By Leigh Morrow
While architecture may be described as an affair of the eye, buildings of grandeur also speak to our hearts. Architectural wonders like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, are like the frames we choose to accentuate our cities’ faces. Sleek and modern, like the Sydney Opera House, or the ornate gilded Palace of Versailles, are good examples of what architecture can elicit besides providing us four walls and a roof. Just sit, as I have, on the edge of the moat surrounding the largest religious structure in the world, the Capital Temple at Angkor Wat, and watch the sun rise behind this magnificent achievement. You cannot remain uncaptivated. Even monks wrapped in exquisite saffroncoloured robes paled in comparison to the colour of the sun’s early rays hitting the temple’s top, architecturally designed to take full advantage of the winter solstice and spring equinox, as is, say, Stonehenge. Authentic architecture truly reflects a country’s persona, its national identity manifest in rock, brick, stone, steel, whatever the choice of building materials of the day.
At some point in our lives, we all experience our architectural coming of age- that moment when we understand what buildings evoke, even provoke, emotions in us. My architectural awakening happened on my first trip to Athens, years before the smog was so thick breathing is difficult. Our plane had landed at night, and we couldn’t see much beyond the neon and motorbike lights from the darkened bus windows as we rumbled into town. When we reached our modest room, chosen for its proximity to downtown, and a rock bottom price, we climbed the curved staircase to the third floor and I immediately pulled the curtains and opened the half windows.
Glowing in the distance, like a buoy out in the water, the soft yellow hues of the Parthenon, spotlighted in the night sky, shimmered high on the Acropolis, a hill overlooking the city. The Parthenon is considered by scholars to be the most perfect building built by the world’s most advanced civilization. Despite years of study, they still are not sure how they did it.
I remember giving a small gasp, so startled was I by the sudden close proximity to something I had only seen in my school geography books, or in classic movies. I was also struck by its beauty, towering in the midst of a teeming dirty mishmash of tin roofs, hanging laundry and a maze of rabbit warren roads. Remember this was before Google Earth, in the age where travel took longer, cost more, often was arduous, but infinitely more rewarding, because we saw things for the first time, that had until then only lived in our imagination.
The next morning I bounded out of bed, with one sole purpose, to get as close as possible to this 7th wonder of the ancient world. One hundred and fifty steps up the hill, I arrived at the top of the white marble base, and imagined the hems of the skirts worn by Ancient Greek woman touching the bases of the pillars, as they carried figs and lemons back home from the market in big woven baskets. I imagined the spirits hiding behind the mammoth pillars taking shelter from the sun as the shadows fell across the platform.
I could easily see a visible bulge at the centre of each column. The steps curved upwards, the columns tilted inward, the metroplex tilted outward-all these intentional diversions from the perfectly horizontal or perfectly vertical. It was as if an architect and a sculptor had wed, and this was their off-spring.
Something built over 2400 years ago, by hand, with hundreds of slaves hoisting 20,000 tons of marble slabs from the quarries on Mount Pentelikon, a good ten miles away, and using sleds pulled by teams of oxen to make the two day journey, made me feel very humbled and deeply curious about the lives of these people from the past. This building, this exquisite temple, evoked the history, the sheer toil, the devotion to beauty, all the glory this civilization felt.
I thought it would have been hard, if not impossible, to live your daily life in Athens and not look up, from any vantage point, to see the Parthenon looming above you, from any vantage point and not see the Parthenon looming above you, an expression of your city’s greatness.The Ancient Greeks built many monuments to celebrate victories, give homage to the deities and to stroke their own egos. Their architecture, with temples and columns, has grown to be timeless designs by architects of yesteryear. Yet, the Parthenon is also an expression and embodiment of Athenian values, beliefs, ideologies, and principal legacies, and the creation of what is considered the most perfect and most imitated building style in the world. It also served as the construction of Greeks, themselves. It remains one of the principal legacies of Greek civilization.
The Parthenon, a temple to the Greek goddess Athena, was finished in 432 BC and is the most important surviving structure remaining from Ancient Greece. After years of weathering, warring and vandalism, it remains.
When I consider current architectural wonders, like The Shard in London or The Elephant Tower in Bangkok, and their longevity, I doubt they have the fortitude to withstand climate change and all its harshness, to be around in AD 4516. In fact, what will be around, architecturally, as we move forward? Could we become so inept at living on planet earth that our buildings no longer symbolize our grandeur and glory, but rather become windowless fortresses protecting us from the now deadly elements of nature, as climate change marches forward? Buildings built to the glory of man (and woman) will become nonexistent, artifacts like Canadian pennies.
Fortunately, for my lifetime, architectural wonders, buildings that speak as much as stand, will still be a part of my memory and conversation, building me up, and filling my heart, one brick at a time.
Leigh Morrow is a Vancouver writer who operates Casa Mihale, a vacation rental in the quaint ocean front community of San Agustinillo, Mexico. Her house can be viewed and rented at www.gosanagustinillo.com