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THE LIGHT OF TRUTH AND BEAUTY

 

Only in 1999 were Alexander 'Greek' Thomson's lectures all published in one accessible volume, as The Light of Truth and Beauty edited by Gavin Stamp for the Alexander Thomson Society. Until recently his buildings were also neglected; but now Thomson (1817-75) is regarded, as "not just a brilliant designer: he was a visionary, a dreamer, and he thought deeply about the nature and purpose of his art, and about the inexorable 'eternal' laws which governed its development."
 

Introduction

Thomson was an evangelical Presbyterian Christian, and our interest here is to discover how his theory of architecture, and built work, were influenced by his biblical beliefs; and hence to see if we can discern any principles for a Christian approach to the art of architecture for today. Our context is that only during the last quarter of the twentieth century has art been rehabilitated by evangelicals, and even today it often remains a marginalised activity. During the same period there was a more successful reawakening to social and political responsibility amongst evangelicals. This difference is highlighted by the writings of the Association of Christians in Planning and Architecture (a professional group within UCCF) which majored on firmness and commodity, and the social and sustainability aspects of architecture to the neglect of the art of architecture.

By contrast in his lectures Thomson assumed firmness and commodity as given, and as an introduction to delight, which made the difference between mere building and architecture, reminded his audience that man does not live by bread alone. In spite of Darwin and Marx most of Thomson's contemporaries, even if they were not Christians, still knew the Bible and had minds stocked with a Christian world view, if only by default.

Everything Thomson did was part of his Christian life, and he did not need to quote proof texts for them; so we do not find him continually quoting the Bible - and when he does it may be using it as a parallel. Hence his quoting that man does not live by bread alone is not saying that art is spiritual, nor that you need to be a Christian to produce good or authentic art, but that there is more to architecture than mere building, just as there is more to life than its physical aspects.

Gavin Stamp put it this way in his introduction; "behind all his arguments about architecture and reason there was an immanent sense of the Divine, of a Creator who was responsible for all that was worthwhile and beautiful."

Of Thomson's surviving lectures about two thirds were presented to the Glasgow Architectural Society, and his last four to the Haldane Society. From these we can put together his theory of architecture, which comprised the following components:-

              a: his theory of art

              b: applying this to the history of architecture

            c: seeking a contemporary style

 

Thomson's Theory of Art

In short it is the expression of whatever is great in man thrown in harmonious composition, the embodiment of the divinity that stirs within us, the utterance of the soul's emotions, the exercise of that power which refuses to recognise the limits of time and space as the boundary of its activity and its ever struggling to shake itself free from physical restraint. It is the revelation of that mysterious faculty by which man feels himself to be the son of the Omnipotent and lays claim to an endless life.

Applying this to the art of architecture he wrote that architectural design consists in moulding and adapting forms and lines with harmonious proportions and combinations, by the exercise of the aesthetic faculty.

We may see echoes of Cain and the builders of the Tower of Babel (and signature architects today) in claims to an endless life, as they sought to make a name for themselves. However the perversion of God's plans, and our mixed motives, should not necessarily lead us to abandon Thomson's theories.

The next quote from Thomson on this also illustrates his understanding of art being subjective, not objective (i.e. it does not copy nature):

Some say that man can never get beyond his experiences. Whence then come Music and Architecture? There is nothing in Nature like either......they are something that by man or through his agency has been added to the work of God, and that, not presumptuously or sinfully, but by destiny and beauty; for being made in the image of God, man was made partaker of the divine nature so far as to become a fellow-worker with God - in however a humble a sense, a co-Creator.

Again we may disagree theologically with the last phrase in that we do not create ex nihil, though we are creative in the usual understanding of the word.

Just as nature points to God as Creator, so the purpose of architecture (any art) is to bring to light and concentrate the suggestions of nature; to exhibit man as he ought to be; to raise the mind from the material to the spiritual, from the temporary to the enduring; and to create order and harmony out of confusion and discord.

 
History of Architecture

As Thomson believed that the laws of architecture were only gradually discovered, and were understood in some cultures more than in others, a study of architectural history, and the preservation of historic buildings, were important for gaining a full, at least more complete, understanding of these laws. But he also saw the dangers if past styles, rather than the laws behind them were copied.

Let imagination be filled with images rather than memory with modes, and knowledge is power only when under control: if we do not keep it in subjection we become its slaves.

This is what he believed had gone wrong in the Greek Revival style, and was the reason for its failure.

So Thomson studied the history of architecture because he believed in learning from the past to go forward into the future. He called attention to four styles which he thought most embodied the laws of architecture - namely Egyptian, Greek, Moresque and Gothic.

There is probably no better method of acquiring a knowledge of architectural design than by instituting a thorough comparison of the peculiarities of the various matured styles....for it would show that the same ends may be gained by a variety of means, and that, however unlike two edifices seem to be in outward appearance, their effect upon the mind of the spectator may be very similar.

For example: The pagan temple is a simple form; the Christian cathedral a group of forms... In the Egyptian temple the attention is confined to the centre by a surrounding frame, in the Greek it is arrested by the central and apex of the pediment; in the cathedral the mind is kept from wandering indifferently [over?] a multitude of subordinate features by the commanding bulk of the main tower and the superior altitude of the spire. Thus we perceive that unity - the most essential property in design - is gained by very different modes of treatment.

Thomson saw Egyptian architecture as striving after the permanent, and that God had given them some understanding of immortality, of the eternal. Their domestic dwellings were built of mud and unburnt brick corresponding to the transitory nature of mortal lives, but their tombs were permanent.

The pyramid expresses stability or duration, the obelisk added proportion expressing the idea of justice or truth. Then we have the rudimentary temple form, somewhat more complicated, but a clean cut definite shape, also with sloping sides, and adding a third element, the columnar. Columns introduced the softer forms of their capitals resting on a background of deep quiet shadow. The Egyptians also understood the principle of making each successive stage in a great architectural work more interesting than the one preceding until the climax is reached.

Thomson's summary of Greek architecture, which he explains in great detail, is that the Greeks aimed at perfection, and all that they did bears evidence of the earnestness and ability with which they sought to realise their idea.... beauty, or symmetry of form, and harmony of relative proportion are the essential elements distinguishing it from all other styles.

By the introduction of the arch into architecture the whole thing underwent a radical change. While the Egyptians and Greeks bestowed their chief attention upon the solid parts of their buildings, the Romans and Goths adopted the openings as the principal objects.... whereas the column is susceptible of being adjusted to the nicest proportion and the highest degree of refinement of form, the arched opening, or void, is extremely limited in these respects. He went as far as to declare that Stonehenge is really more scientifically constructed than York Minster.

 

Thomson also accused the Romans of using the orders merely as decoration, as on the Colosseum, and pointed out that, compared to the lintel, the arch is structurally illogical as it needs buttressing. In spite of his criticism of it as structurally illogical Thomson appreciated and enjoyed the Gothic style which he saw as the last organised style. But before describing it he devoted some time to Islamic architecture.

The Arabs were approaching civilisation as the Greeks and Romans were receding from it, and when literature, art and science had been all but forgotten in Europe, they were preserved in Asia and cultivated with much zeal and success. Thomson described the Alhambra, the most perfect example of the Moresque style with which he was acquainted. Due to the Arabs precarious foothold in Spain the Alhambra, seen from without, is a strong fortress; within it is a gorgeous palace - like its chivalrous occupants, a terror to enemies but a pattern of refinement and all the social virtues to friends. The interior of its courts, its halls, and its chambers present a combination of everything that could minister to the wants and pleasures of intelligent and highly cultivated minds, and the gratification of the most luxurious habits.

Then with a new people, a new religion, and new modes of construction, Architecture began again to assume a consistency which was finally matured in the ecclesiastical structures of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. However after having passed through the stages of development, maturity and decay, severe grandeur, refined dignity and meretricious ornamentation, was at last pushed aside to give place to a resuscitation of the styles of the ancient world.

Classicists condemn the revivalist styles and go back to the humanist Renaissance as embodying the eternal laws of architecture, but Thomson saw the Renaissance as the first revivalist style copying past forms instead of seeking the laws behind them. But like others, including those who developed the Gothic revival to produce new rather than archaeological designs, he was seeking a contemporary style.

Seeking a Contemporary Style

Some think that we have altogether lost that creative power which shone with such splendour in former generations. But this is not the fact; the resources of the architect are not exhausted, and from the variety exhibited in bygone styles it may safely be assumed that as great a variety is yet to be displayed in those that are to come - due to the infinite variety of possibilities from a Creator God.

In a technical lecture looking at how masonry construction could be improved he also asked for an aesthetic design of the railway infrastructure then being built. He complained that we do not exhibit that advanced state of progress which might be looked for from our opportunities.

There was no lack of material, no lack of wealth, nor a lack of intellectual talent.

What was needed was to abandon the whole mass of human traditions under which we have been, as it were, smothered, and take earnestly to the study of the Divine laws. Past styles are there to teach us what has already been discovered - to place us upon an elevated starting point for yet higher attainments - to connect our sympathies with the men whose thoughts they represent, and with the Creator whose laws they reveal to us. For Thomson these laws were like the universal laws of physics, and not a formula for success, nor a legalistic restraint, nor like the rules of a game.

Thomson's lecture Obstacles and Aids to Architectural Progress explained his position. He saw the greatest obstacle to a new style as a lack of correct knowledge and hence of good taste, followed by fear of criticism, fashion, and sentimental associations with historic styles; which he summed up as the prejudices of the ignorant, the raillery of fools, the scoffing of distempered minds, and the freaks of fashion. The question of taste remains today, especially now that the general public, and even Government, have more interest in architecture!

The last obstacle was archaeology. Architecture has all but ceased to be a living art, and Even the great mind of Michael Angelo failed to impress itself upon the architectural forms which he employed, and architecture continued to labour under the power of precedents and associations down to our own day.

 

Thomson's Own Work

Although some see Thomson as a forerunner of the Modern Movement his own work was often highly decorative, and relied on past decorative motifs, often a mixture of Greek and Egyptian. Certainly Thomson produced a new style in combining these with new forms and structural expressions. Although his work greatly influenced others in Glasgow he did not have a direct following. This is all to the good since he looked to when every man will have his own style, as in literature. That has been accomplished in today's pluralist culture, though few if any are based on his principles.

The remarkable thing about Thomson's designs is that though he scorned the contemporary Gothic revival, and turned to Greek architecture for inspiration after the Greek revival had become unfashionable, he was a successful architect across the board. He designed not only one-off villas for the middle classes and industrialists, some unique churches for a conservative religion, but also terraced housing for the professional classes, tenement blocks and retail buildings. He not only adapted the spirit of the Greek for these different building types in a totally different climate, but also employed a hierarchy of enrichment to denote the relative social standing of these buildings, in the manner of William Butterfield, best seen at Baldersby St. James, or G E Street at Boyne Hill, Maidenhead. The Greek style, as seen in the Erechtheum, also allowed him to combine neoclassical trabeation with picturesque asymmetry.

In line with his own understanding he was not a stylistic revivalist at all, but designing according to the eternal laws of architecture, inspired by Greek and Egyptian architecture, and John Martin's Old Testament paintings; and, utilising modern materials like iron and plate glass, he produced a style exactly fitting the requirements and aspirations of mid 19th century Glasgow. It impressed his contemporaries and confused his successors for a hundred years before becoming widely appreciated again - and understood?
What Have We Learnt?

Thomson did not equate good architecture with either Solomon's Temple, or the Gothic or Byzantine styles. Indeed he did not define or seek a Christian style, but recognised that any society can produce good architecture - which for him was Ancient Egypt and Classical Greece. More than that he does not despise other styles, but applauds them and enjoys their best work. And as his talks demonstrate, he gives a clear account of his theory, and his reasons for declaring particular buildings ugly.

A second important point is that when he disagrees with people, such as Ruskin, he never denigrates them, and often expresses his approval of their other beliefs. An architect's witness is as much in how he treats clients and contractors - and architectural critics - as in the quality of the work he produces. Perhaps even more so, as in relationships it is possible to share the gospel, whereas buildings, like creation, can only point to the Creator.

 

If we have not yet studied Thomson's work now is the time to do so, to enjoy it as a style, but also to look beyond the Greek or Thomsonian to the eternal laws of the art of architecture, and to some other aspects. Thomson's theory of art is in fact fairly traditional, though he always stressed that its laws were from God as he believed in a personal Creator, whereas many atheists accept similar rules. In the context of his times Thomson was also familiar with the debate over the picturesque, the sublime, and associations which art could evoke. One hundred and fifty years later an Italian renaissance building in a local high street still means 'bank' and its rusticated stonework is associated with financial stability.

Like Thomson we have assumed that architecture includes firmness and commodity, and in this sense it is a craft, a science and even a business, rather than a fine art. It must be functional; have moral purpose; be affordable; and comply with structural principles, life cycle costing, conservation of energy, health and safety regulations, and the catch all phrase sustainability (which can be interpreted biblically as good stewardship).

However on the delight side we have looked more towards the associative and the meaning of architecture, and have studied semiotics and architectonics, rather than seeking for beauty. Many buildings are certainly more interesting now but how beautiful are they? Perhaps now is the time to follow Thomson in looking for a style which is both beautiful and contemporary.

 

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