29 March 2017

Myths that inform architecture

The Ziggurat of Belus at Babylon (via)
One of the short talks at "RIBA late" referred to Lethaby's 1891 book on the stories behind elements of architecture. The book is still in print, and also available in e-form, from this site.

The table of contents gives the types of stories Lethaby finds told in architecture:

 1. The world fabric
 2. The microcosmos
 3. Four square
 4. At the centre of the earth
 5. The jewel-bearing tree
 6. The planetary spheres
 7. The labyrinth
 8. The golden gate of the sun
 9. Pavements like the sea
10. Ceilings like the sky
11. The windows of heaven and the 360 days
12. The symbol of creation
The stories behind the ziggurat frontispiece appear on p.127 - in the chapter on the seven planetary spheres. Ziggurats were built by the Chaleans, to "imitate the mythical mountain of the assembly of the stars" and served both as a sanctuary and as an observatory for the stars. Rather than temples, these are "Mounts of Paradise - terraced altars".

This ziggurat was described by Herodotus as an enclosure two furlongs square, with gates of solid brass; the tower was a furlong each way at the base, with a resting place and seats halfway up the path that winds around it.

Lethaby's drawing is based on dimensions found on a tablet; the ziggurat is, he says, a majestic an myserious suggestion of volume and stability.

The seven spheres, belonging to the seven planets, each have their own colour in the Chaldean system - the sun golden, the moon silver, distant Saturn black, Jupiter orange, Mars red, Venus pale yellow, Mercury deep blue. Whereas in "the Mohammedan scheme" the spheres are composed of emerald, white silver, large white pearls, ruby, red gold, yellow jacinth, white shining light.
Another Islamic scheme of the seven spheres (explained here)
At a quick glance, the book is a treasure trove of symbolism and story. It is written in what we now might think of as a fusty Victorian style. No dumbing down for hapless readers; solid research, solidly presented for people wanting to know.

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