Wednesday, January 20, 2016


Response: 'Models of interpreting visual culture': Wilson Jones on Patay-Horváth on Wilson Jones', 'Origins of Classical Architecture'​. Response to 2015.09.56

Response by Mark Wilson Jones, University of Bath (

Version at BMCR home site

Front Matter

Although instigated by András Patay-Horváth's review, this Response aims beyond the review to reflect on models of thinking that relate to the historical interpretation of visual culture and design. Approaches that privilege linear, exclusive and univalent argumentation are too reductive to cope with the complexities involved; our understanding is better served by approaches that are layered, inclusive, multivalent and, hopefully, expansive. The former approach typically accounts for a phenomenon in terms of either this explanation or that one. Plural, partial explanations that overlap, including perhaps elements of ambiguity, contradiction and hybridity, tend to be rejected or viewed with some suspicion. Herein lies a problem, for it is a truism that good design never responds to just one factor but many.

Indeed a central tenet of Origins of Classical Architecture is the multifaceted nature of architectural form, and that of the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders in particular. Purpose, setting, construction and practicalities, influences from varied sources both local and foreign, visual concerns and fashion, symbolism and meaning–all these and more played a role. To anyone who has practised art or design, or who has commissioned buildings, the point is so obvious as to seem unnecessary to labour it, except that some commentators adopt oppositional terms: if structure is important then symbolism is presumed not to be, and so on. The effect of such tendencies is exacerbated by the archaeological study of building components such as tiles or capitals in relative isolation with emphasis on chronology and typology. This has undoubted utility and may reveal much about production and broader social, economic and historical issues, but it inhibits the appreciation of such components as parts of organic works of architecture created by human agency. Since the study of ancient architecture has largely become a branch of archaeology and classics, here is an issue that merits discussion.

Patay-Horváth's review was written in good faith, yet the linear oppositional logic produces misrepresentations, while obscuring one of the main messages that the book has to offer. The review omits mentioning the multiplicity theme while passing over or simplifying plural readings, as when it is reported that a constructional origin for Doric and Ionic is "definitely denied" in Chapter 3. It is true that I highlight shortcomings of theories in this vein, but I concluded that structure, construction and petrification are bound to have played a part, albeit a lesser one than has often been presumed (p. 86 and later). Patay-Horváth summarizes the multiple factors that bear on the development of the Corinthian capital (Chapter 6), but his judgement privileges just one factor, visual appeal. Here and elsewhere gradations of tone are flattened out.

Half of Patay-Horváth's review is devoted to the Doric frieze, but the oppositional line of thinking is especially limiting for such a thorny problem. Chapter 8 of the book explores signs of kinship between tripods and triglyphs, though I stress that the triglyph was not the architectural representation or equivalent of a tripod, and that other inputs were also important. There is an element of contradiction here, which is presented as a flaw; for me it rather obliges patiently understanding what is a complex picture. Instead the desire for simplification gives rise to misunderstandings. The review reports that the tripod-like aspects were born of "a gradual convergence following the establishment of the canonical Doric order". Not so; I visualize a precursor field-and-divider frieze, one that perhaps revived the Mycenaean split-rosette type (p. 194 and 199). It was the subsequent, possibly sudden, 'tripodification' of this precursor–not forgetting possible intimations of structure–that produced the canonic solution. The hybrid or eclectic aspect this implies conflicts with longstanding perceptions of the purity of Greek art, but these in any case require revision, not least in the light of certain conclusions of Manolis Korres: "the replacement of older wooden constructional and decorative forms with equivalent ones in stone was not a simple, gradual development but a new eclectic creation, inspired only in part by the older wooden forms (which accounts for the problems inherent in modern attempts to reconstruct the wooden archetypes)" (as quoted on pp. 84-85).1

By no means alone, Patay-Horváth objects that the Doric frieze lacks the ring-handles typical of bronze tripods–this is a problem, but again not a fatal problem. Ring-handles were omitted, I contend, because they sat ill with the visual principle established by field-and-divider precursor friezes. To avoid them breaking, ring-handles were omitted from tripod-kothons and other tripod-inspired objects made of clay or stone, and similar thinking may have applied to the Doric frieze (pp. 184-185, 194, 254 n. 6; AJA 106 (2002), pp. 371-372, figs. 28, 29). Design often involves a quotient of abstraction, transformation and editing.

At times the review employs a kind of logic that may perhaps not pertain for manifestations of culture: "And even if we accept a connection between tripods and triglyphs, it remains to be asked why the tripods were only adapted for the Doric order but not for the Ionic". By this token should not Doric temples have the volutes that were used on Ionic ones? Are not differences admissible, as between Dorian and Ionian dialects?

It is also unfortunate that the emphasis on the Doric frieze comes at the expense of topics new to the book that do not find a mention: the multiplicity theme, as noted; the use of rising volute capitals in the Minoan and Mycenaean periods; explanations for the predominance of the Ionian over the Cycladic type of Ionic capital; and the centrality of the sanctuaries for the genesis of the orders. As for Patay-Horváth's counter theory of textile origins for the triglyph, this goes back to 1741 and John Wood the Elder's vision of triglyphs as stylizations of curtains protecting the Holy Tabernacle (pp. 6-7), while the general idea of influence from textile design is Gottfried Semper's (p. 243 n. 23). This may well warrant debate–though surely not as a sole explanation, but rather a participant in the company of multiple explanations.

Visual culture is not linear like writing, particularly scholarly writing. Linear and either/or modes of argumentation are blunt tools for fathoming what artistry affords the eye, hand and intellect. In logic and mathematics contradiction is generally a failing, but scientists can conceive light as both a particle and a wave. In artistic matters, certainly, a contradiction or paradox can have more positive qualities. In responding to different factors simultaneously architectural forms inherently contain aspects of hybridity, ambiguity and perhaps contradiction too. Therefore elements of contradiction do not necessarily invalidate an explanation. Though this should not be an excuse for sloppy thinking, one might generalize that much great art springs out of contradiction. Indeed, the corner contraction that found its exaltation in the Parthenon resolved a contradiction inherent in applying the Doric frieze to a peripteros.

Linear reasoning may have its place in categorizing and interpreting forms once they have come into existence and settled down through the action of conventions, but it is inadequate to the task of understanding how new forms come into being. They cannot be mapped to intentions rather as modernist architects once preached that 'form follows function'. If scholarship is to progress we must allow for the totality of phenomena. Forms arise in response to multiple factors by virtue of design, that is to say through musing, experimenting and the non-linear kind of thinking that comes with making, just as Richard Sennett and others argue. This is how buildings, paintings, sculpture and other classes of object retain the agency to speak across time and generate new ideas. Scholarly reasoning and analysis has to try and cope with this, for it is the way that visual culture often operates. ​


1.   Manolis Korres, "The Construction of ancient Greek Temples" in Acropolis Restoration. The CCAM Interventions, ed. Richard Ekonomakis, London, 1994, p. 21.

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