Monday, February 4, 2008

Forever New

I've been reading quite a bit lately about ancient history. I just finished a very interesting summary entitled, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, by Susan Wise Bauer. This was a whirlwind tour in a little less than 800 pages beginning (literally) with the The Flood and ending with the decline of the Roman Empire. It gave me new insight into the idea that power in ancient days was obtained almost universally by the sword. In fact, the king/pharoh/emperor was more often than not murdered by his son/wife/uncle/general in order to take the throne by force. Having read this (very readable) work, it would be easy to take the view that our shared history was simply one of war and violence. But that would be to miss the point of the simultaneous great achievements in art, literature, architecture, and natural philosophy (science) that also emerged from those distant times.

We remain fascinated with the past. We continually go back to dig into almost every aspect of those distant days. For example, I became interested in the Pyramids as a result of reading Bauer's book. The Great Pyramid of King Khufu at Giza is probably the most carefully studied and measured building in human history. The scale and precision of its stone construction boggles the mind. It was built 4500 years ago without the aid of modern tools or instruments and yet it is probably more precisely constructed than ANY modern building.

The accuracy of the pyramid's workmanship is such that the four sides of the base have a mean error of only 58 mm in length, and 1 minute in angle from a perfect square. The base is horizontal and flat to within 15 mm. The sides of the square are closely aligned to the four cardinal compass points to within 3 minutes of arc and is based not on magnetic north, but true north. (from Wikipedia)

It remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for 4000 years until the Lincoln Cathedral in England exceeded its height in 1311. There wasn't a taller building in America until 1885 when the Washington Monument was completed. It is humbling, to say the least.

Another example: The Parthenon in Athens. Built in the Fifth Century, BC it became one of the most architecturally-emulated buildings in the world. The level of craftsmanship is simply exceptional. The Greeks had learned how to compensate for the apparent curvature in large structures built with many parallel lines by slightly curving the columns and structural platforms to deceive the eye into seeing the lines as parallel (known technically as entasis). Nova and the Smithsonian Magazine jointly produced a very interesting program on the efforts to restore this structure. The Parthenon is the model for buildings throughout the western world including our own Supreme Court Building. There is even a complete full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Memphis, TN.

A final example: the Old Penn Station in New York. Built in 1910 (and sadly demolished in 1964), Penn Station took as its inspiration the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The exterior was modeled after the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The architects saw in the structures of antiquity an eloquence in design that millennia have not been able to improve.

The great structures of the past speak to us still. There is something that resonates in their proportions, their symmetry, and their scale that we have only rarely been able to improve upon. The past remains "forever new".

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