Arts: How Three Architects Manipulate Our Senses

Above are two photographs. On the left is a picture that I took with my Instamatic camera in 1970, at age 16. It is a picture of the Parthenon, in Athens, Greece. On the right is a commercial postcard of the same, a “famous view” of the great structure.

The pictures are quite similar. And that is no coincidence. Because that was the intention of very intelligent architects working almost 2,500 years ago – to get people to see something precisely that was in their vision

The columns in the foreground of the photos belong to a structure called the Propylae. It was designed by architect Mnesicles (pronounced nes-i-kleez) who was commissioned to design a grand entry to the Acropolis, the low, flat rock mountain in the middle of Athens on which the Parthenon is located. The Acropolis was a megaplex in its day – a civic center, a place to worship pagan gods, and a public park of the highest order.

The Parthenon itself was designed by architects Ictinus and Callicrates. Both the Parthenon and the Propylae were built in the Golden Age of Athens, around 440 BC.

As Ictinus and Callicrates were working on the Parthenon, which is the most mathematically precise structure that man has ever made, it was decided that the whole Acropolis complex needed a point of entry worthy of its grandeur. And so Mnesicles designed the Propylae which is a two-tier structure with an art gallery to one side.

Leading up to the Propylae are stone ramps on which visitors scale the steep Acropolis from Athens below. The ramps are interesting. They zig-zag back and forth like switchbacks across the grade as they rise. They make the trip upward seem easier by breaking down the grade into a gradual rise, not individual steps. Good thinking… That created the psychological sense that the climbing was not so difficult.

Mnesicles created a compact structure that was intended to do three things – escort visitors up and out onto the Acropolis; offer visitors some cool shade after their climb in the hot Summer sun of Greece; and flatter the Parthenon itself, which was built after more than 100 years of experimentation with Greek temple-style architecture.

Earlier efforts at temple construction included two structures at Paestum, Italy, side-by-side temples built roughly 90 years apart. The Basilica (c. 550 BC) and the Temple of Poseidon (c. 460 BC) were like the Parthenon, but their proportions were much less pristine. You can see them for yourself. They were heavier and less graceful.

The Parthenon has myriad refined and minute mathematical details and endless visual precision and even deception. No building before or since has matched its audacity of form. Its every dimension, its every proportion, it every shape was calculated to make not a static building, but a totally dynamic landmark.

When Ictinus and Callicrates began the construction of the Parthenon in 447 BC, they might as well have designed it of rubber instead of the pure Pentelic marble that shone with a white purity that would dazzle us today.

Built under the supervision of sculptor/artist Phideas, the building we know only as a shattered ruin atop a rocky outcrop smack in the center of Greece’s capital city is the greatest architectural/artistic treasure ever conceived, truly a multi-media work of total perfection, a melding of sculpture, architecture and pure aesthetic vision that sets it apart from any other building ever.

Based not only on mathematical precision but on sheer intuition, the Parthenon has few straight lines in its design, and hardly any verticals. The entire structure is a cacophony of raucous curves that deceives us into seeing perfect rectangular forms that appear rigid and controlled, but which, on examination, are highly energized and irrational. But since the Greeks made it, it obviously has a high quotient of rationality in that the Greek mind possessed the uncanny knack for making the irrational rational, or more to the point, for making the fantastic real.

The Parthenon’s footprint is based on the square root of 5, which is 2.236…, which just happens to be one of the most irrational numbers, and one that fascinated the Greeks. The Parthenon’s base is 101 feet by 228 feet, or roughly 2.236 times as long as it is wide.

The proportions of the Parthenon’s ends are contained within a Golden Rectangle, a form of such perfection that is considered to be geometry’s single most pleasing one. Of the 17 pillars that support the long sides of the Parthenon, only one has a central axis that points straight up – that of the central column. All others columns tilt slightly and invisibly toward the center one. It is estimated that the central axes of the columns on each side, if extended into the sky, would form a triangle whose apex is one mile up.

Looking at the side of the Parthenon, its architrave (roof eave) and stylobate (base) appear to be flat and horizontal. But in fact they are slightly arched, with centers that are 4 inches higher than their ends. Ictinus and Callicrates made this decision based on observation of previous temple experiments that they believed, intellectually or physically, had the appearance of “sagging” in their centers. And so they compensated for this “sag” by arching the architrave slightly upward.

Awesome.

The columns that support the Parthenon do not have straight faces, but curved ones, like a tapered candle. This is called entasis which means “strain” or “tension”. This gives the columns a sense of being part of the tension of the building, and makes them a dynamic part of the temple rather than just static uprights holding a load. Again, it is a triumph of form.

As well, the columns are fluted vertically to give the appearance of strength. This is yet another expression of intuitive form. They bow out slightly from the bottom, reach their maximum circumference at one-third of their height, then taper in. Their tops, where each column meets a square capital, are Doric. This is the least ornamental of the three column tops, the others being Ionic (the scroll) and Corinthian (flowery).

What is so astounding is that every stone that fits with a splendid precision to form these aspects of the Parthenon’s magnificent structure had to have had the most minute curvature and/or angle carved into it. No architrave lintel or Doric column capital was a mere rectangle, just as no column drum was simply a cylinder. Those would have been lazy solutions for lesser minds.

Ictinus and Calllicrates wished to challenge every aspect of convention, as the Greeks did in all of their pursuits. Thus the Parthenon’s conception, creation and assembly represents a feat of art, craft, mathematics, technology and intuition that never has been equaled, a feat ever more striking since it was constructed in a time of no advanced measuring devices, and was made all by hand.

Then Mnesicles created the Propylae to offer visitors a very controlled vision of the Parthenon at the most inspiring angle possible – a three-quarters view which presented the most dynamic “first sight” of the monument to the pagan goddess Athena Parthenos, whose 42-foot-tall seated figure of ivory and gold by sculptor Phidias was located inside. It would have been much less impressive to come up to the Parthenon head-on, or directly from the side.

The Propylae also is built much lower than the Parthenon, and so the Parthenon seems even more regal as you approach it, as if located on a mountaintop. Which it is except that the “mountain” – the Acropolis (‘high city’ or 'acro' and 'polis' in Greek) is just a few hundred feet over Athens.

The Parthenon is located on the highest point of the Acropolis. And of course when the Parthenon was whole, it was vastly more impressive. Yet it remains impressive today, even though it was largely destroyed by a Venetian mortar bombardment in 1687.

What does all this add up to?

It shows the way that great artists and architects and designers manipulate us through visual stimuli and direction us to see and think certain ways about their subjects.

When I stopped at age 16 to click the picture of the Parthenon, it just seemed like the perfect place for the photo, with the Propylae’s muscular columns in the foreground as if to strengthen the image even more. Because indeed it was the perfect place. There is no other point at which the Parthenon appears so sublime. My young mind spotted it immediately.

Oh, that Mnesicles… Oh those Greeks…

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