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Microcosm: Architects manipulation of form and meaning to epitomise the cosmos

Braden Pedersen

It is clear that throughout history architects have created buildings as mini cosmoses of their time. They have done this through form and meaning inscribed in the architecture reflecting their universe throughout history. Architects considered every aspect and element to contribute to the total form and meaning of the building to form a microcosm of the macrocosm. Through analysing buildings in history we can see that architects have represented the human body, the beauty of nature, order and geometrical patterns in their buildings, which become part of the whole form symbolising the cosmos. The materials, proportions and scale add meaning to the building, which becomes a microcosm of the macrocosm. In Ancient architecture it was believed that the human body and other forms found in nature were a reflection of the cosmic order and symbolised through mimetic representations in building elements such as the Corinthian column capitol. This was transcended into Christian cosmology where they believed that God had produced patterns in the universe so architects made buildings fit these patterns. Thus it is apparent that architects have manipulated the forms of buildings to create meaning and symbolises the cosmos.

Throughout the cannon of Architecture it is apparent that architects have conceived buildings to be a microcosm of the macrocosm through the manipulation of form and meaning. Buildings were conceived as icons of the cosmos, built to be a microcosm of the Heavens and Earth. Through manipulation of form architects are able to create buildings symbolic of the universe. They have achieved this manipulation of form through geometrical patterns, configurations of order, representations of the human body and nature in conjunction with the ideal proportions to represent meaning and symbolise the cosmos. Many architectural historians have analysed the strong undertones of the body and nature represented in buildings, the strong geometrical patterns and the order that lies within the building, which connect it to the cosmos. It is unmistakable that through form and meaning architects were able to establish the connection between buildings and the universe, which is perceptible throughout history.

To the Ancient Greeks it was ubiquitous that sacred temples be a microcosm, an image of the universe seen as a well-ordered whole. They conceived their temples to replicate the sky, earth, sun, planetary spheres, the human body and other elements that structured the cosmos through the manipulation of form. John Mitchell1 suggests in his book that the temple is not so much a model of the cosmos itself as it is a model of the national cosmology. This refers to the sacred symbols, numbers, geometry and proportions of the building, which is evident in ancient Greek temples. The Parthenon is a clear model of this sacred form in which makes the building a microcosm of the national cosmology. Architects have demonstrated national conventions in the building such as the number of Doric order columns around the building, double the width plus one, a strong sense of symmetry and decorations of the Frieze, the Triglyph and the Metopes, as well as emblematic characteristics associated with Ancient Greek society. By following these conventions the architects were able to conceive the building as a microcosm of national cosmology.

Mitchell, John. The Dimensions of Paradise: Sacred Geometry, Ancient Science, and the Heavenly Order on Earth. New Edition ed. New York: Inner Traditions, 2008. Print. The most cherished possession of every ancient culture, was its sacred cannon of cosmology, and the inner secrets of that tradition were preserved in the principle temple, via schemes of geometry, symbols, number and proportions. -John Mitchell

Furthermore John Mitchell highlights the importance of proportions in buildings to model the national cosmology. It is apparent that the ancient Greeks had a strong understanding of proportions that is manifested in their art and architecture, symbolic of the well-ordered cosmos. Building elements and forms were adjusted to be pleasing to the eye and make the building as a whole appear perfect like the universe. This is seen in the Temple of Hera in Sicily where optical elisions have been implemented through adjusting the elements and in corollary adds to the whole form being a perfect representation of the universe. The building is narrower at the top with a slight curve down to the base and the columns that are formed around the building are not cylindrical. The motive behind this was that the glare produced from the backlight of the hills made the columns look convex so they formed a slight bow in the elements. The stylobate was also raised slightly in the middle and the stairs were bowed to make the building pleasing to the eye. At the Parthenon viewers approach the building at an oblique angle so building looks square. This understanding of proportions and optical elusions is transcended into their sculptures as they had exaggerated the figure so when viewed from below the head was in proportion to the body. Thus it is observable that the ancient Greeks have manipulated the proportions of forms to create a perfect microcosm of the macrocosm.

We can see an interest in the proportional relationship between buildings on the Parthenons site with the structure dominating the Erechtheion showing the power of the Athenian democracy. The Erechtheion juxtaposes the Parthenon with its solemn presence seen to be a microcosm of the body and the universe. During the Classical period the Greeks had a stronger understanding of anatomy, evident in their art, as the figure became more fluid and drapery becoming more naturalistic and flowing. Strong ideas emerged that the human body should be represented in buildings, as they believed the human body was the ideal representation of the cosmos. This is seen in the Erechtheion were they have personified the building and revealed feminine traits through manipulation of the form such as the columns. Ionic columns support one of the prostaseis while the famous Caryatids support the other. The Syphian Treasury at Delphi, also known as the spiritual centre of Greece, has Caryatids indicating that the body was an important symbol in Greek architecture as it was part of the universe. There are paint fragments left at the Treasury indicating that temples were intricately painted and garnished to symbolise the cosmos.

Roman buildings continued to be conceived as mini cosmoses through the manipulation form and meaning. Mosaics became evident in Constantinian basilicas depicting heavenly scenes and Christ proclaiming the world. The mosaic in the apse of the Santa Pudenziana basilica connects the priest to the world of higher authority and can be seen as a manipulation of meaning as architects knew that the apse was the focal point of the building. David Parish comments The overall arrangement is circular, evoking heaven or the cosmos, with busts of the seven planets or gods of the universe.2 It is therefore evident that architects formed meaning through mosaic works to symbolise the universe inside buildings. Roman architects continued this notion and started building domes that were symbolic of the heavens. The dome and the cube are considered to be the most sacred forms of architecture as they symbolise the earth and sky. The Romans integrated these two forms delineating a perfect representation of the universe. The Pantheon is the perfect representation of the dome being used to symbolise the heavens. Kirsten Harris writes, The seamless circles around and above the great interior described both the cosmos and Roman rule3 illustrating that the building is a microcosm of the macrocosm as well as Roman national cosmology. There is a pool of light that moves around the building created by the oculus in the central dome that visibly connects the viewer with the heavens.

Parish, David. Imagery of the gods of the week in Roman mosaics . Journal, Volume 2, Volume 2 / 1993. Original, Brepols Publishers pg. 193 3 George Dodds, Robert Tavernor, Joseph Rykwert. "Sphere and cross: Vitruvian reflections on the Pantheon type, Kirsten Harris." Body and Building: Essays on the Changing Relation of Body and Architecture. New Ed ed. London: The Mit Press, 2005. 149. Print.

In William Lloyd MacDonalds book The Pantheon4 he talks about the building being a temple of the whole world asking the question Did Hadrian and his architects intend all this? Is it possible to be specific and conceive such things? The book goes on to confer the symbolic meaning, which provides evidence that Hadrian and his architects conceived the building as a mini cosmos. W.C Loerke concurs with MacDonalds views suggesting in an article5 that The Pantheon was viewed as a temple of the cosmos. Loerke comments on the copies of original images found within the building from Agrippas Pantheon that were destroyed in 80AD depicting Caesar among the gods and Augustus on the porch,5 evidence that the building is a symbol of ancient cosmology.

Byzantine architects have succeeded to understand the relationship between architectural form and the cosmos. Like the Romans they believed that the combination of the dome and the cube was a perfect microcosm of the universe. Byzantine architects were able to portray this belief at Hagia Sophia, as they perceived the building to be a microcosm of Christian cosmology through the manipulation of materials and formations. These formations are evident in the columns, which convey a rhythmic chant down the nave, symbolic of trees. The classical orders have been discarded and replaced with mimetic representations of nature that follow into the arches. Architects were able to portray a river of water symbolic of life from Gods throne to the people entering the nave, adding to the microcosm of nature formed within the building. This effect has been achieved through the use of rippled blue marble slates that float from the altar. William T. Baker writes in his book6 about the importance of nature as the basis for excellence in architecture. He refers to the importance of scale, proportion, rhythm and symmetry, which is evident in the cosmos. Through the manipulation of forms and materials down the nave the architects are able to create an image of paradise. This manipulation of materials to symbolise the universe is also conveyed through the use of invaluable marble up to the vaults. Gold mosaics of icons line the ceilings with a star filled dome highlighting the connection between the building and the universe.

Late Byzantine architects were captivated by this idea that they could manipulate form and meaning to connect the building with the entire universe. Throughout the Middle Ages Russia and Greece formed small churches to symbolise a cross. This marked the beginning of the cross-in-square church, which was an ideal representation of Christian cosmology and theology. The building was a perfect cube that was divided into a cross, supporting the central dome. This was seen as a microcosm of Heaven meeting Earth that is apparent in the Holy Apostles fivedome church in Thessaloniki. Through deep analysis of the church as a theology it is evident that architects have manipulated forms to symbolise the cosmos. Manipulation of the dome, symbolising heaven, makes contact with the painted theophanies at the pendentives, symbolic of God meeting man. As you enter the nave you are directed to the east where the alter is seen to be the throne of God. Hence it is apparent that architects have manipulated form to create meaning and conceive the building as a mini cosmos.

The exterior of a Byzantine church was mostly plain with some decoration on the brickwork. The Russian architects juxtaposed this idea and added meaning and value to the exterior through the manipulation of elements to form a microcosm of the macrocosm. Architects of The Saint Sophia, Kiev, Ukraine recreated a heavenly city through the use of materials such as white plaster on the exterior reflecting the sun, consequently making the faade gleam creating a heavenly vista. The emergence of the onion dome that arrived at the end of the Middle Ages has been placed at the top of the towers, which are said to symbolise prayers travelling to heaven coherent with Christian cosmology, but this explanation contradicts the Orthodox belief that heaven existed within the building.

William Lloyd MacDonald. In the Temple of the World." The Pantheon: Design, Meaning, and Progeny. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. 11. Print. 5 "Hadrian's Pantheon: Design and Function." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. March 1970. Volume 29, Number 3. New York: Society Of Architectural Historians, 1970. 263. Print. 6 Baker, William T. Architectural Excellence: In a Diverse World Culture. Hong Kong: Images Publishing Group Pty. Ltd., 2008. Print.

When envoys of Prince Vladimir of Kiev visited the Hagia Sophia in 988 they stated We know only that God dwells there among men.7 This enforced the ancient belief that God lived within the building, which was conveyed into the Orthodox period. This saw the emphasis shift to the internal space symbolising heaven rather than the sky. Architects in this period formed buildings that were a microcosm of heaven with strong focuses on icons and decoration internally. This idea was derived through manipulating the contrast of light and shade within the church. Architects have achieved this effect through massive walls with small high set windows that were immersed deeply within the structure. Light was cast onto the windowsills and dispersed into the space limiting the direct sunlight into the church. This effect was then extended and the light was reflected off furniture and gold mosaics placed within the building. Deep contrasts exist between the light filled nave and darken aisles hidden by arches, which makes the church seem brighter. This brightness is symbolic of the light of Christ and the icons in Christian cosmology. These strong values for light contrasted with the darkness of mass are the grounds for Orthodox architecture and are seen to create meaning for the viewer, who is able to reflect on the universe.

Unlike orthodox churches Gothic cathedrals were built as a shrine to be given to God, they were an attempt to replicate the beauty and divinity of their universe. The architects have deliberately formed the building to reach upwards to god with prayers delivered in a similar manner. The Ely Cathedral is a clear microcosm of the universe during the early 16th century. The architects have conceived the building as a mini cosmoses through the power of light, which had been achieved through prodigious decorated windows that intensify the stoneworks surface. The walls supplement this effect through intricately detailed stone carvings and in consequence deny the mass of the stone causing the structure to become insignificant and manipulate rays of light. The worshipper overlooks the materiality of the building and becomes aware of the sublime power of light; hence it is apparent that architects have manipulated the form to conceive the building as a microcosm of the macrocosm.

This notion was carried through to Renaissance architects who identified the relationship between the proportions of buildings and the human body to be a microcosm of perfection. In the Italian Renaissance period many ancient texts were discovered which brought about change and understanding in philosophy and the arts. An ancient Roman architect named Vitruvius wrote 10 books on architecture that were rediscovered in the classical Renaissance period. In his third book8 he laid emphasis on the importance of individual elements being perfectly measured to create a whole, as evident in the cosmos. He highlighted the strong proportional relationship between the human body and ancient creations, which were seen to epitomise the cosmos.

DaVinci illustrated this divine relationship in his drawing of the Vitruvian Man. This drawing showed the cosmic order that was pronounced in ancient temples. The notion that the circle and the square were a representation of the cosmos was transcended into the buildings of the Early Renaissance period in Florence. Brunelleschi was able to conceive buildings as a mini cosmos through the use of perfectly regular proportions composed of squares and semi circles, this is evident in his building Foundling Hospital. Instead of using materials to symbolise the universe he has manipulated cheap materials in an intellectual and theoretical way to elevate the building. The manipulation of geometric form within the buildings symbolised the order that is visible within the cosmos. Heights of the columns are directly proportional to the area between the arcade and each other forming a perfect cube. Nine semicircular arches were sprung from the tops of the columns that were of the Composite order. Through the manipulation of proportions in the form architects were able to give a perception of great order that is evident in the universe.

Bruce L. Shelley. "The Age of the Christian Roman Empire." Church History in Plain Language. 3 ed. NashvilleAlanta-London-Vancouver: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2008. 151. Print. Vitruvius. Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture. New Ed ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print. If nature has composed the human body so that in its proportions the separate individual elements answer to the total form, then the Ancients seem to have had reason to decide that bringing their creations to full completion likewise required a correspondence between the measure of individual elements and the appearance of the work as a whole.

The Renaissance was known to be a great reflection of humanistic qualities, a period associated with the individual and the cosmos. Architects embraced this understanding of humanism and created buildings that allowed the individual to reflect on their place within the cosmos. Brunelleschis San Spirito in Florence had a centralised space where the axis that ran through the church cut the axes that shot into heaven. People could stand in the middle of the axes and reflect on their place in the universe. Brunelleschi also created the building to be radically symmetrical centred on a common theme of squares and double squares that can be seen in musical harmonies. This coincides with the understanding that if a square and the double square sounds nice when played together, then a building consisting of these elements will be pleasing to the eye. This is because it is the order of the universe and the way God has structured the cosmos. Brunelleschi has manipulated the form of the building to allow the viewer to create meaning and reflect upon the cosmos.

This was emanated into the Baroque period where architects allowed the viewer to stand in the forecourt of St Peters in Vatican City, allowing the viewer to reflect on Christian Cosmology. Through the manipulation of perspective and proportions the architects have created a magic suction effect to make the viewer overwhelmed by the colossal scale of the building, which symbolises Christian authority. The building has clearly been conceived as a microcosm of Christian cosmology highlighting the power and authority over the people. During the Baroque period there was a deep philosophical undercurrent that nature was created by God and that buildings should live up to this sublime beauty. The melodramatic and theatrical works of many artists saw breaking of traditions although architects were still deeply concerned with the building being a microcosm of the macrocosm.

By analysing architecture throughout history it is clearly visible that architects have manipulated the form and meaning of buildings to conceive them as mini cosmoses. The manipulation of form has taken place though representations of the body, nature, geometry and proportions inscribed in the architecture, which exist within the cosmos. Meaning is generated through the manipulation of form and elements creating cosmic symbolism for the viewer who is able to reflect upon their universe. Through analytical studies of buildings throughout history architectural historians have concurred that buildings are a microcosm of the macrocosm. It is therefore perceptible that buildings throughout history have been formed as mini cosmoses.

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