Saturday, December 31, 2016

Race and Racism

Lord Ganesha getting his groove on
Happy New Year!
Time to ring it in by discussing something we can't agree on. In fact, something we can't even seem to agree to disagree on. The white elephant in the room (I know, why does it have to be 'white'?): Race

Of which I will provide the following personal definition:

"The widely held, persistent, self-propagating, socially constructed delusion of significant and meaningful physiological differences in human beings that is the proper object of rational scrutiny and categorization."

Stated in simpler terms: Race = Delusion

What Exactly are we Talking About?

There are many ways that people choose to differentiate themselves that lie outside of physiological classification. Religious or political belief, nationality, language, and culture are but some examples. Gender differences are of course physiological although not considered racial by most. Nevertheless, perceived commonalities and differences of family, blood, heredity, physiology, etc. seem to be the key to the concept of race.

As applied to physiological commonalities among people, 'race' enters the English lexicon rather recently (16th century), being derived from the Italian 'razza', holding related meanings such as 'common stock, lineage, breed, family, etc.' Familial correspondence, commonality: sounds harmless enough, downright warm and friendly even. For example I look like mom and dad, no denying me! (Although they may wish to after this latest post)

Of course many of the concepts that the word 'race' seems to frequently elicit, extend much further back in time and are hardly limited to Italy and England. An extreme interpretation would be the early 20th century German 'Herrenrasse' or 'Master Race' campaign that prompted the coining of 'racism' in our own English vocabulary to aptly describe the Nazi ideology of purported Aryan and Nordic commonality and brotherhood which in reality exercised a far greater and violent emphasis on human physiological differentiation.

Don't Deny Difference!

There are people who have dark skin, there are people with light skin. There are people with straight hair, there are others with curly hair. On and on it goes. Sure, even children pick up on these types of superficial differences pretty soon even without prompting.  So how can I deny these and others as real, physiological differences?

Short answer: I don't

In fact, I would put forward that individual human differences are quite real and extend far beyond the limited concept of race with its broad categorizations. Upon a moment's reflection it becomes quite apparent that we are all different from each other; every one of us is physiologically particular. Furthermore, internally every one of us, our literal bodies are in a state of constant physiological change. We are quite literally not the same person we have been. Therefore, continual change and difference is applicable to every one and every when. This dynamism is really at the heart of what life is all about.

I suppose I could contrast this with the myriad of meaningful commonalities healthy humans all share. Two arms, two legs, dexterity, ability to reason, love of donuts, innate perception of space and time, blah, blah, blah. I don't have time, it's practically endless. You can reflect on it though. It's one of our shared abilities.

Doubling Down on our Delusions

Ah yes, speaking of shared abilities...delusion. A couple of examples from an especially American fixation:

Black Lives Matter
What does it mean to be black?

White Silence is Violence
What does it mean to be white?

I'm yet to hear a rational explanation for either. Not that folks haven't tried. After all, race is a matter of skin color, as simple as black and white, right?

Wrong it would seem. Apparently, it is much 'deeper' than that. Such as the music I listen to, the clothes I wear, the way I talk, yada yada ad infinitum.

So if I exhibit those and other behaviours I will be black or white? Or if I don't exhibit those behaviours I can't be black or white? Is grey an option? How about just Patrick Webb, is that an option? What happens if you call me Peter by mistake?

Any deep consideration of 'race' reveals the utter absurdity of the concept. Yet, folks will contend that racism and its corollary racial discrimination are real. Yes, they are. However, not as an ontologically objective reality in the world, that is to say there is no physical thing you can touch or point to. Racism is 'real' as a social pathology, a psychosis out of harmony with physiological realities. The continuance of this collective mental illness requires massive, voluntary participation from almost everyone. Not just individuals either. Churches, social movements, educational institutions and governments by their rhetoric and policies perpetuate racial difference; all affirming a nebulous absurdity that defies definition. One pathetic example from the federal government:

This amounts to a circular problem, a snake eating its own tail. By acknowledging racial differences so you can combat racism, you affirm the fallacy that is the root of the discrimination in the first place. Better to diagnose it as the pathology it is and get treatment. So, why do we do this to ourselves?

I'm not entirely sure but I have some thoughts. For an individual to deny their own particularity, to essentially annihilate part of themselves to conform to an arbitrary group seems odd, yet we do it all the time. It may be at least partly attributable to a coping mechanism for having to operate socially in a world larger than we're comfortable with. It is impossible to truly know or be known by the many, many people we inevitably come into contact with in a city e.g. If humans have existed as familial groups in small tribes or in villages for millennia, how are we to now cope with the thousands of interactions pressed upon us annually in the civilised world? How do we assess the potential threats that arise from unfamiliarity and present an image of ourselves that others can quickly identify? Perhaps by willfully placing ourselves in artificial categories, so-called 'race' prominent among them.

At bottom, I think we might be terribly afraid to truly be ourselves, how lonely that might really be.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Tuscan Order

Villa Giulia, Rome
In many of the 'canons', that is to say the widely accepted treatises of Renaissance architecture, there are given five 'orders' of Classical architecture, the Tuscan order typically presented first among them. The very adoption of the term 'Classical' itself in referencing all things of Greco-Roman antiquity appears to be a 17th century French approbation of the Latin classis that historically referred to things 'called out' or 'set aside', with notable reference to the orders or divisions of taxation established by the pre-Republican Roman monarchy. Today we have the common use of the related word 'class' as a division of students set aside for specific education and again 'classical' in the setting apart of things generally recognised as truly excellent, Greco-Roman or otherwise.

In architectural academia there has persisted controversy over whether or not the Tuscan should really be regarded as a distinct order or if it is nothing more than a stripped down or simpler version of the Doric order. A similar argument is made regarding the Composite or so-called Roman order, that has conversely been claimed as just a more elaborate version of the Corinthian order. Certainly all of the Roman orders share a familial resemblance and of course are referential to the Greek orders from which they were developed. However, I'll take the position here that there are in fact enough differences to justify a separate classification of the Tuscan order beginning with a brief historical overview.

The Etruscans

The Tuscan order is ostensibly referential to the architecture of the Etruscan people who dominated the Italic peninsula until Rome was finally able to overcome them in the 4th century B.C. Temples presented the highest expression of Etruscan architectural refinement. As temple foundations were built in stone we have a very good understanding of how they were organised in plan. The precise composition of the elevations is less clear although some idea can be gleaned from pictorial depictions such as found on ostraca (decorated potshards), sarcophagi as well as frescoes.
Etruscan temple at Orvieto

A few Etruscan tectonic characteristics were definitely distinct from the Greeks and would be adopted by the Romans for all of their architectural orders. Whereas the single cella or inner sanctum of a typical Greek temple was surrounded by a stylobate (series of steps) and peripteral colonnade (the columns being present along the entire perimeter of the building), the Etruscans lifted their temples upon a podium with a stair leading to the entrances of three cellae. Columns were only used at this entrance, placed in a double row underneath a large portico whilst the cellae walls extended to the exterior. Timber members for the entablature allowed for greater intercolumniation (spacing of the columns) than was feasible for the stone architecture of Greece.

Model courtesy of Istituto di Etruscologia e di Antichita Italiche, Universita di Roma

Tuscan capital? Colosseum
However, the Tuscan order as presented in the treatises of the Renaissance and arguably expressed in Roman architecture itself is not precisely antique Etruscan. Additionally, there are certainly commonalities between the Renaissance Tuscan and Roman Doric orders. So how might one make a distinction? Following are three tools, lenses or perspectives that might prove useful when used in conjunction with one another.

A System of Proportion

Elevation of the Five Orders of Architecture
Claude Perrault, 1683
One characteristic of all of the Renaissance treatises was that the orders were presented as highly rationalised systems whose fundamental unit of measurement was derived from the base radius or diametre (the module) of the given order. The elevations of the column, entablature, optional pedestal etc., as well as intercolumniation were all  proportional relationships derived from this base module. Whereas some authors leaned heavily upon the Roman architectural treatise of Vitruvius, others drew their justification on more archeological grounds either from what they considered an archetypal exemplar or a weighted average of various examples. All of these authors seemed to temper such authority from antiquity with their own judgement and reason. What they generally concluded was that the orders progressed proportionally in attenuation from the rather solid (if not squat) Tuscan to the comparatively slender Composite.

Granted, even in theory there was a wide range of interpretation available and more so in practise. The various authors were not always in agreement. In arguably the first major treatise of the Renaissance containing engraved plates, Sebastiano Serlio presents a very squat Tuscan order whose base diameter to column height ratio was 1:6. Vincenzo Scamozzi and Claude Perrault would subsequently present comparatively slender Tuscan orders at a ratio of 1:7½. Likewise a wide variety is seen in proportions of entablatures and pedestals in relation to the module. What remained consistent was that as the orders progressed they would become proportionally more attenuated with the Tuscan order always being the most solid amongst them.

Comparitive Tuscan Orders. Robert Chitham, 1985

An Anthropomorphic Model

Jacques-François Blondel
circa 1771
Another way to imagine an architectural order is anthropomorphically, that is to say attributing human qualities to inanimate objects. The 1st century B.C. Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius certainly did this by offering origin myths and relating column to human proportions to indicate their appropriateness for temples dedicated to a particular god or goddess. The Doric order was to express a robust masculinity, reflecting the proportions of a warrior or demi-god such as Hercules. At the other extreme, the Corinthian being considerably slender was to reflect the figure of a young maiden.

Palazzo Davia Bargellini, Bologna

Rather than seeking anatomical precision, these myths and comparisons continue to serve as entertaining and helpful memory aids regarding the character and proportions of the various orders. Architects of the Renaissance, the Baroque, all the way into the Beaux Artes period picked up and expanded upon these anthropomorphic associations. What interpretation remained for the Tuscan? Rough and tumble for sure. That of a Titan, an Atlas who carries the burden of the building quite literally on his back!

Elements and Enrichment

As a general rule the Tuscan exhibits less refinement than the other orders. Although there are superficial differences between the Tuscan and Doric, an often distinguishing feature are the shafts of the columns. Tuscan columns are always either smooth or rusticated whereas the Doric are typically fluted. Likewise the Tuscan tends to have less elemental subdivisions and has proportionally chunkier elements in the pedestal, base, capital, and entablature. Also, a fully expressed Doric will have geometrically ornamented elements throughout the frieze and richly sculpted enrichments in the metopes between tryglyphs. By contrast the Tuscan is almost always plain profile throughout its entablature. Modillions or brackets are seldom utilised in the cornice and if so they are very simply wrought.

Radcliffe Camera, Oxford
If ornament is applied, typically it will be carved in high relief to be placed in the spandrels of an arcade or the the tympanum of the pediment, in notable contrast to the sparse or even rough character of the façade. It is very common to find the Tuscan order highly rusticated. Often times the Tuscan is solely implied at the ground storey by its relative proportion and heavy rustication (without the use of columns) in buildings where ashlar masonry and more refined orders are used above.

Although the Tuscan often gets berated as being a 'made up' order or just a stripped Doric, it really has its own distinct character and bears more consideration and study, particularly as it continues to be the most commonly specified of the Classical orders in residential architecture today.

Contributed by Patrick Webb