Overview of Architecture and Design

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of Architecture and Design

Religious Renewal.

The rise of the Baroque style in architecture had intricate connections to the religious dilemmas and problems of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Few great projects of church construction had been undertaken in sixteenth-century Europe, the one notable exception being the reconstruction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Chronic money shortages as well as the religious controversies of the sixteenth century diverted the attentions of the Papacy and other high-ranking officials of the church away from many of the grand projects begun during the High Renaissance. As the seventeenth century approached, however, a revival of spirit became evident in the Roman Catholic Church. This Catholic Reformation saw the foundation of many new religious orders like the Jesuits, Theatines, and Capuchins, who worked for religious renewal. During the half-century following 1570, these groups led a dramatic resurgence in Catholic piety. The new orders demanded religious architecture that focused worshippers' attentions on the sacraments and key elements of Catholic worship, that appealed to the senses, and that was an enhancement to parishioners' religious lives. One of the first churches to reflect these new spiritual values was the Gesù, the home church of the new Jesuit order in Rome. Although its interior decoration did not initially make use of the techniques that Baroque designers developed, its physical layout mirrored the style of church construction that became common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This structure's enormous size and massive barrel vault provided broad expanses of wall and ceiling space on which painters presented images that celebrated and defended Catholic truth. Inside the Gesù the focus of worshippers was drawn to the High Altar and the pulpit, the two sources of religious authority Catholic Reformers promoted as vital to the faith. As a number of new churches appeared on the Roman horizon around 1600, many made use of this plan's coherent and unified design. These structures were even more ornate and imposing than their original source of inspiration.

Elements of the Baroque Style.

Whereas High Renaissance architects favored rational and intellectually conceived spaces, the architects of the early Baroque violated many canons of classicism. They placed broken pediments as frames for windows and doorways, a departure from the classically-inspired canons of the Renaissance. Similarly, other decorative elements they used on their façades and in their interiors stepped outside the traditional canons of Renaissance classical design. Baroque architects also massed their decorative elements to create dramatic focal points and an impression of climax in their buildings. This attempt to harness a worshipper's gaze often began at a church's door and continued along the path that led to the church's altar. From the very start, the Baroque presented Europeans with a variety of faces. Imaginative designers like Francesco Borromini and Guarino Guarini relied on complex geometrical patterns in their structures, patterns that were more imaginative and complex than the static and serene symmetries of High Renaissance design. Their bold works inspired departures from classicism in many parts of Europe, and at the same time they were rejected in other regions as being too radical. A second face of the Italian Baroque was evident in the more conservative works of figures like Carlo Maderno and Gianlorenzo Bernini. In Rome, these architects created grand interiors that awed the city's many pilgrims with symbols of the Roman Catholic Church's power. Maderno, Bernini, and other Baroque designers also set themselves to the task of transforming Rome's cityscape. They laid out impressive squares and broad avenues, and created monuments and fountains that provided Rome with attractive focal points. Their emphasis on grand urban planning and design had numerous imitators in Northern Europe as Baroque design became an international style favored throughout the continent.

Rise of Absolutism.

Features of the political landscape of seventeenth-century Europe also favored the rise of the Baroque. The seventeenth-century witnessed a dramatic increase in the power of kings and princes over their subjects. The new theories of absolutism stressed that a king was the sole source of political authority in his realm, as monarchs in France, England, Spain, and in scores of smaller principalities throughout the continent grew anxious to assert their authority over their subjects and to wrest power from their nobilities. Often the elaborate pretensions of seventeenth-century kings to power were more illusory than real, yet in a large and prosperous country like France, the rise of a more centralized state with power focused in the hands of the king and his ministers is undeniable. In this climate, one in which kings and princes were desirous to present an image of their muscle, Baroque architecture provided an important visual language for a monarch's self-representation. The most dramatic example of the ways in which the Baroque enhanced the power and reputation of a king was the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. Originally built as a hunting lodge, this modest structure had grown to become the very centerpiece of royal government by the late seventeenth century, an expensive stage for the spectacles of royal power. An elaborate protocol and etiquette governed every aspect of the nobility's lives at Versailles and many flocked there to be near the king. An unwieldy formality prevailed, not only in social life, but also in the grand architectural spaces that Louis's designers built in the palace and its gardens. Versailles' reputation for formality and grand monumentality spread quickly throughout Europe, as scores of smaller and less powerful courts throughout the continent imitated its style.

The Importance of Cities.

While the designs of country and suburban palaces celebrated the rituals of state and court, the Baroque period also witnessed an unprecedented growth in Europe's cities. Many of the fastest growing cities were located in the northwestern part of the continent, particularly in the Netherlands, where rapidly expanding commerce and colonial ventures quickly transformed the region into the most urbanized part of Europe. Both London and Paris witnessed dramatic growth, as did many of Spain's cities at the time, but the most advanced of the many urban renewal and expansion projects undertaken in the seventeenth century occurred in Amsterdam, the population of which increased fourfold during the seventeenth century to top 200,000 by 1700. In support of the town council's decision to open up new areas for settlement in 1612, workers dug three grand canals to provision the city, and residential and commercial quarters were separated from other parts of the town dedicated to crafts and industry. While other cities emulated Amsterdam's careful planning, fast-growing towns like London and Paris took a more random approach. In these cities new, planned squares, filled with attractive brick and stone edifices, gradually replaced the half-timbered, wooden houses that had long been the primary feature of the urban landscape. One catalyst for change in London was the city's Great Fire in 1666 that destroyed the vast majority of the city's houses and churches. Sir Christopher Wren's ambitious plans to rebuild London as a city of broad streets and classical buildings could not be achieved. The expense of his designs, as well as long-standing traditions and laws guarding private property, ensured that most of London continued to be a tangled web of dark streets and alleyways. Despite its lack of planning, London's late seventeenth-century growth was enormous. By 1700, it had emerged as Europe's largest metropolis.

The Rococo.

With the death of Louis XIV in 1715, a new decorative style, eventually called the Rococo, began to dramatically change the houses of nobles and the wealthy in France. Long judged a merely decorative and sometimes even corrupt period in the history of art and architecture, the Rococo's history has more recently been re-assessed. The movement arose at a time of rapid change in Western history. The tastes of Louis XIV's age had long shown a propensity, on the one hand, for a symmetrical, austere, and commanding classicism, and on the other, for interior spaces created to serve the rituals of France's secular religion of royalty. In the years immediately following the monarch's death many noble families returned to Paris from Versailles to build town-houses or to redecorate their ancient homes within the city. New fashions for extensive but delicate gilt ornamentation and for elaborately sculpted plaster were two of the most distinctive elements of the early Rococo. Designers of the period produced some of the first cabinets, small drawing rooms that were spaces of relative privacy in a world that to this point had provided little opportunity for intimate gatherings. The rise of the Rococo proceeded apace with the development of salons in France, gatherings of elites and intellectuals that eventually became a major vehicle for the dissemination of Enlightenment thinking. The Rococo opened up new vistas, then, in providing spaces that were suitable for the elevated discussions that occurred within the small galleries and drawing rooms of eighteenth-century Paris. As the movement traveled beyond France, its influence spread to interior design and decoration elsewhere in Europe, but most particularly in Germany and Austria. Here Rococo designers like François Cuvilliés, a French emigré, and native architects like Dominikus Zimmermann and Johann Michael Fischer unlocked more of the movement's architectural potentials. In a series of works created during the 1730s and 1740s these figures created striking spaces, less angular and hard-edged than those of the Baroque, into which they poured an exuberant, even festive wealth of ornamentation. The culmination of their efforts bore fruit in a number of churches long recognized in Germany as Gesamtkunstwerke, masterworks that combined architecture, painting, sculpture, and other decorative arts so that their creative fusion was greater than their constituent parts.

Neoclassicism and Romanticism.

During the mid-eighteenth century new waves of interest in the architecture of ancient Rome and Greece attracted the attention of Europe's most sophisticated designers and patrons. In Italy, archeological excavations were uncovering a more historically accurate picture of the architecture of the ancient world. A key figure in this revival was the Italian designer, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who throughout his career did much to promote antique architecture. His etchings of Roman and Greek monuments demonstrated an understanding of the ways in which ancient peoples had built their structures, and Piranesi's strikingly beautiful, yet idealized vision of ancient architecture captured the imagination of patrons and architects alike to spark the neoclassical movement in the mid-eighteenth century. This movement also fit neatly with the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers, and their advocacy of a new social order based around principles of human freedom. These thinkers perceived the virtues of the ancient Roman Republic or the Greek polis as an antidote to the corruption and decadence they saw around them. Not surprisingly, too, many Enlightenment philosophers celebrated England as the greatest political culture of the age, sensing in its limited monarchy a model for political reforms that should be adopted throughout Europe. Neoclassicism found a ready home in this island country, where an early eighteenth-century revival of Palladian classicism began to give way to the more austere vision of neoclassicists after 1750. In France, the movement likewise mingled with the preexisting taste for classical architecture, producing the designs of figures like Soufflot and Gabriel, which were notable for their great restraint in ornament and decoration. Neoclassicism, though, was just one of a series of revival styles that became popular throughout Europe, as new waves of fashion attempted to recreate the architectural visions of previous ages. Gothic architecture, too, witnessed a surge in popularity. The romantic impulses of the period can perhaps nowhere be more brilliantly witnessed than in the garden and landscape architecture of the later eighteenth century. A new fashion for naturalistic English gardens spread quickly throughout Europe, as designers and patrons desired to emulate the freedom and seemingly unplanned character of the English country landscape. At the same time they poured into these spaces artificial lakes and rapids, Chinese pavilions, ancient ruins, Gothic chapels, and other structures that provided "picturesque" focal points for connoisseurs as they moved through their gardens. Ironically, the fashion for the English garden revealed some of the underlying contradictions and ironies of the age, as eighteenth-century men and women enjoyed spaces that were models of both human freedom and restraint.

From Baroque to Classicism.

European design during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries continually drew from the great designers of the Renaissance as well as new innovations in form and aesthetics pioneered by the great contemporary figures of the age. Successive waves of classicism gradually revived a more historically accurate picture of the architecture of previous ages. At the end of the eighteenth century innovations in design championed a new informality that departed from the formalistic architecture that had prevailed throughout much of the Continent since the early seventeenth century. The underlying impulses of this movement were consonant with the waves of dramatic change that convulsed Europe following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.

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