There is a memory at the bottom of Western architecture history. Archeologists continue to debate and amend its details, but in its simplest form it does its job for architects by giving them a simple foundation story that is powerful and poetic. And every profession needs poetry in its foundation story. It was written first by Marc-Antoine Laugier in 1753. It goes something like this:
In the beginning, for shelter we lived under trees. At some time someone found a few trees that were growing close to each other and strapped their boughs together to make the first enclosure, which provided better protection from the elements,.The next breakthrough was ✙ a pavilion, consisting of two paired rows of tree trunks, set vertically in the ground. These came to be called columns. And resting upon each of the two rows was a horizontal log—a beam. Resting on the beam, rafters could be erected, meeting over the center of the pavilion. On them might be erected purlins—much smaller branches running perpendicular to them, which left small, rectangular spaces between them, on which the first roofing material—perhaps leaves or thatch—was woven. In the legend this is called The Primitive Hut. [The Primitive Hut, Charles Eisen, for Marc-Antoine Laugier, 1753]
In time, people made far more permanent pavilions by replacing each of the wooden elements with stone elements of precisely the same shape. At some point, solid walls were added.And thus emerged, the ancient Greek temples whose silent, ruined forms have survived (or been reconstructed) to this day.he ruins of their immediate successors populate the Roman Forum. ✙ & ✙ & ✙These simple, rectangular trabiated structures with low-pitch, gabled roofs are the prototype for almost every Western building type ✙ from then until the rise of 20th-Century Modernism, when the extraordinary tensile strength and plasticity of steel and reinforced concrete freed us ✙ to build structures of almost any shape that we could imagine.
Today, architects are lauded for coming up with✙ shapes of buildings that they were the first to create. But until the 20th century the facades of most Western buildings that aspired to be anything more than rude shelter contained the memory of the elements that composed the ancient Greek temples.Only the Gothic tradition pushes somewhat outside of this stream.
These ✙ simple, rectangular trabiated ancient Roman structures with low-pitch, gabled roofs were called basilicas, and they were not only temples, but any large building that needed to fit lots of people into it. They are the direct prototype for key, important, simple rectangular Christian churches in Rome. Since, in ancient Rome, the sole common large building type was the basilica, as the Church of Rome grew it built its own basilicas to house the large crowds that would assemble to pray in the presence of the Pope. And so it was that the Pope’s PERSONAL churches—where he personally would speak— came to be referred to as basilicas. To this day the Catholic churches that are where the Pope speaks are called basilicas, even though they generally are of a more complex, later, shape than were the actual original Roman Basilicas. Memory….
But the oldest of the Pope’s three basilicas in Rome is indeed a basilica in its form (at least it was when it was new). ✙It is ✙ Santa Maria Maggiore , a fifth-century Romanesque basilica which is confusing to look at because a thousand years after it was built it was remodeled in the high Renaissance manner. Only its flat, horizontal, coffered ceiling reveals that this is a very old building. But even that ceiling, which was originally composed of bare wooden timbers, later got gilded in the High Renaissance way to within an inch of its life.
At the far end in this photo is where the Pope will give mass.What we see there is a dark, strange figure called ✙ a baldacchino. Its four columns are wrapped in sculpted vines, but the columns themselves are simple cylinders. Wikipedia: “In the Middle Ages, a…cloth of honor was hung above the seat of a person of sufficient standing, as a symbol of authority. In the Renaissance the cloth and the four supporting poles were translated into ornate stone and metal structures: ✙ Look at the radiating circle at its center: DOVE = holy spirit.Noteworthy is the crypt beneath the baldacchino, into which one may descend.
✙ Look closely above at the above sculpture in it to spot two venerated horizontal pieces of wood. ✙ One looks like a 2×4 and the other like a 2×6. Conservators say they are two thousand years old. ✙ These two pieces of wood were brought to Rome from Bethlehem in the eighth century, and are understood to be from the infant Jesus’s crib. They are presented in this astoundingly rich setting above which floats a sculpture of the babe, one arm up in greeting to us. All is gold. I meditated in the crypt, 12 feet away from the remains of baby Jesus’s crib, and fell into deep silence.
✙ Nary a trace of the Romanesque remains on its facade, which is clearly inspired by the churches of both Vignolla and Michelangelo. This facade is deeply layered, and ✙ night lighting caused the layers to pop out in relief. The classical elements in deep relief summoned up ✙ the main façade of the much later Paris Opera House. Perhaps its architect, Tony Garnier, studied this facade.