Greek temples made of wood
In vernacular architecture, and in the craft tradition, inherited designs are copied and copied again. Builders and craftspeople use routine methods learned in their apprenticeship, and take existing buildings, weapons and tools as models. In this extended process of repeated copying, small changes can creep in, and the design undergoes a kind of evolution. 19th century archaeologists and anthropologists, excited by Darwin’s Origin of Species, transposed Darwinian thinking to this evolution of material culture, and noticed a curious and very widespread phenomenon.
Features of designs that serve some functional or structural purpose can become transmuted over time into pure decoration. A type of knife is made with a metal blade and a wooden handle, and the blade is lashed to the handle with cord. Later the whole knife is made from one piece of metal, but is incised with zig-zag lines to imitate the old string binding. At one time the Iroquois people made roughly square containers for liquids from pieces of birch bark sewn together. Later they substituted clay for the bark; but they still made the pots square, and decorated them with incised patterns of ‘sewing’ along the edges.
H Colley March published a paper in 1890 in The Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, on ‘The Meaning of Ornament’. March introduced the term skeuomorph to describe this kind of ‘ornament derived from structure’. Once you start looking, you can find modern skeuomorphs in many places. The buttons on the cuffs of men’s jackets originally allowed the wearer to fold back the cloth, when working or eating messy foods. But they are now useless and decorative. (The architect Adolf Loos, that arch-enemy of ornament and enthusiast for English tailoring, insisted that his cuff buttons be functional.)
Many products made from plastic imitate older materials. Plastic footballs are printed in black and white with the pattern of leather pentagons and hexagons from which professional footballs are made. This example illustrates a second characteristic of skeuomorphic features: besides being ornamental they can have an informative and signalling function. The plastic ball says “I am a football”. The skeuomorph evokes memories of its ancestors.
Skeuomorphs are everywhere in architecture. In the late 19th century there was a vigorous and sometimes abusive debate among architectural historians, about the claim that the decoration of the classical Greek temple had its origins in wooden construction. This idea has a long pedigree. The Roman engineer Vitruvius in his Ten Books on Architecture describes the roofs of early temples, made of wooden beams and rafters. He says “In accordance with these details, and starting from carpenter’s work, artists in building temples of stone and marble imitated those arrangements in their sculpture…”
A wooden roof on a temple would have had horizontal main beams spanning from one side to the other; triangular trusses to support the beam at the ridge; and smaller sloping rafters, closely spaced, to carry the roof tiles. The stone temple has triangular pediments at each end, echoing the triangular wooden roof trusses. The columns support rows of horizontal stone lintels. Above these in the Doric temple is a frieze consisting of alternating decorative rectangular panels of two kinds. The triglyphs have three vertical grooves. The metopes could be blank, but were often decorated with paintings or sculptures. The argument for a skeuomorphic origin of the triglyphs is that these remember the ends of the wooden main beams. There are always triglyphs over columns; there would always be beams in these positions. The metopes are gaps between beams. As Vitruvius says: “Hence it was in imitation of the arrangement of tie-beams that men began to employ, in Doric buildings, the device of triglyphs and the metopes between the beams.”
Above the frieze is a row of small stone cubes or dentils (teeth). These echo the ends of wooden rafters. Other features of the stone decoration seem to represent the round pegs used to connect the wooden members.
The great 19th century French architectural writer and teacher Viollet-le-Duc believed that mature historical styles of architecture, especially Gothic, were truthful expressions of material and structure. He rejected the idea of a wooden origin for the Greek temple, on the reasonable grounds that the frieze of triglyphs and metopes appears not just on the long sides where the main beams are carried, but is also continued across the ends of the building, below the pediments, where no beams would rest. (But once a structural feature becomes decorative, it can spread to structurally ‘illogical’ positions.) A rather obscure American critic Edward Lacy Garbett held that the wooden theory was ‘an insolent libel’ on the aesthetic skills of the Greek architects.
Banister Fletcher, English author of the classic History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, gave a more measured account in a short essay on The Influence of Material on Architecture. Fletcher listed other architectural traditions where wood has given way to stone, for example English church building of the Norman period. He cites All Saints Church at Earl’s Barton in Northamptonshire whose stone tower is decorated with vertical, horizontal and diagonal ‘strapwork’, recalling the timber frameworks of earlier wooden towers.
In the case of the Greek temples, Fletcher points to a number of tombs cut from solid rock, dating from the 6th to the 4th century BC, rediscovered in Asia Minor by the English traveller Sir Charles Fellows. These take temple-like forms. The figure below shows three examples. In one there is a row of circular projections under the eaves which clearly imitate the ends of cylindrical timber poles supporting the roof. In the other two the wooden rafters imitated in stone are square in section, on their way to becoming dentils. Here we can see the change from wood to stone construction in progress, and the skeuomorphs being created.
In 1973 the architectural historian Gervase Jackson-Stops bought the former menagerie of Horton House in Northamptonshire and converted it into a house, complete with a Renaissance grotto and bath house in the cellar. In the garden, Jackson-Stops built two thatched pavilions. The first of these celebrates the origins of Gothic architecture, the second the origins of Classical. The classical temple front is all of wood: the columns are untrimmed tree trunks with their bark intact.
Philip Steadman, The Evolution of Designs: Biological Analogy in Architecture and the Applied Arts, Routledge, Abingdon 2008, Chapter 7, ‘The evolution of decoration’
Banister Fletcher, The Influence of Material on Architecture, Batsford, London 1897
Oliver M Washburn presents a sceptical view in ‘The Origin of the Triglyph Frieze’, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol.23, No.1, 1919, pp.33-49
John J Tackett, ‘Gervase Jackson-Stops’ Folly, The Menagerie’, February 2012, tdclassicist.blogspot.com/2012/02/