective in a way that the surrounding visual environment becomes a deformed representation of the physical. (Casper J. Erkelens, article, The Extent of Visual Space Inferred from Perspectiv e Angles, 2015) Yet Ancient Greek architects chose to counteract this natural visual distortion of their structural designs in order for them to appear visually correct to the human eye. For example, the Parthenon, (447-432BCE) a marble temple, was designed to rectify the distortion of human perception through a system of optical refinements. To the naked eye, the stylobate of the temple appears to be completely flat, however, its parallel appearance to the ground is not exactly what it seems, thus introducing our first optical refinement: the doming of the temples stepped pedestal. The slightly curved doming at the centre of the temple’s base rids of the illusionary sag that would appear if the base was perfectly straight due to the way in which the human eye would translate parallel lines at a perspective. (Figure 1)

The use of optical refinements not only swept across the temple horizontally but also spanned vertically up the columns. The curvature of the stylobate affected the columns sitting on top it, where, unless there was a tilted angle, they would appear to be leaning outwards. So, to compensate for the curves transmitted from the stylobate into the shafts, the Greek architects tilted the columns inward so that at exactly one mile above the centre of the Parthenon the axis of each column would meet if each column axis were to be stretched upwards. (Figure 2)

Another technique the Greek architects used to counteract the natural visual distortion of the human eye was the swelling of the columns. Each shaft, despite appearing to the human eye as incredibly straight, swells outwards from around one third from the bottom and tapered when nearing the entablature. This technique is known as entasis, the implementation of a convex curve in the shaft of a column that corrects the concavity distortion that would be formed by a straight shaft, and its application simulates a corrected perspective where, even when viewed from below, the columns will appear perpendicular to the beholder despite the depth and distance of the highest point.

This mathematical system of optical refinements consisting of delicate curves negates the effect of the human eye distortion to allow the temple to be depicted in such a perfectly balanced form from almost all angles. Therefore, Greek architects have been able to find a balance between the theoretical and physical from lessons learnt from the nature of the flawed human perception and balanced proportions of the earth’s innate predisposal to mathematics.

Much like the Greek architects, some architects during the Renaissance designed buildings under the influence of mathematical and geometrical principles embedded within nature. The proposition that the perfection of the universe was established through nature’s laws of mathematics was a reoccurring trend during the Renaissance and was the reason behind why there was an incredible sense of beauty and aesthetically pleasing proportions in the architectural designs during that time. Architects believed that to achieve the same high level of harmonic proportion and beauty seen within the universe, one must adhere to nature by incorporating its inherent arithmetic shapes and proportions and Vitruvius’ writings played a role in this way of thinking as in his “De Architectura III” he equates both man and architectural proportions: “…without proportion no temple can have a regular plan.”

Filippo Brunelleschi, a pioneer of the driving definition of beauty in Renaissance architecture, demonstrates these proposals in his building of an orphan hospital in Florence (Figure 3), the Ospedale degli Innocenti (1419). The layout of this building was planned around the mathematical principles of proportion and symmetry to create a visual sense of calm and balance. Since the function of the building was to provide care for many infants and children, Brunelleschi’s use of harmonic elements infused with mathematical symmetry allowed the Ospedale to emanate an air of calm and tranquillity. The height of the columns across the façade is equal to the width between each of columns, meaning its structure would resemble a cube, the entrance appears on axis emphasising its symmetry and the continuous entablature, that stretches across the façade separating the colonnade level and fenestration level, is exactly half the height of the columns. Consequently, we can see that Brunelleschi had established technical principles across his design as every part of the Ospedale revolved around each other; every aspect was designed in relation to another where eventually each section would connect or tie in together like a web of algorithmic integrity.

From these examples of both Greek and Renaissance architectural styles, we can see a similarity in the way architects have used nature within their designs. Ideal building proportions are attained from the knowledge of nature’s physicality and architects are able to articulate their forms of beauty and harmony by adapting the innate modular construction and arithmetic components found within nature of the human body. The use of man as measure, one through instinctive behaviour and the other through physical scale, Greek and Renaissance architectural styles have become a subtle yet in-depth replication of natural forms.

Per contra to using nature’s physical form and structure as a basis to architectural construction, Greek and Renaissance architects also borrowed lessons from the human nature of spiritual and religious belief. Within Greek architecture, there was a strong hierarchy in religion between mankind and the gods. The gods were to be recognised as more powerful than mortals and constantly worshipped and respected for their rule over nature, justice and lives amongst humanity (Mary Lefkowitz, ‘Greek Gods, Human Lives’, excerpted article, 2003) and this perfection and importance of the divine powers were translated into Greek architecture.

The Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens (470-457BC) demonstrates the authority the Greek gods had over mankind and the impact of human nature in architecture. It was built to perfection, much like how the Parthenon was exhibited a natural yet intimidating perfection of appearance, the Temple of Olympian Zeus was designed to overwhelm he who stands before it. It was built to appear heavier, where its enormous structure was held high off the ground level and its hefty entablatures were supported by a solid wall built halfway down the columns. These strong features were implemented to emphasise the strength and control god Zeus had on mortals so that when standing in the tremendous presence of the temple, man is reminded that he is incapable in comparison to the divinities.

However, the quality of perfection that architects strived for in order to create edifices worthy of the gods, was left behind during the Renaissance at the introduction of humanism. There was a change in the outlook of humanity, and a realisation to the capability of man, resulting in the rivalry of the gods. This change in mindset impacted the way architects began to design their buildings; they were no longer revolving around the thought of honouring the gods with perfection but were now embracing humankind.

Leon Battista Alberti, a humanist and architect who influenced a large part of the Renaissance, designed the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence (1453), which was a palace whose features expressed the enlightenment of the philosophy of Humanism. The palace is characterized by a “trabeated” three-tier sectioned façade, each one representing one of the classical orders and each one decreasing in height from the bottom to the top. Each pilaster optically supports the entablature with a sense of firmness yet with Alberti’s use of smaller stones on the second and third tiers to achieve a sense of airiness and delicacy. Thus, with the features of the Palazzo Rucellai expressing spaciousness and a sense of lightness, Alberti successfully reflected the new clarity of humanism.

Despite both architectural styles striving for a way to represent the nature of humans in completely different lights, it is evident that whether human nature has impacted architecture regardless. In Greek architecture, the human nature of mortality that is conceived as incomparable to the gods was expressed through the perfection and balance of temples and in Renaissance architecture, the capability of man was recognised, and humanism was able to flourish and become articulated through spacious yet firm structures.

In conclusion, Greek and Renaissance architecture has borrowed lessons from both the physical form and the abstract notion of nature. In some ways, the influence of nature was precedented within designs, like the deliberate use of human scale in the Ospedale degli Innocenti or the emphasis of hierarchy in the Temple of Olympian Zeus, but what seems the most fascinating is the unknowing impact of nature in architecture. Human nature almost evolves design unconsciously, as our taste in symmetry, balance and aesthetic comes from the innate laws of creation in nature’s visual and mathematical elements. It raises questions about how nature impacts the way we visualise and define beauty in architecture and casts question upon if it is through our tendency to follow nature that we are able to find harmony in architecture.

Without following the arithmetic laws of creation, would architects be able to achieve the magnificent balance and pleasure to the human eye as done before in architecture? And will it be a continuous trend within architecture to adhere to the organic algorithmic elements of nature unconsciously or knowingly?


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