The Changing Importance of Anthropomorphism for Architects and Theorists

The use of the human body as a metaphorical and symbolic referent may be the most prolific trope for architectural theory since the writings of Vitruvius in the first century AD. The understanding of anthropomorphism within architecture was not something that could be applied directly to architecture, since buildings are not actually given the human body's form. Only the basic theoretical thought of a design could be considered in anthropomorphic terms. Vitruvius' discussion of human body measurements depends vigorously on ancient architectural practices and Greek metrology. Values that approximate the real dimensions of individual body parts are how Vitruvius defines measurements as. He also indirectly specifies the fathom by demonstrating that the distance between the fingertips of the outstretched arms of a proportional man correlates to the height of the same man from head to toe. Architects and landscapers throughout history have inherited geometrical proportions of the human body and have used these proportions in their designs through human geometry as human dimensions inspire the dimensions of the building. The changing importance of anthropomorphism for architects and theorists is discussed through architectural buildings such as The Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, and San Giorgio Maggiore.

The Parthenon’s design was based on a visual perceptual logic from the passage building. Looking from the Propylaea or entry to the site you have an immediate panoramic understanding of the complete site. Pythagoras' geometry remained the foundation of Greek and Roman architecture. It can be seen in the adoption of the Golden Mean Ratio and the proportional systems that develop from this into architecture. This geometry has been adapted to symbolize the new Roman-ness context as it was moving to Christianity. The Hagia Sophia, an ongoing stream of descriptions continues in trying to explain this fascinating “wonder of space”. This idea is also explored through San Giorgio Maggiore, when Palladio was given the commission for the refectory in 1560 walls already had been raised to the height of round-headed windows that he then endowed with straight cornices with powerful bracketed moldings. He created a space with an intimation of the grand interiors of ancient Roman baths.

The Parthenon was built in the mid-5th century BCE, it is a temple that dominates the hill of the Acropolis at Athens. The Parthenon’s design was based on a visual perceptual logic from the passage building. Each building was seen in the landscape through its corner, they were oriented according to their relative position in space, as the effects of optical perspective were important. Seeing two facades would dependably provide knowledge of the extent of the building and its association with those close by. The building of a temple relied on three organizing principles, taxis, symmetry, and order. The temple is considered as the most simplest out of the three Classical Greek architectural orders, as well as the pinnacle of the development of the Doric order. “The Doric order is characterized by a plain, unadorned column capital and a column that rests directly on the stylobate of the temple without a base.” The Doric order emerged on the Greek mainland during the late seventh century BCE and remained the predominant order for the construction of Greek temples through the early fifth century BCE, although remarkable buildings were constructed later in the Classical period. The Ionic order is notable for its graceful proportions, resulting in a slimmer and more elegant profile than the Doric order. The ancient Roman architect Vitruvius compared the Doric module with a robust, male body, while the Ionic had more graceful, feminine proportions. The Ionic order encompasses a running frieze of an unceasing sculptural relief rather than the Doric frieze of triglyphs and metopes. The Greeks conceived their anthropomorphic architecture. The most obvious expression of this is found in the Acropolis itself, where columns take the form of six maidens or caryatids in the Erechtheum's southern porch.

The Roman architect Vitruvius discusses how the Doric order is masculine and the more detailed, slender Ionic order is feminine. “There is no question that in the Greek mind, there was an analogy between the architectural form and the human form.” The Parthenon is dedicated to their patron goddess, Athena. Athena's anthropomorphism and her intrigue of mortals, especially her relationship with Odysseus, can also be interpreted as a guardian angel's modern notions. Anthropomorphism was also explored through symmetry in elevation. It was considered differently with predominant bilateral symmetry. The temple used this same rationale to its geometry just as the head was different from the feet in humans. The elements of Greek design are defined through exploring perception and the body's location in a landscape setting, it is the notion of entasis, used to correct buildings in an optically proportional manner so that they look correct. Every landscape and its element of a building had a name and a precise relationship measured with all other elements. This allowed all parts of a building in the same complex and its relationship with other buildings to comply with an organizing principle such as a ‘language’.

The Pythagorean theorem is used by architects on a daily basis to check the proportions of their buildings and to ensure that they can be constructed. The theorem is used in matters such as the slant height of a pyramid and the floor plan of a triangular building. The adoption of the Golden Mean Ratio and the proportional systems that develop into architecture from this can be seen in the geometry of Pythagoras. Moving into Christianity, this geometry has been adapted to symbolize the new Roman-ness context. The square and the cube were assigned to the material or the element “earth” and therefore the number four, this is evident in all cultures with architectural history. Plato assigned the cube, consisting of six squares, to the element “earth.” Vitruvius considers the number four to be the number of men because, with the arms stretched out, its width is equal to its height, thus marking the height and width of an ideal square. In particular, the square, the cross, and the circle affect structural engineering and consequently structural development. All three basic shapes—the cross, the square, and the circle are used in the Hagia Sophia The outline of the church is nearly square. The interior is a cross with the support-free nave emphasizing a longitudinal axis. Over the crossing rises the circular dome. The structure must carry out the transition from the square crossing, the symbol for everything earthly, to the circular base of the dome, portraying everything spiritual.

The shape and crown of the dome were chosen to have the most favorable influence on the substructure of the load-bearing. The vast open space of the interior comes not only from advances in construction but also from new geometries that started to define all proportions.

Hagia Sophia's interesting development in architectural geometry is that the architects were able to solve the difficulty of applying the Fibonacci Rectangle. The unique properties of the Fibonacci sequence were discovered by mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci. This sequence is directly related to the Golden ratio. “The Golden rectangle is also related to the Golden spiral, which is created by making adjacent squares of Fibonacci dimensions.” This system is successful at providing the architect with standard lengths that insure many possibilities for the subdivision of any length. This rectangle's difficulty is that it relied on the square's diagonal being √2 to generate ratios. It was a difficult number to measure. Instead, the architects reduced the square length from one-hundred to ninety-nine. This resulted in a whole number (one-hundred and forty) given as the diagonal. Since each dimension remained whole, the architects could easily determine the sizes of spaces in relation to each other while also adjusting to the Fibonacci series' symbolism.

Andrea Palladio designed the interior of San Giorgio Maggiore in a very classical style, meaning it reflects the traditions of ancient Rome and Greece. Through the use of a cross-vaulted ceiling, imposing classical moldings, and thermal windows on three walls, Palladio created a space with an intimation of the grand interiors of ancient Roman baths, in the abundant use of marble arches and columns, as well as the undecorated white walls. The overall effect is to create divine harmony, balance, logic, and a sense of order, particularly when natural light is reflected from undecorated surfaces through the numerous windows. Symmetry was always considered by Renaissance architects as a theoretical requirement in design. Once Palladio found the basic geometric pattern for the 'villa' problem, he adapted it to the specific requirements of each commission as clearly and as simply as possible. He reconciled the task at hand with the ultimate and unchangeable ' certain truth ' of mathematics.

The geometric keynote is perceptible to everybody who visits Palladio's villas, subconsciously rather than consciously, and this is what gives its buildings their convincing quality. Although the intersecting temple fronts of Palladio must be considered as typical interpretations of ancient architecture at the end of the 16th century, they have fulfilled the basic requirements of all classical architecture since ancient times. “His structures also obey Vitruvius's all-important postulate of symmetry which is the fixed mathematical ratio of the parts to each other and to the whole.” Palladio was able to echo the proportions of nave and aisles in his façade by approximating his system to that of the triumphal arch with its large central bay and narrow side bays. It was also often impossible for proportional reasons to cover both the nave and the aisles with a single front of the temple.

Italian architects sought an easily perceptible ratio between a building's length, height, and depth, and Palladio's villas displayed this quality most clearly. A façade had to be given to the block. He turned to die the classical temple front, offering a motif associated with dignity and nobility, and adapting it to his villas' façades invariably. The façades the ancients had used for their basilicas were investigated by architects with classical tendencies for it was logical as they had a nave and lower aisles like churches. The answer was given in Vitruvius’ obscure words about the ‘double arrangement of gables’ in the Basilica of Fano.

The visual lines drawn into the ground plan show that the visitor sees a half column coupled with a pilaster at the far end of the crossing from the entrance door, an accurate repetition of the same form under the nave arch. Palladio created a new type of coherence between the nave and the centralized part through repetition. The unification of separate spaces is not achieved by the uniform handling of wall articulation, as was customary in central Italy, but by creating corresponding views across large spaces. Thus optical devices, reminiscent of the effect of setting a stage, counterbalance and replace the separation of the objective structure.

Anthropomorphism is applied throughout history by architects and landscapers to inherent geometrical proportions of the human body and how they have used these proportions in their designs. Buildings such as the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, and San Giorgio Maggiore use human geometry to inform plan and spatiality.

07 July 2022
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