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Phidias Meets Foster

In the year 2013, on an evening more than typical for the English May, grey cut with a chill just too mean to be called mild, the ghost of Phidias, 5th Century BC Athenian sculptor and architect, visited Norman Foster, one of the most celebrated architects of the late 20th and early 21st Century AD. An auspicious occasion if ever there was. Assume, if you care to, the usual drama and incredulity of the apparitional visitation, although it isn’t necessary. Here is a meeting of minds.

Phidias – “Dear Norman, how are you? For nearly two and a half thousand years I’ve watched as the face of the world has changed in more ways than any person of my time could ever have imagined. There are so many things I would like to discuss with you.”

Norman – “Why Phidias, I am well, although this is unexpected, and not the least that a ghost is before me! What things could the master architect of classical antiquity want to discuss with me?

Phidias – “What else Norman, but our trade? We are both architects, no? I have spoken to many of our fellows throughout the ages, and you are certainly notable. You see, my passing came before my life’s greatest work was fully complete. How cruel that Phidias could not see the Parthenon, crown jewel of the Acropolis, white temple on the mount of the shining city of Athens, finished with living eyes. But Ictinus and Callicrates were fine architects too, and my disciples were taught well, I taught them! Alcamenes and Agoracritus, such fine artisans of stone, my tradition lived on in them. When I asked Apollodorus of Damascus as he rebuilt the Pantheon of Rome for Trajan, he told me. More than five hundred years after I was gone, I remained.”

Norman – “And longer still I should think! You must have seen that well beyond the time of the Romans the style of your age has endured? Neo-classical architecture has resurfaced in a new and distinct way for almost every century that has been since yours. You must be proud, and happy?

Phidias – “Oh, proud, yes. He who built the Temple of Zeus at Olympia should be proud. He who raised the Athena Parthenos to greater heights than the tallest of men deserves to be proud! But I cannot say if I am happy, Norman. I do not know yet.”

Norman – “I can understand this. As you introduced yourself you said the world has changed, and I would add never more so than in the last fifty years. There must be many sights that have displeased you. The slow ruin of time on your own creations must be especially hard to see?”

Phidias – “Ha! Displeased. If I told you that I was no more than displeased when fire brought great ruin to my Parthenon in the 3rd Century AD, what would you think? Does it surprise you that ravages of time and the changing of powers and faiths that slowly degraded this wonder are of little consequence to me? Why even when that Venetian oaf Francesco Morosini landed an explosive shell on it in 1687, I didn’t cry. I wish perhaps that the Ottomans hadn’t placed their gunpowder stores there but it is inconsequential. Conflict is as inevitable as time and all things that men build are destroyed by both. I am at peace with this.”

Norman – “Of course this surprises me! While I should probably admit I don’t expect 30 St Mary Axe to stand for a literal eternity, I intend for it to remain for the conceivable future and designed it to do so. It would be a horror for myself, and the society it is nestled in, to see it fall, especially violently. If your life’s work hasn’t made you content, and their destruction is not the cause of your discontent, why then aren’t you happy?”

Phidias – “I could say because of you, Norman, although that might be unfair. I believe that you, and those who share your architectural values, including those who came before and informed you, are in fact responsible for the death of craft. Craft as I knew it anyway. My atelier used to sing with a chorus of hammers and chisels as men created works of art to adorn our grand façades. Today I see little more than steel and glass, wrought into appealing shapes by machines. Why have these crafts died?”

Norman – “That is perhaps difficult to answer Phidias. There are many reasons. As we have both now said, time has changed the world. In this nation it is certainly no longer possible to gather great numbers of men to take the stone from the earth and carve it. Stone is heavy and expensive and those skills that existed in your day do not so readily exist today. More still, at this time the classical style is not important, we are exploring new possibilities. I don’t blame myself for these things!”

Phidias – “No, indeed neither do I place all the blame upon you. There were many others before you and it wasn’t simply those who rejected true craft in architecture that helped it to its death. Many who embraced it were equally responsible for their misjudgements, the excesses, the repetition that caused your forebears to look elsewhere for inspiration… I stood with Postnik Yakovlev in 1560 as he lamented over Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, realising the gaudy confusion of his work. I listened to John Nash in 1830 as he defended his bloated expansion of Buckingham Palace! Frankly, entire cities like Rome became over-saturated show pieces for the likes of Bellini and Michelangelo throughout the Renaissance.”

Norman – “I would add Antoni Gaudi to your Bonfire of the Architects in that sense, his works were so full of craft that many would call them an eyesore.”

Phidias – “Yes, yes, and many more we could list. I did not say however that I hold these men more accountable than others. And to the latest day there were those who wanted to honour the old traditions of stone-masonry, carpentry, joinery, sculpting and painting, the old crafts that were employed, and still could be. Thus did Charles Barry bring the Palace of Westminster to back to life throughout the 1840’s and over fifty years later Henry Bacon was adding shining classical monuments to America’s cities. The Lincoln Memorial is a thing of such elegance, he could have been my protégé!”

Norman – “And yet did not Charles Dickens ridicule the expense of Barry’s magnum opus? The great social satirist and commentator of the age, appalled by the lavish costs of beauty, authority and unequal prosperity turned edifice!”

Phidias – “Absolutely these things cost! They must cost! What labour of mankind was great that didn’t cause us to bleed and suffer and regret? What stories will be told of the building of your Axe? And what remains of it once built that causes one to ask of its construction? There is no intrigue, no detail for the eye, just a shape, a monolith to calculated efficiency in all its dearth of soul.”

Norman – “That is a matter for opinion, as many see great beauty in my designs but calculated efficiency is my badge of honour. I can appreciate your criticism of my aesthetic values if you can appreciate mine of yours also. Your friezes, metopes and triglyphs, pedestals and columns, nothing but fanciful indulgences. They served no function beyond their beauty and so were art, not architecture! Can we distinguish between these things? Yours was the day of art and architecture combined, today we look to the latter first.”

Phidias – “Not the case at all I say! The things we built were of such uncompromising architectural quality that we needed no cements or anything of the sort. We lay perfect stones, honed by hand, in such a manner as the builders of today couldn’t hope to replicate. That we added embellishment to our structures does not at all support your claim. In fact, I counter that today there is great guilt in seeking to amalgamate these opposing values. In much of what you and your predecessors have achieved is the evidence of trying to inject arts primary non-functionality into the very fabric of your architecture! I say you want to create art first.”

Norman – “I disagree, but could we agree that this is a dichotomy present in all architects? None of us want to create visually unpleasant things and so are we unavoidably tied to art in some sense?”

Phidias – “Maybe. And yet no. I think to Frank Gehry and his Guggenheim, to Oscar Niemeyer and his preposterously amorphous nothings, to Zaha Hadid and her bewilderingly overcomplexity. More? What has Rem Koolhass achieved with angular asymmetry, what is pleasant about the Seattle Central Library? Impressive, arguably, brutish, certainly, but enduring? I think not. None of it. Art before architecture, and bad art too. Let’s not even talk about Renzo Piano. Pompidou Centre? Pompous Centre!”

Norman – “Are you not being selective and anachronistic? Our lack of the use of classical craft has clearly not hindered our success and if we are vain in creating these things then so were you in your day. We operate on the limits of what is possible now, and I’m not even sure your age is therefore even relevant to us. I am curious though. How to judge those who arguably sit between us? Those who bridged the classical styles with the new and were highly regarded, Rennie Mackintosh, or Frank Lloyd Wright if you’d allow?”

Phidias – “Both well and good, but I feel we might be diverted into listing every prominent individual we have encountered in our experiences. It doesn’t please me to see the labours that I was surrounded with cast off as outdated, and I struggle with that definition. It is a fine craft indeed to be able to turn the raw matters into sculpted works of art and finer still to put these in places of honour. Atop the palaces, the temples, buildings of government and great private enterprise, all built by hands working in unison.”

Norman – “Why have a gargoyle 2,700ft in the air? Would you like the Burj Khalifa to be adorned with wasteful items that no one could appreciate?”

Phidias – “Why have one at even 225ft?! Do you think the people on the steps of Notre Dame de Paris can see those twisted faces above them? They were put their despite this and at least a superstitious person could say they serve more purpose than the twirls and loops and bulges of some of the monstrosities produced by the aforementioned! I ask this, why build something so tall?!”

Norman – “Because we can, and I apply that law to most endeavours in our field in this day, and yours too I’d wager. We don’t build white marble and granite shrines with pretty toys carved out for them anymore because for a long time we have been able to do more. And if we can, we do, this is one of the most simple principles of our craft. This expressed itself in your time as sculpture because that was what you were limited to. If you could have done the more ambitious things with steel and glass that we can today you would have, and classical architecture would mean something else entirely.”

Phidias – “So you say that craft has simply changed and my attachment to the definition and understanding that was contemporary to my day, is hindering me from seeing how in a sense my principles are still alive?”

Norman – “Absolutely. Craft has moved away from the common and artisanal trades and towards the industrial and technological but it still exists. The fundamentals of design and realisation in architecture is its craft, and the mediation of machine and computer between man and what is constructed does not devalue this. But I don’t think anyone would necessarily call your crafts inferior. It’s likely that no living individual could recreate Leochares’ Apollo Belvedere but I reckon a machine of surpassing precision could. Yet it would still require the direction of man and the initial creativity of vision followed by action to achieve anything. We might be more captivated by the notion of one man’s exceptional labour, or indeed the labour of thousands in cooperation, but romanticising these to the point where we devalue what is enabled by progress is ludicrous.”

Phidias – “Bah! Contentious. But if I were to accept this point then all I would have remaining were my aesthetic preferences and less to lament. We shall conclude this for now. There is more to discuss but I’m late for what is becoming a regular inquisition. Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond have yet to sufficiently defend that ArcelorMittal Orbit travesty.”

Norman – “Agreed. Later Phidias.”

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