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CAREER OPTIONS FOR ASPIRING BRITISH ARCHITECTS WERE AT AN ALL-TIME LOW

TECHNICAL & PRACTICE

In the second of our articles studying the history of architects, we move to consider the Dark Ages in Europe (476-circa 800 AD) Late Roman architects received a boost from Constantine the Great (306-337 AD), builder of St. Peter's Basilica in Trier in Germany (which was the Roman Empire's grandest triumphal arch). An edict in the Theodosian Code relates Constantine's desire to exempt architects, plasterers and 30 other trades from obligations 'in order that they may acquire the leisure for studying their arts and so may be more inclined to obtain greater skill themselves and pass on their knowledge to their sons'. This highlights a concern to perpetuate the talents of the building trade as a precursor of the Medieval craft guild.

When the exhausted Roman Empire fell in the early part of the fifth century, the architects who were to contribute the next generation of structures had two lines to draw from. They had inherited the Greco-Roman columnar buildings: the temples and basilicas that loomed across Europe south of the Danube, the Levant and North Africa. But they were also familiar with the spatial complexities developed during the preceding three centuries through the Roman architects' pioneering use of concrete.

This had encouraged new solutions to vaulting, best seen in the internally subdivided complexes of palaces and baths, and most spectacularly and permanently realised in the dome of the Pantheon. These inspired the building of Byzantium, where domes were raised from columns on the concave triangles of pendentives.

Spatial amalgamations were further developed by mosaics of shimmering glass, metals and colours, portraying figures in settings that disregarded the structural realities of the underlying architecture. This richness of forms and decoration influenced the crystalline work of Middle-Eastern designers conversant with Greek sciences and Euclidean geometries, then fed back into Italy via the architecture of the new Ostrogothic capital at Ravenna, which faced the eastern Mediterranean across the Adriatic Sea.

King Theodoric (circa 491-526 AD) also sent teams from Ravenna to Rome under an architectus publicorum to restore the main Roman public buildings such as the Colosseum. A creative fusion of east and west was inevitable.

Cassiodorus' early sixth-century letters - the so-called Variae - display attitudes to architects that are remote from Vitruvius' technical manual. Cassiodorus, the Roman statesman who served under Theodoric, is concerned with the power of architecture to create prestige, and illuminates the status of the architect as the arbiter of the royal image: 'Much do we delight in seeing the greatness of our kingdom imaged forth in the splendour of our palace, ' he writes. 'Thus do the ambassadors of foreign nations admire our power, for at first one naturally believes that as is the house so is the inhabitant? Take then for this indiction the care of our palace, thus receiving the power of transmitting your fame to a remote posterity which shall admire your workmanship.

See that the new work harmonises with the old. Study Euclid - get his diagrams well in your mind; study Archimedes and Metrobius.

'When we are thinking of rebuilding a city, or of founding a fort or a general's quarters, we shall rely upon you to express our thoughts on paper, ' Cassiodorus continues. 'The builder of walls, the carver of marbles, the caster of brass, the vaulter of arches, the plasterer, the worker in mosaic, all come to you for orders, and you are expected to have a wise answer for each. But, then, if you direct them rightly, while theirs is the work, yours is all the glory.

'Above all things, dispense honestly what we give you for the workmen's wages, for the labourer who is at ease about his victuals works all the better.

Cassiodorus concludes: 'As a mark of your high dignity you bear a golden wand, and amidst the numerous throng of servants walk first before the royal footsteps, that even by your nearness to our person it may be seen that you are the man to whom we have entrusted the care of our palaces.' So, prospects for architects seemed good in Italy at that time, and the conservation of ancient monuments was on the agenda. It is undeniable that at precisely the same time, the career options for an aspiring architect in Britain were at an all-time low: it is a safe bet that waving a golden wand in the remains of Eboracum (Roman York) would have garnered little respect from the ruling Danes. But we were all once part of the Roman Empire from the Euphrates to the Tyne, so what accounts for the difference in attitudes between north and south?

It is hard to imagine the impact that the greatest Mediterranean temples and baths must have had on wide-eyed traders and itinerants from Northern Europe. But English builders were left with their own Roman inheritance: the standard theatre and forum, within gated and walled towns.

In London, they would have known a vast basilica, amphitheatre, baths and governor's palace half the size of Hampton Court. It is usually claimed that these remains were of little interest to the fifth-century populus but imagine another scenario: half the population had been used to living as native citizens of Britannia, and the early Anglo-Saxons liked buildings such as the London basilica. But it was already 200 years old when they inherited it. After a while, the 25m-high roof must have started leaking. Did they have the technical ability to scaffold that volume, and to reinstate the Roman quarrying and supply of Welsh lead, even if they wanted to?

Most Roman buildings in a wet and frosty climate were unlikely to survive more than a few centuries. Nonetheless, the ubiquitous mass rejection of urban centres for village living in Britain is self-evident from archaeology, and the change in construction from masonry to timber a fundamental one. The Anglo-Saxon verb for 'to build' was timbran - 'to timber'. We know of no vast timber palace from this land that was divided into kingships, and the best guess for the reason behind a disinterest in such grand expressions of architecture is that many of the settlers came from north of the Danube, beyond the old Roman Empire.

As cleverly detailed and proto-chalet styled as they are, the thatched huts rebuilt from the evidence of post-holes and pits at West Stow's early Anglo-Saxon village in Suffolk bear the hallmarks of an itinerant craft tradition: families still used axe-cut timber to build huts when we first arrived at the American coast.

The 'architect' during what we call the Dark Ages was not concerned with timber dwellings.

In 600 AD, those equipped to envisage designs for important masonry structures such as churches according to typologically appropriate forms called upon the Roman traditions.

The Venerable Bede reveals that the missionary St Augustine, sent to England from Rome in 596 AD, arrived the following year to inspire church building in more Romanum- 'in the Roman manner'.

Exactly what that means depends on looking closely at the surviving examples. They differ from the south to the north.

The southern group are mainly in Kent and Essex, including St Pancras in Canterbury, Reculver in Kent and St Peter at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex. Each took advantage of a nearby quarry of abandoned Roman masonry, re-erecting salvaged columns and using brick to form arches. These were inevitably round arches following the Classical tradition, while the elongated nave with apsidal east ends beloved of the early Anglo-Saxons evoke the Imperial basilica form as adopted for Roman churches such as Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome (circa 410 AD), or the churches of Ravenna. The difference in England was that the churches were quite small and featured no domes or mosaic-clad walls. Instead we had a penchant for surrounding naves with porticus, or wrap-around aisles divided into rooms.

The northern group of churches reveals a different set of emergent traditions. At Monkwearmouth we find the first post-Roman barrel-vault beneath the church porch, arrived at through a portal with jambs decorated with interlaced snakes representing a Celtic tale of divine protection. The seventh and eighth-century abbeys at Hexham and Ripon feature similar crypts that evoke the catacombs of Rome. They were reportedly built under the aegis of Bishop Wilfrid, who travelled to Rome and presumably wanted to bring a little atmosphere back with him. But who were the designers who translated his vision into candle-lit reality? Four hundred years later, William of Malmesbury writes that it was the magisterio cementariorum (master masons). Their names are lost but at Hexham they showed off Roman stone by lining the passages with decorated blocks from Corbridge on Hadrian's Wall. The superstructures of Ripon and Hexham are long gone but they may have manifested another - and apparently native - development of early northern Anglo-Saxon designers who abandoned the apse for the squared east end: the seventh-century church at Escomb is at the forefront of a 1,000-year-old English predisposition to gable ends that was rudely interrupted by the apse-building Normans.

What information did Anglo-Saxon builders have to construct these complex buildings? How were designs conveyed?

Clearly, they could simply use their eyes but as the monuments of previous cultures crumbled away, how could they relate to the original meanings and appearances of those buildings that may have provided inspiration and identity? Illiteracy presents the first obstacle to understanding written prescriptions, but some monastic libraries actually held copies of Vitruvius through the Dark Ages.

However, even if one was available - and the designer could read - there was a problem in Vitruvius' terminology: even the most learned Latinist monks trained to contemplate the language of the Vulgate - the Latin bible (vulgate meaning 'common translation') - would have had a hard time understanding the Greek nouns by which technicalities of planning and detail were cheerfully described by him in the first century BC.

As a result, the earliest surviving transcription of Vitruvius is provided with some liberal (if recognisable) interpretations of classical capitals.

The tradition of encyclopaedic learning had fortunately generated a few other resources on architecture. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (circa 560-636 AD) provided a 20-chapter resource on everything imaginable, from kitchen utensils to fabulous monsters. Most of Isidore's information was uncritically derived, as his main interest was to invest nouns with meanings - the hoarier the better - while he was not expressly concerned with inspiring or instructing architects. His advice on architecture was taken from centuries-old sources such as Vitruvius and Pliny.

So the Roman legacy for architects was apparently inescapable. While Italy was split into small and vulnerable feudal states, the first great consolidation of power in Dark-Age Europe was in Germany, under Charlemagne. As a Christian leader he visited Rome and in his support for the beleaguered Pope Leo III was made Holy Roman Emperor at Christmas 800 AD.

His imperial image was manifested in architecture, and his palace in Aachen is famous for its reliance on Italian models.

The palatine chapel is a studied replica of the church of San Vitale in Ravenna of 532 AD. Remarkably, his intellectual advisor was Alcuin, Archbishop of York, at the time when the most classically pure sculpture in Europe was to be found on the wayside crosses of Northumberland.

It is a strange paradox in this period that Northern Europe became the inheritor of the Classical tradition, even without the written resources that might have told them how or why Roman architecture was created.

It seems that the motivator was a prevalent idea of the power of Romanitas, which could be aptly applied to the two main authorities: temporal and spiritual rulers.

But it is the spiritual rulers - the ascetic Augustinians and communal Benedictine monks who spread from the Mediterranean to the outposts of the old empire - who provide us with the only architect's design from this period. The monastery of St Gallen in Switzerland holds a drawing inscribed on parchment: it is an idealised plan of the abbey made in the eighth century. Here, in the Dark Ages, is the architect, a creature of vision, recording a proposal of harmonic arrangement of structures and spaces as a model for a better life.

Jonathan Foyle is an architectural archaeologist and TV presenter

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