December 28: A Church In Threads

2016/12/28 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1065 the rebuilt St. Peter’s Abbey was consecrated.

Twenty-three years earlier, Edward the Confessor had started repairing the church for Benedictine monks and in anticipation of its eventual use as his burial place.  Although it was was not quite finished, the building’s consecration came in the nick of time, as Edward died about a week later, on January 5.  The appearance of Edward’s church is recorded in one single place, the Bayeux Tapestry, which records lots of details about his successor, Harold II, and that trouble-maker William the Conqueror.  Both of them were probably crowned in the abbey church, in that heady year, 1066.

St. Peter’s was demolished by Henry III in 1245, in a curious act of vandalism-cum-memorial, as he wrecked the church in order to build a proper (?) shrine to the Saxon king, Edward.  (This has something of the ring of Julius’ demolition of Constantine’s church on the grounds that it was not Roman enough.)  It’s regrettable that the maybe-first-Norman-Romanesque church in England was lost, but at least it wasn’t replaced with something stupid like a parking lot or something truly horrid like a Brutalist dentist’s office.  In fact, the thing that stands there now is really pretty nice.

Image: “Here the body of King Edward is carried to the Church of Saint Peter the Apostle” (from this source)

December 15: The World’s Most Famous Construction Mistake

2016/12/15 § Leave a comment


On this day in 2001 tourists were once again allowed into the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The date marked the Tower’s official opening after an eleven-year, $27-million restoration project to stabilize (rather than correct) the famous lean.  When the bell tower was begun in 1173, the builders naturally intended that the campanile be straight.  After a few years, when construction had reached the second or third-story mark, it started to tilt due to one bad choice: the soil was a mix of clays shot through with an aquifer.  This is not great for foundations.  In a second construction phase of  1272 builders attempted to even the structure by building whoppy, uneven floors.  It didn’t work.  They kept going.  By the time the tower was compete in 1319 it had reached a height of about 186 feet at its highest point (the lowest high point was some three feet lower).  And it kept leaning.

As is, regrettably, so often the case, later futzing with the building only made matters worse.  In 1838, a thoughtful person, who wanted to reveal more of the finely carved foundation, dug around and prompted another precipitous lunge.  Then Mussolini, big fan of ninety-degree angles and plumb lines, directed engineers to yank it to a perfectly vertical condition in 1935.  They shot a bunch of concrete into the ground, and again, the Tower responded by tilting more.  After much study in the late twentieth century, repairs began in 1990, removing soil under the high side and yanking it back about 18 inches.

The Tower is now believed to be stable, and non-dynamic, for the first time in its history.  It’s once again open for visits, ensuring that the tour busses will keep disgorging daytrippers from Florence who come to see the tower, and take in the rest of the city (well, at least the cathedral and fancy baptistery) while they’re at it.  If not for the lean of its campanile, Pisa would really have to fight for attention from the equally (some might say more) interesting cities of Genoa, Parma, and Bologna that are also within reach of Florence.  Still, one vaguely regrets the correction of this unique dynamic building by removing the quality that, literally, has animated the tower for centuries.  No longer actively moving, it’s a static mistake, no longer the danger choice for slow-motion thrill-seekers.

Image: it’s the tower (from this source)

December 14: The Day the Golden Thread Snapped

2016/12/14 § Leave a comment

hagia sophia

On this day in 557 a strong earthquake shook Constantinople.

Earthquakes were nothing new in the Byzantine capital, which was habitually shaken, most recently by two earthquakes just in the preceding months.  The big one in 557 toppled all kinds of buildings and rent the fortification walls (not awesome when Huns are lurking around), as well as knocking the stuffing out of Hagia Sophia.  The church had stood just two decades when the disaster struck.  It was particularly hard on the exceptionally risky structure raised under the direction of Justinian.  Its fragile masonry dome, hovering 184 feet above the unprecedentedly broad space of the nave, finally collapsed during following May.  Rebuilt during the following five years, the dome took on a taller profile and was stiffened with ribs that has withstood other fearsome quakes in 859 and 989.  You just know that somewhere Norman Foster has a plan for a glass and steel donut to stick up there if it falls down again.

Image: weird image of Sophia’s insides (from this source)

December 04: Barbara the Bodacious

2016/12/04 § Leave a comment


On this day in every year is the Feast of St. Barbara.

St. Barbara is the patron saint of architects and stonemasons.  Her story includes sheep and locusts, a great tower and lightning strikes, teleportation, daughterly spunkiness aimed at an overbearing father, bizarre and violent death, and other great martyrish stuff.  She’s pretty great, and you should probably make a cake for her feast day today, and also study this comprehensive scholarly study of her legend and its cultural significance: Matters of Taste’s Ode to St. Barbara, complete with prayer.

Image: “St. Barbara Crushing her Infidel Father” by Domenico Ghirlandaio (from this source)

September 25: The Taste

2016/09/25 § Leave a comment

On this day in 2009 the Matters of Taste blog was unleashed to a desperately waiting and needy world.

Ever since–well, except for the recent hiatus–MoT’s apparently extensive, virtually worldwide, and expertly comprehensive staff has peered into the most pressing matters of architectural practice, education and design, critiqued buildings, museums and exhibits, sneered at Barbiexplotation, celebrated fine films and good dogs, prepared lavish meals for dead architects, fawned over nineteenth-century designers, and basically kept an eye out for people, events and activities that fulfill the essential standards of the social contract known as taste, and skewered those that fail.  Vive la Taste.

It’s also Francesco Borrimini’s birthday (no coincidence), so there’s that, too.

Image: the premiere (from this source)

September 08: A is for Alpha and Arnolfo

2016/09/08 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1296 the first stone was laid for the new church of Santa Maria dei Fiori in Florence.

Its designer was sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (ca. 1240-1310), who had earlier distinguished himself with striking designs of large-scale fittings for churches, including tombs and ciboriums (architettura di miniatura).  He was selected as the architect to rebuild the church of St. Reparata, a little church had stood in Florence for some eight centuries and no longer accommodated the city’s growing population nor that population’s understanding of what kind of modern architecture would appropriately reflect the city’s greatness.

The appointment of a sculptor to design a building was unprecedented neither in Florence nor in Arnolfo’s own career.  Two years earlier he had begun work on the basilica of Santa Croce, a traditionally planned Franciscan church with a long nave flanked by side aisles and a slew of altars lining the east side of the transept arm.  It was built of conventional materials, its roof framed with large timber trusses.  In 1299 he was assigned the prestigious task of designing the town hall of Florence, the Palazzo Vecchio.  Here too Arnolfo delivered designs for a fine and big public building that offered no real surprises in its form or structure.

The standard nature of these important commissions makes one wonder about his proposal for Santa Maria.  While its nave end revisits the conventions of Santa Croce, its west end blossoms into three large polygonal petals, unprecedented in their shape and structure: the large piers designated in the plan (especially chunky when compared with the thin walls and piers of the nave structure) indicate Arnolfo had vaults in mind.  Vaults themselves were not new in Florence–the building facing Arnolfo’s site, the great baptistery of San Giovanni, has a big glittery vault that was thought at the time to be ancient.  Clearly Arnolfo was under the influence of some creative spirit to suddenly churn out this unusual plan that was so compelling, after his death and when a new capomeistro was appointed (in 1349), the idea of the polygonal apses was maintained (although their size was increased).

That later architect, Francesco Talenti, finished the greater part of the church body. Upon his death the front remained undone (and would so until the nineteenth century), and of course everyone was waiting for someone to figure out how to build the great crossing dome.  Although Talenti supervised the lion’s share of the work on the church, Arnolfo rightly as the place of honor, alongside the great Brunelleschi, in the memorial to these significant architects who were the alpha and omega of the cathedral’s construction.

image: plans of successive churches on the cathedral site: old church of Sta. Reparata (red), Arnolfo’s plan for Santa Maria (orange), and Talenti’s enlargement (yellow)

September 02: Why London Gives The Weird Sensation of Arranging Classical Buildings On A Medieval Plan

2016/09/02 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1666 the Great Fire of London broke out.

In the mid-seventeenth century, London (here it is in 1593) had grown to a size of some half-million residents, most of them crammed into tottery wooden structures pushing up  against their neighbors and jutting out over the highly irregular pattern of streets that had been tramped out during the Middle Ages.  Wise rules prohibiting construction in timber and thatch, and regulations condemning the mix of trades that depended on the stockpiling of highly flammable materials, were both regularly ignored.

Late on a Sunday night a fire broke out in a bakery on the east side of town; clumsy firefighting protocol and environmental conditions conjoined to create the ideal situation for the blaze to become unstoppable.  Only on the following Tuesday did the wind peter out, allowing for fire breaks to do their job, and the fire was finally suppressed.  Tens of thousands were left homeless and, given the tradition of living house-above-the-shop, had lost their livelihood.  Dozens of civic structures had burned; eighty-seven parish churches fell in the flames as did the central monument of the Church, St. Paul’s Cathedral.

No doubt, a catastrophic citywide fire is not a thing to be wished upon a place and its people; at the same time, the distance of time allows a certain accommodation of urban conflagrations as sparks to architectural and urban development.  In other words, behind those clouds of smoke one might find the silver lining of a better-planned city and a renewal in architectural design.

Like 64 AD Rome, 1871 Chicago and 1906 San Francisco, 1666 London had its opportunity to start over from a tabula rasa–a smoldering, stinky, cindery tabula rasa, but a tabula rasa none the less.  Just a generation or so after Inigo Jones, working for the Stuarts (and on projects like the Banqueting House), introduced Classicism in England, contemporary architects set out to rebuild in the new style.  Foremost among them, of course, was Jedi Master of English Baroque, Sir Christopher Wren, who rebuilt dozens of the parish churches as well as the great domed cathedral, which is such an integral and essential part of the city’s skyline.  Although the ascent of Classicism would be challenged from time to time (and in very significant settings) by architects who believed the lost medieval heritage was the “real” English architecture, Wren’s work set a new standard for many later architects of public and private buildings, either to emulate or refine (especially among the Neo-Classicists who showed up about a century later).

Other legacies of the Great Fire include the strengthening of building codes that would prohibit such a disaster again.  While these were enacted by the government with relative ease, encouragement to redesign the city met greater opposition.  Baroque plans were put forward by architects like Wren and Sir John Evelyn.  Had they been adopted, the city streets would have been regularized and widened while the impression would have looked more like the Rome of the sixteenth-century popes or Paris under Napoleon III (or what was to come in Paris a few centuries later).  However, political turmoil prompted by landowners disinclined to have their holdings redefined carried the day, and nothing happened.  London was rebuilt with lots of  fancy new buildings on the decidedly old-fashioned and un-planned city plan that had grown and expanded across centuries.  Visitors have the interesting sensation here–perhaps unique among European capitals–of walking through a city whose architectural character is informed by developments that follow the Renaissance while their feet trod the paths put in place long before it.

Image: painting of the Great Fire by Lieve Verschuier, 1666 (from this source)

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