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Category Archives: Architecture

Roman Concrete: A Forgotten Stroke of Genius
I can hear some of you thinking now: Concrete? Is she really writing about concrete? Believe me, reader, the same
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The Mausoleum of Augustus: Propaganda, Deification and Dynasty
By Ben Potter The story of Augustus (née Octavian) is one of those tales from the classical world familiar even
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Not Just Another Column
What’s in a column? To the Ancient Greeks, the standing pillar was more than just a way to hold up
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Roman Concrete: A Forgotten Stroke of Genius

by July 15, 2016

I can hear some of you thinking now: Concrete? Is she really writing about concrete?
Believe me, reader, the same sort of thoughts passed through my mind when I began to do my research for this article–but let me ask one question (especially to those of you lucky ducks who have gotten to visit Italy): Is there anything more impressive than to turn a corner in Rome and come face to face with an incredibly ancient structure that, somehow, is still standing after thousands of years?
Colosseum
There’s just no doubt: Ancient Roman architecture holds a gold medal for durability. Despite some crumbling here or there, there are so many structures–particularly harbors–that continue to stand soundly unbroken and un-ruined after two thousands years or more. They’ve largely withstood wars and earthquakes and encroaching modernity. But how?
One of the reasons is simply that many of these structures were made entirely or partly out of concrete–but it’s not just the presence of concrete that helped. We know from experience in modern times that concrete is strong but not infallible, and certainly not capable of withstanding two thousand years of wear and tear! No, it wasn’t the presence of concrete necessarily–instead, it was the type of concrete.
Just Add (Salt) Water
Concrete
For many years, the durability of Roman concrete baffled historians and scientists alike. In particular they were perplexed by the concrete that had been used to construct ancient harbors–even after two thousand or more years of being pummeled by saltwater, the harbors were largely intact.
To put this into perspective, Portland cement, which is the most commonly used concrete blend today, is serviceable for only about fifty years if exposed constantly to saltwater. Not a small difference!
What, then, made Roman concrete so different? The answer wasn’t found until recently, when, a few years ago, researchers began to take an interest in the subject. Research teams led by both Italian and American scientists collected samples of ancient Roman concrete from a breakwater in Pozzuoli Bay, Italy. The concrete was analyzed in state-of-the-art facilities in Italy, United States’ U.C. Berkley, Germany, and even Saudi Arabia, where Advanced Light Source technology allowed researchers to analyze the structure of the concrete at a miniscule scale.
Concrete fragmentSample of Roman concrete
What they found was incredibly exciting: instead of fighting to create a substance that could withstand the eroding force of the sea, ancient Romans had harnessed that force and incorporated it into their concrete making process. They mixed lime and volcanic ash and, after packing the mixture into wooden molds, they submerged it all in seawater. The saltwater then set off a chemical reaction–it hydrated the lime in such a way as to make it react with the ash, which ultimately formed an incredibly sturdy, solid bond.
(For all you chemists out there, this was apparently a C-A-S-H bond, or calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate)
It’s largely for this reason that ancient Roman concrete was so incredibly durable–especially when exposed to saltwater.
A Better Alternative?

One of the most important aspects of this super-strong ancient concrete, besides its durability, is its overall carbon footprint.

Though Portland cement–our modern concrete–has been in use now for nearly two centuries, it can’t really hold a candle to Roman cement when it comes to the issue of environmental impact. The cement industry (cement being a major component of concrete) is, worldwide, a primary producer of carbon dioxide, which is an atmospheric pollutant and greenhouse gas. Apparently, the cement industry alone accounts for approximately five percent of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, which is a staggering amount for one industry.
Carbon
Much of this cement is produced specifically for the manufacturing of Portland cement concrete mix. In fact, according to researchers, roughly nineteen billion tons of Portland cement are used every year.
The biggest problem with the production of this cement is really the production methods themselves. To make the cement, a mixture of limestone and clays has to be heated to 1,450 degrees Celsius (2,642 degrees Fahrenheit), and it’s this process–which burns up so much fossil fuel and burns it so hot–that produces the majority of the carbon dioxide.
Roman concrete, on the other hand, because of its unique ash mixture, uses far less limestone and only requires that the limestone be baked at 900 degrees Celsius (1,652 degrees Fahrenheit)–which uses only a fraction of the fossil fuels used to make Portland cement and results in fewer carbon dioxide emissions overall–and the finished product is hundreds of times stronger.
Clearly, the carbon footprint of our modern concrete is not so great–at the end of the day, we are causing more environmental damage to produce a concrete that just doesn’t bind nearly as well as Roman concrete.
Can we bring this dead secret back to life?

The question is: has all this new research led us to a grand solution for the issue of carbon emissions in the cement/concrete industry? Could it revolutionize the way we build, and the durability of our structures?

The tentative answer is yes…and no.
Duomo
The famous Duomo is a solid shell of Roman concrete
According to experts, it’s a complicated issue. While the obvious answer seems to be that Roman concrete is a better, stronger, more environmentally-friendly option, many experts believe that it would be impractical to begin using it again, largely because of the setting time. In the modern world of construction, concrete needs to harden quickly and efficiently–something that seawater concrete can’t do (and we all know how our modern society values convenience and speed).
However, the discovery of this ancient “secret” to concrete production is having some positive benefits. Inspired by the ancient Romans’ use of volcanic ash, scientists have been experimenting with the use of fly ash (a waste product of coal-burning, which is readily available in large quantities in many countries) and even, again, volcanic ash (in those countries where fly ash is not so available) to produce stronger, greener forms of concrete.

According to some experts, a successful outcome to these experiments could lead to concrete mixes that utilize local resources intelligently and replace at least forty percent of the worldwide demand for Portland cement.
It’s just one more way in which our society is learning to look to the past, and learn from our ancestors. Sometimes, modernity doesn’t have all the answers after all–sometimes the answers were discovered and perfected long ago. All we have to do is rediscover them.

The Mausoleum of Augustus: Propaganda, Deification and Dynasty

by July 16, 2015

By Ben Potter
The story of Augustus (née Octavian) is one of those tales from the classical world familiar even to those whom do not routinely ‘leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime’.
Though we’re all well aware of the impressive résumé of the protagonist of HBO’s Rome, let’s quickly recap a few of his highlights:
– Claims descent from the Trojan prince Aeneas and the goddess Venus
– Adopted son and heir of the murdered then deified Julius Caesar
– Avenged said father with the help of swaggering ladies’ man Marc Antony
– Defeated said philanderer and his Egyptian girlfriend, Cleopatra, for control of The Greatest Empire the World has Ever Known (TM)

Augustus
Pretty impressive stuff. But what then? Prosperity, expansion, peace, stability, wealth, high morality, art, literature, incredible public services and, perhaps most importantly, a constant supply of food are but some of the boasts the princeps could make from his tenure as emperor.

But this is small fry… it seems clear that Augustus had big plans for himself, and indeed for Rome’s future. Plans that would only truly take seed on 19th August 14AD – the date on which Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus’ long and illustrious life finally came to an end.
What came next was Augustus’ crowning glory; deification and a hand-picked succession.
In the first part, deification cemented the emperor’s position as not merely one of the greatest men to have ever lived, but as something more: something eternal, ethereal, indissoluble and, literally, supernatural.
The second part gave Augustus what had been denied to that Macedonian meteorite, Alexander the Great: a dynasty! A dynasty not only in the sense of emperors, rather than senators, ruling Rome (the very hubris for which Julius Caesar had been assassinated), but also in that those emperors were of Julio-Claudian bloodline.
Though there were obviously many facets that went into securing this improbable and impressive duel feat, one of the finest examples of Augustus’ devotion to securing both his terrestrial and celestial legacies is his impressive Mausoleum.
The gargantuan structure (87 metres in diameter and 40 metres high) was built on the Campus Martius (field of Mars), and would have dominated the landscape of Rome from the Tiber to the Via Flaminia.
MausoleumWhat the Mausoleum would have looked like in its time
Almost everything about this impressive monument seemed designed to fulfill the two above goals – as well as reinforce the two invariable and continuous aims of the regime, i.e. to legitimize and glorify itself.
The location of the Mausoleum was no coincidence, but carefully planned to gain maximum effect. The Campus Martius was not merely an ancient and sacred area of the city, but was especially reserved as the final resting place of exceptional citizens.
In hindsight this seems the most natural place in the world for the first, and possibly greatest, Roman emperor to be buried, but ground was broken on the Mausoleum as early as 28BC, only three years after the battle of Actium (in which Antony was defeated) and, crucially, a year before Augustus became emperor – while he was still only Mr. Octavian, consul of Rome.
This bold move, a move that had unequivocal echoes of the thing Romans hated most of all, Hellenistic-style kingship, would have caused a bedewing of the armpits on even the most lightly-knit senatorial togas.
That such an abode was a fitting resting place for a god may well have been an instinctive reaction upon seeing it. However, the link to dynasty was a shade subtler as, though invariably referred to as the Mausoleum of Augustus, the tomb was in fact designed to house the entire imperial family. The significance of this is that anyone related to the emperor (by blood or adoption) would be automatically given a burial on a site previously reserved only for those who had made an outstanding contribution to the state.
MausoleumA diagram of the Mausoleum, viewed from above
The design of the building was also significant; not only in its regal and hubristic scale which would surely have delivered the message ‘I have conquered’ to the average awe-struck plebeian (and, indeed, senator), but also because it was, extremely unusually for the time, circular.
Though it’s possible the tomb’s style was a mere coincidence, a personal preference or a passing whim, it’s hard to imagine that a politician as adept as Augustus would have neglected the connotations such a building brings up.
It’s thought that the Mausoleum was round either to evoke Etruscan architecture and therefore possibly (and rather riskily) make an association to the old kings of Rome, or otherwise to reinforce the idea that Augustus was of Trojan lineage; an oblique nod to Homer’s Iliad in which such structures are mentioned.
MausoleumAll that is left of the Mausoleum today is its core
If it seems improbable that the Roman public could have swallowed such a flagrant piece of regal self-aggrandizement, it’s worth considering that they may have been placated by the notion that a king, if a Roman king, is still better than an Egyptian one.
Augustus’ daring decision to build a gigantic tomb for himself and his family while only in his thirties was a stark message that he not only intended to serve Rome during his life, but also to remain truly Roman after his death. This message of posthumous permanence and loyalty was in stark contrast to that of Marc Antony who stated in his will (illegally acquired and published by Augustus) that he wished to be buried alongside Cleopatra in Egypt.
Thus the tomb was not merely a symbol of loyalty, but also a contrast to the burial chamber of a vanquished and ‘foreign’ foe. It would have taken a very, very brave senator, especially if he’d previously been sympathetic to Antony, to raise his voice against this patriotic exhibition.
The question of loyalty would have been further forced home by the pair of pillars outside the entrance of the Mausoleum upon which were inscribed a copy of the Res Gestae. This was a self-penned manuscript Augustus wrote outlining his achievements (i.e. what he had done for Rome) as well as reminding everyone that technically he did not have any supreme power, but merely ‘surpassed others in influence’.
However, the icing on the cake was the Solarium, a gigantic sundial built next to the Mausoleum, the needle of which was an Egyptian obelisk – a blatant message to the people of Rome to remember upon which side their bread was buttered.
N.B. Another great work of Augustan propaganda, the Ara Pacis, would later complete this tripartite of imperial glorification. Unfortunately the eminently believable and utterly charming hypothesis that the dial cast a shadow on the Ara Pacis on Augustus’ birthday is unverifiable.
Though Augustus obviously wasn’t there to witness his own interment he probably had a pretty good idea of what went on, as he’d left three sealed scrolls with the Vestal Virgins (the same lovely girls from whom he’d purloined Antony’s will) giving instructions for the order of the day.
Though we’ve no idea if what occurred was in line with Augustus’ wishes, it seems more than likely that it was.
AugustusAlong with plenty of ivory, purple (the most precious thing in the ancient world) and gold, including a golden likeness of Augustus, almost everything at the funeral was contrived to ensure the deceased was seen as someone in mid-apotheosis – an eagle was even released from the burning pyre – and that his heir, Tiberius, would be next in line to the throne of Rome.
According to Tacitus, Tiberius himself was the one to ‘provide for the last honors of his father, whose body he could not leave’; an excellent image of power smoothly changing hands. Moreover, the fact that the two eulogies were read by Tiberius and his own heir, Drusus, shows a distinct hierarchy was already in place.
The Mausoleum was a monument of subtle balance, not necessarily architecturally, but in terms of the relationship between hated kingship – that which Antony had sought – and loyal and traditional Roman values – to which Augustus ‘aspired’.
The great success of the Mausoleum was that, for all of its regal evocation, it technically did not overstep that deplorable line. In contrast the towering Egyptian obelisk would have left no doubt as to Antony’s kingly intentions.
That such a vast and splendid structure could contain an iota of subtlety is testimony to the shrewd and fertile mind of Augustus, a man whose great intellect foresaw that ‘the hand that wields the knife shall never wear the crown’.
However, Augustus had no desire for the crown, only for the powers that went with it, the knowledge that they would be passed on to his chosen successor, and (because why stop when you’re on a roll?) that he would be able to oversee Tiberius from his lofty perch alongside the other gods of the Roman pantheon.

Not Just Another Column

by January 28, 2013

What’s in a column? To the Ancient Greeks, the standing pillar was more than just a way to hold up the roof. Every section, from capital to base, was integral to the entire structure. It was a piece of art that followed very detailed specifications, an architectural order. In fact, you only need a fragment of molding to recreate a whole building.
The ancients weren’t just constructing a safe place in the rain, they were attempting to achieve perfection in architecture.
This meant nothing was left up to chance. It was never, Kyriakos – the average workman and heavy, choosing to put the pediment a “little the right”. The buildings were carefully designed using principles in harmony and symmetry and all overseen by a respected architect. The man in charge presided over every detail, from materials selected to choosing expert sculptors.
The order of the universe, believed so fervently by the Ancient Greeks, was reflected in the buildings themselves.
In fact, this is no exaggeration. The proportional ideals employed by these mathematical architects was the so-called Golden Mean, a ratio also found in natural spiral forms like Nautilus shells and fern fronds.
Here is the actual formula cherished by those men of yore:
Formula for the Golden Mean
Creating a perfectly proportional building had other desired consequences. It created an optical illusion. The end goal was, after all, how the building looked. They wanted perspective and concave results. Consequently, the major lines in the structure were rarely straight. This is most obviously seen in all the different columns’ profiles, whether they be Doric, Ionic or Corinthian.
But let us quickly review those three, very distinctive, major architectural systems, called orders.
Comparison of Ancient Greek Architectural Orders

Comparison of Ancient Greek Architectural Orders

The first and most primitive order is termed ‘Doric’. It is the serious, manly system that originated from wooden structures. It follows basic rules of harmony. Each column has to bear the weight of the beam laid across it. All the Triglyphs, or vertically channeled tablets, are arranged regularly. The columns themselves, short and stocky, stood initially without a base, and at a height of about six or seven times the diameter. The capital on the top of the pillar is basic.
The next architectural order is referred to as Ionic, due to its origination in Ionia (present day Turkey) in the mid-6th century BC. The southwestern coastline and islands of Asia Minor had been settled by the Ionic Greeks, who were distinguished from the Doric greeks by their Ionian dialect.
The Ionians’ more effeminate column design, however, proved popular amongst all the Greeks as evidenced by their construction on the mainland in the 5th century BC.
Ionic columns are most often fluted, and usually numbered at 24. This standardization was quite handy as it kept the fluting in a familiar, almost fragile, proportion to the diameter of the column… and at any scale. The system as a whole is characterised by its continuous freezes, and the scroll-like capitals, called volutes.
Corinthian Capital

Corinthian Capital

The third and final architectural order is termed Corinthian, from the ancient city of Corinth. It is the most elaborate and engraved system of architecture, distinguished by the stylized acanthus leaves and stalks found in the Corinthian capitals. These columns appeared much later and were more popular in subsequent periods than its own.
Overall, the disciplined and ordered approach to architecture was clearly effective … as it has been a major influence for the past two millennia. All three major architectural orders, Doric, Ionic and Corinthian can all still be seen in buildings, both public and private, throughout the world today.
But these systems of architecture did more than just beautified edifices globally. The western world also inherited from those brilliant mathematical architects the idea of a building as more than a space to live or worship. It can have another function: To be beautiful through harmony, balance and proportion.