Talk Description to Me

Episode 46 - Architecture Then and Now

April 10, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 2 Episode 46
Talk Description to Me
Episode 46 - Architecture Then and Now
Chapters
1:32
Classical Architecture
9:27
Romanesque
14:03
Gothic
19:19
Art Deco
27:52
Modernism
29:38
Residential - Victorian, Ranch, and Arts and Crafts
Talk Description to Me
Episode 46 - Architecture Then and Now
Apr 10, 2021 Season 2 Episode 46
Christine Malec and JJ Hunt

For a lot of us, architectural terms like Gothic and Art Deco conjure vague, incomplete mental pictures. Well not anymore! In this episode, Christine and JJ cover thousands of years of Western architectural styles, and describe and contextualize key design elements. Check it out, and prepare to wow them at your next dinner party! 

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

For a lot of us, architectural terms like Gothic and Art Deco conjure vague, incomplete mental pictures. Well not anymore! In this episode, Christine and JJ cover thousands of years of Western architectural styles, and describe and contextualize key design elements. Check it out, and prepare to wow them at your next dinner party! 

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to Me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashtag in description rich conversations.

Christine Malec:

We've had several requests from listeners around the topic of architecture. And it's really common for a book or a TV show or audio description to reference a particular architectural style in passing with a kind of expectation that everyone knows what that means. And whether that's that assumption is true or not, for a sighted person, a sighted person could grab a phone and in five seconds, they could find out what what a gothic building looks like. So we thought we would take a sort of shotgun approach and talk about different styles of architecture and give some context so that they they have some background in our minds when we hear the name. So we're going to sort of start chronologically and go way back. So JJ, are we starting with classical?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, classical architecture from ancient Greece, seventh to the fourth century BC, I think that's a good place to start. Because it is foundational, right? A lot of and we're gonna be talking a lot about is going to be fairly euro centric, right, a lot of the architectural styles feed off of each other. And so we're going to be moving from classical forward seems to make sense. So classical architecture, best known for large religious temples, often built of stone. And these are based on the principles of order, symmetry, geometry and perspective. Again, typically stone or marble, very solid, very heavy buildings. And these are primarily simple post and beam construction, but using stone, not timbers. So let's imagine a classical building from the ground up. So you start with a solid plinth or platform, the foundation, there are likely going to be steps leading up to it, the steps tend to be very wide, perhaps even spanning the width of the building, no railings or anything like that, but steps leading up to the platform. And then on the platform, there are always columns. So these columns support the low peaked roof of the portico, which is like a front porch, and someone who really knows their stuff can figure out the exact era of the building based on those columns, because the column designs are very particular. So the earliest columns are Doric columns. These are fluted columns fluting in columns is these are the vertical grooves that run up the entire height of the column. And the Doric columns are very thick, and quite, they're tapered, so they're smaller. Near the top. We've talked about this before with the Taj Mahal, when you things that are far away, appear smaller. So if you taper your columns, it makes them look even taller when you're standing below because they must be really far away to be that small. And because these are the earliest buildings, they weren't building quite as tall, they taper the columns a little bit more so that it made them appear taller. And with dork columns, they end at the top with a very simple cap, very simple. Ionic, that's the next move along ionic columns. They have more narrow fluting, so the vertical grooves are are tighter together, they're slender ionic columns are tend to be more slender, a little bit more ornate. So there's a decorative capital at the top of the column, not a simple cap. And the ionic capitals, they look like scrolls viewed from the side. So kind of like a reel to reel tape. So the you know, the scroll is all wound up on one side, then there's a flat top with the paper would go across the top, and then a second, a wound up scroll, you know piece of paper at the bottom. So that's what the ionic capital looks like at the top of the column. And then finally, you move into the the Corinthian era, the very narrow fluting again, quite slender, very tall. Now they've got their ability to build taller, and they have the Corinthian columns have very elaborate capitals at the top. So they're packed with like leaves and small decorative like little decorative scrolls, and they almost look like they're carved floral patterns but without the flower heads. So imagine a bouquet of flowers carved out of stone. So it grows wider at the top as the as it spreads out and the leaves spill out and they bend forward. But before you you put the flower heads on that image, cut it off with a flat surface. And that's what a Corinthian capital looks like. The front columns in one of these buildings is they support the low peaked roof of the portico in early examples. This gabled roof will extend all the way back and cover the entire structure. So it's one roofline for the entire structure. But in some cases, the portico has a separate roofline from the main building behind it. And from the front, inside the gable, what you have is a triangular pediment. And this triangular pediment can be packed with relief carvings, or it can be left blank that depends on the era and the building. But the shape the silhouette, this, this low peaked triangle, that's very much the same. And with some buildings, the entire rectangular exterior, so these are just very boxy rectangular buildings. The entire rectangular exterior is just made up of perfectly spaced columns, which support the giant roof, one solid roof. And the walls of the closed in structure are actually inside that roofline. So inside this box of columns all around very symmetrical, simple, recognizable geometric shapes. The most famous example of this is the Parthenon in Athens. So in that building, the entire exterior is columns and there's one gabled roof over the entire structure. So that is classical architecture. And then you get kind of have to jump forward a few centuries and get to neo classical. One of the reasons that classical architecture is so important is because Western architects drew on this style when they were designing the most important civic buildings and institutions in the 18th and early 19th centuries. So this was especially true in colonial us and colonial Canada, the columns, the scale, the stairs, the solid materials, they make classical buildings look really important, right? These are not frivolous buildings. These are staid, respectable designs. So far important civic institutions. The architects designed grand stone buildings on raised platforms with classical porticoes columns, triangular pediments, and that what happens in neoclassical is the porticoes are often centered in front of very wide multi storey buildings behind them, right and the main buildings, they're going to have symmetrical windows with heavy stone trim, perhaps a large dome directly behind the portico. Washington DC is packed with neoclassical gems, right? We talked about the Capitol building the Treasury, the White House is also a neoclassical and similar buildings are actually found everywhere in the US and in Canada, because many small town banks or town halls, they are also neoclassical buildings, right, concrete stone facades, they will have a columned portico, sometimes it's very small. Sometimes it's just a political facade with that, you know, columns, triangular pediment, and maybe you're going to make people walk up a wide staircase to get to the doors under the portico. All of this gives you the impression that you are entering an important institution. So classical into neoclassical, the same idea needs to be conveyed by the architecture, this is an important institution.

Christine Malec:

Does any of that classical and neoclassical translate into Roman?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, classical Roman, very similar. A lot of the Roman Greek, it can be very difficult to tell what's what. You really have to know your stuff.

Christine Malec:

Okay, and so then that sort of transitions into Gothic Is that correct?

JJ Hunt:

So with Romanesque architecture, we're moving toward 10th century Europe, and this is an era of monasticism. So there's a need for large churches, but it's also still medieval Europe, so there's a lot of warring going on, and the buildings are going to need to double up as defensive structures as well. And fire is a constant threat, so architects want to steer away from timber construction. That would be great. And so what architects come up with to build their big churches and cathedrals is what we now call Romanesque architecture. So a typical Romanesque church or cathedral is a cross shaped floor plan. This is very, this is essential. So if viewed from overhead, the floor plans of these churches look like crosses, you've got a main entrance at the foot of the cross, the altar is at the opposite end. And then the shorter wings form arms, the arms of the cross across the main body of the church, and there's often a tower like structure at that crossing point. Again, stone is the primary building material, not timber that's better for fire, but the stone walls have to be really thick to support these large buildings, and the thick stone walls need to be supported from the outside. So what architects come up with is a buttress. buttresses our vertical supports that are like braces that are deeper near the base and then thinner near the top. And these buttresses are pressed against the outside walls of the church all the way along the main body. And large churches are also designed with vaulted rooms. So these these allow open ceilings that follow the roofline, not flat ceilings with an attic space. And when you have vaulted roofs, it gives you the gives the space more height to there's more openness more grander, often, in Romanesque times, these were barrel vaulted ceilings. So what a barrel vault looks like is not surprisingly, a barrel lying on its side cut horizontally. And so to support this on the inside, what architects needed to do was, they need to use rows of columns supporting semi circular arches. And these arches create essentially arcades within the otherwise open church or Cathedral. So the front entrance to the church is often flanked by towers, you come in with towers on either side, you come into the main body of the church. And what you're presented with are these good virtual hallways, these arcades between columns with semicircular arches overtop, and and the towers that are outside the main, the main doors flanking the main doors, perhaps they're circular, maybe they're square, they can even be octagonal. But they have similar conical roofs to the tower that's over the crossing whatever is over the center of the building. And of course, these towers flanking the doors, they're defensive. So these are like the towers you would find in a castle. And inside and outside with Romanesque churches are relatively simple design elements are not overly ornate. So you're going to find frescoes on the inside. These are murals painted onto fresh plaster, and they can be painted on the walls and also on the vaulted ceiling. inside. There are stained glass windows inside arched windows. And again, the windows tend to be fairly small, they needed a lot of the wall just to hold up these big structures. So they didn't break it apart with large windows, so smallish windows, arched at the top stained glass. And many many many cathedrals follow this basic pattern, especially that cross floor plan in subsequent eras. Architects build on these designs and these architectural principles and expand on them right so famous examples of Romanesque cathedrals and churches. Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England is of course the most famous. It's far more decorative than your average Romanesque Cathedral. But it follows the same basic layout, the towers buttresses, they're all topped with pointy finials in the Canterbury Cathedral. Very grand carvings around the main entrances. But otherwise, like I said, the layout is as I've described. And then we move, we evolve. Romanesque evolves into Gothic. I think Jane on Twitter asked about Gothic, specifically, Gothic architecture, we're talking 12th to 16th century. And the defining architectural element of Gothic architecture is the pointed arch. So unlike a standard semi circular arch, a pointed arch is taller, and it really does indeed come to a sharp point at the top. So if you want to make a pointed arch, you can use both of your hands to make a semi circle with your fingers touching in the middle of the smooth arch. And then what you do is just straighten and raise your touching fingers a little bit. And what you'll get is a pointed arch and this is an engineering innovation that has significant design implications with a with a with a point arch, your arches can be much taller, they can support greater weight, they can be spaced further apart. And so all of this means you can build bigger structures that are more spacious inside. Another thing it does though, is it, it means the exterior walls need more support, and specifically, they need support higher up closer to the roofline. So those buttresses that we described earlier, what they do with those buttresses, those vertical supports that used to be pressed against the exterior walls, they become flying buttresses, and they move the vertical supports a few feet away from the main wall, and then connect them higher up because it's higher up that they need the support, not all the way up and down. And so you create a gap between the buttress and the exterior wall and you can it's actually big enough that you can usually walk between the buttress and the exterior wall. And also with this, with this style of architecture with Gothic architecture, your towers grow taller. The conical roofs get taller and they come to very sharp points in later periods, they actually become needle like spires. And the taller walls mean you can have taller windows so everything in a gothic cathedral looks elongated right, much more ornate carvings decorations around the doors and windows. And with the very tall walls. You need to keep the rain from washing away the mortar in the difficult to reach places very high up. So what they do is they build long waterspouts that stick out from the roofline to direct rainwater away, and then they decide to carve those waterspouts into open mouth. beasts, right stone beasts and dragons. These are gargoyles. And this technique has actually been used for centuries, the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, it had lion head gargoyles. Some stone structures in ancient Europe also had lion head gargoyles. But gargoyles have become associated with Gothic buildings because of the amazing ornate carvings, and they're everywhere on these very tall structures. Some famous Gothic cathedrals Notre Dame, Westminster Abbey, both of these feature the distinctive pointed arches inside and on the outside, flying buttresses, needle like spires, the castle like towers flanking the main entrance. Those are great examples of ornate Gothic architecture.

Christine Malec:

I'm thinking about our discussion of the Taj Mahal and how part of the design was the intention to draw the eye in a particular way. And so I'm wondering about the balance between function and aesthetics, where in the Taj Mahal things were done deliberately to influence the eye or to to sort of guide the viewer where they should look, do you have a sense of that when you look at classical and Romanesque and Gothic architecture? Or is it all function?

JJ Hunt:

There's not as much the drawing of the eye necessarily, but definitely architecture to evoke a specific idea or emotion, right? So you could you could say that the the pointing of the spires that all pointing up to the heavens in these religious buildings in in Grand cathedrals. But the the height is so important when you're inside one of these spaces, and the ceiling is so high up, and then maybe there are frescoes, there are paintings on the ceiling overhead. And sometimes it's the Trump loi, right? It's it's paintings that that make it seem like you're looking up at the sky above, you're actually seeing a winged cherubs and angels above overhead, that definitely draws your attention to the heavens, the buildings do these grand churches really do inspire an idea of importance in the case of the classical architecture, Greek and Roman. And, and here in these churches and cathedrals, they inspire a sense of awe.

Christine Malec:

And so where does architecture in the West go after Gothic?

JJ Hunt:

Well, we I think the thing to do at this point is to leap ahead quite a bit. There are lots of different architectural styles, and we're going to touch on a few of them as we move toward the moderns. But we had some specific requests by both Jane and CS on Twitter to talk about art deco. And I'm a big fan of art deco. So if you'll indulge me I'd love to leap ahead to the 1920s and 30s. So the modern architects were tired of revivalist architecture styles from the 1800s. So in the same way you've got neoclassical, you also got Neo Gothic or Gothic revival in modern architects were tired of that. And what they wanted to do was develop a new style. They wanted a style that was sleek, but not minimal. They wanted a style that was elegant, but not traditional. They wanted it to symbolize modern wealth and sophistication. And they wanted to use a mix of modern and traditional materials like stucco, glass, Chrome, steel, and aluminum. And so what they came up with was Art Deco. Art Deco uses repetitive geometric motifs for ornamental detailing, it uses contrasting colors, and that one of the most important things about art deco is that it's cohesive. So the interior, the exterior, the signage, the decor, the furnishings, all of that can fall under the same style category of art deco, and you end up with a really cohesive design. So for large scale buildings, think of terrorist or tiered skyscrapers, like the Empire State Building. So the Empire State Building is a large base. It's about five storeys tall, and then it steps in. And at the center of that is a much smaller tower that rises up to the 21st floor, and then it steps in again, and it rises until something like the 30th floor and then it steps in again. And then it rises to the 72nd floor, right you get the idea. It's tiered it keeps going in it steps in steps in it steps in perfectly symmetrical, that kind of stepping in perfectly symmetrical boxy, but with rounded corners, that is very Art Deco. And then the towers towers, like the Empire State Building often end in a spire. My personal favorite is the Chrysler Building in New York City. So the Chrysler Building in New York City is very similar in that it's a tiered tower. But at the top, it's got a four sided spire made of seven stacked arches, each arch slightly smaller than the one below it. So with diminishing arches on all four sides, the tower comes to a point after seven tears, and inside those arches are arched rows of triangles, right geometric shapes, geometric patterns. So inside the arches are arched rows of triangles in like a sunburst pattern. And the spine, the spine of the whole spire is clad in polished stainless steel, so it's like a bright silver crown, a top of this building and the sunburst triangles are illuminated at night. So it's a it's a stunning, classy, elegant and very stylish design atop the building. And the Chrysler Building lobby is a perfect example of the unified design approach in action. So it's a glorious lobby. Everything in it is shiny, polished metals, glossy deep red granite walls, polished floors, everything is polished and shiny. The light fixtures, the elevator doors, the garbage cans, polished brass, all unified design style, everything was designed in the Art Deco style repeating geometric patterns. Parallel design lines, you'll find zigzagging lines, rows and arches of overlap, overlapping triangles, even the signage, the signage features smooth fonts with straight lines, even curves, no serifs. All the fonts that are used are there replicated the numbers are always part of the same font style. And then in smaller Art Deco buildings like movie theaters, all of the same elements are put to use that you'll find in the giant buildings in the in the big skyscrapers. So that tiered silhouette that can be found in the facades or in the signs on movie theaters. The signs that run up the front of the building above the marquee those raised they'll have like raised parallel design lines in bright blues may be hot pinks or reds, and they're set against Earth tone stone exterior walls. that's a that's a very typical exterior for a movie theater. That's an art deco theater. And then inside you'll have brass handrails, balcony railings, lush red carpets, with again repeated design patterns all unified. They even have a flight favorite if you go into a really nice well preserved Art Deco movie theater. Even the bathrooms are glorious Art Deco urinals with stylish parallel lines smooth rounded corners that match the shapes that are found in the marquees. It's really the attention to detail is incredible in a regular hotel lobby or a movie theater. Then you're probably going to have to redecorate every so often right? But you really don't do that lightly with a great art deco building,

Christine Malec:

If you look around a modern city at all the different types of buildings, so commercial, residential, business, entertainment, what proportion of those buildings have some recognizable architectural stylistic choices in them? And how many are just boxes?

JJ Hunt:

That's a good question. And I think it's, it's one of the things that makes people love one city and really despise others. If you are in a city in North America, if you're in Canada or the US, odds are, if it's a city that's been around for a while, it did have buildings from all of these eras in it, if it was a city that was growing at a moderate pace, or at least had moments of development in all of these different eras, then you should have neoclassical architecture, you should have Neo Gothic architecture, you should have deco architecture that was there at some point. In some cities, they have in various periods, not been interested in preserving it, and they're gone. And then in some cases, they actually didn't have the money to tear them down. And so they're still there. And in some cases, they, they they're desperate to preserve them, because there's a recognition that these are beautiful buildings. So I can say, for example, in Toronto, we don't have a particularly good reputation for this. We've got some decent buildings, some decent neoclassical, we've got some interesting cathedrals. We've got a few deco gems. But really, Toronto got huge in some pretty dull times. And so our waterfront for example, a lot of our condo strips are just glass towers, they're, they're really super dull. And I don't think these are buildings that are going to be considered beautiful 100 years from now, because I'm not even sure they'll be standing 100 years from now. But you go to other cities like I was in St. Louis recently, Taylor, who's got some fantastic buildings, because it was it boomed at a time where the architecture was really interesting, the railroad era, right, it was great buildings going up some amazing civic institutions. Honestly, some of the buildings in St. Louis are as grand and fantastic, as the classic New York City architecture, right, like the New York City Library, there are buildings that are just as fantastic in in St. Louis. But there was a huge period of time where they, they just didn't have any money to tear any of these things down. So they're just sitting there.

Christine Malec:

What is meant by the term modern architecture?

JJ Hunt:

So modern architecture comes into being around the same time as art deco and perhaps coming from a similar desire to reject these revivalist styles, and also wanting to take advantage of new materials glass, steel concrete. So with modern architecture, you have a full embrace of minimalism, and a full rejection of ornamentation. So with modern architecture, what you find are clean lines, lots of boxy structures, so single boxes or connected boxes. And these these aren't rounded corners like you'll find in deco they are hard corners, boxy structures with hard corners, flat roofs, flat planes, flat surfaces, and walls of glass. And the windows are without separate window panes, not even window trim just sheets of glass, lots of natural light you want to take advantage of views and landscaping and modern architecture. And often they deploy a simple color palette so white or off white exterior walls maybe even just the raw poured concrete and if you're using wood, you're staining it you're not painting it. And interiors you tend to have open concept, not broken into separate rooms. That's modernist architecture and again that that with modern architecture similar with with deco there's an idea that this can also these design principles can apply to furnishings as well. So modern furniture has similarly the you know, very straight lines, often quite boxy clean lines and the natural materials as well.

Christine Malec:

How does all of this translate into houses the spaces where people live?

JJ Hunt:

Sometimes you will find like a modern you definitely can find a modernist house you know, walking around a lot of neighborhoods, you'll see houses that are here or there modern, a modern house. You don't tend to find Art Deco houses Or Gothic houses but you do find Victorian houses. So with a Victorian house, think haunted house right? When they're well kept, they're delightful and charming, but Victorian houses when they're rundown, they really look old and spooky. With Victorian houses you've got lots of varied rooflines. So you've got dormers and covered porches and you've got miniature towers in the house with conical roofs. Lots of different roof lines and dormers, covered porches, big windows bay windows, sash windows that are broken into separate panes, and lots of ornamentation and trim. So the Victorian trim is often called gingerbread, because it actually looks like delicate white icing hanging from all of these rooflines trim on everything, trim around the doors, trim around the porch railing, trim around the roof lines of everything. So that's Victorian, and when it's well kept, and that and the trim is painted white. Sometimes houses are painted in pastel colors, or, you know, Victorian houses, they can be brick as well. They look really beautiful and and delightful when they are well kept. But when they get run down, all of that becomes a very classic haunted house. Another kind of housing style, which is sort of coming off of modernism. It's kind of modernism mixed with the ideas of the American West is like the ranch style house. This is a very informal kind of like design style. Not a lot of ornamentation or trimwork. ranch style is very low to the ground, usually one storey maybe it's a split level, and the rooms are they tend to be not flat but low, low gabled roofs, picture windows, so not separated into panes, not a lot of trim around the windows. And this was, as I say, is kind of a mix of modernism and the ideals of the American West and it was to take advantage of cheap land. Big Lots, right? So you tend to have big flat lawns in front of ranch style houses, maybe some low shrubs or some small trees, double wide driveways, that's the ranch style. And CS asked on Twitter about arts and crafts. Arts and crafts is really interesting because it's kind of it's a reaction to the ornate styles of the Victorian age. arts and crafts style originates in Great Britain mid 19th century came to the US and Canada in the early 20th century. And with arts and crafts, you're embracing the look of handcrafted design, so it's a more approachable house. More approachable materials, more approachable ornamentation. So with arts and crafts, think of things like cedar shingles on your roof exposed beams on the inside and exposed timbers on the outside so you often like you'd think of with Tudor homes, exposed timbers with with stucco on the outside, and you're using natural or natural looking materials like stucco in a in pale or like pale whites or even pale earthy colors red brick maybe. And then he got natural materials like stone foundations, maybe stone half walls around the gardens. The windows in arts and crafts are sash windows with separated panes. And you've got covered porches on the outside in the inside. You've got built in bookcases, stone fireplaces, again, natural materials, approachable materials, and it's it's supposed to be a cozy like a hand crafted look as opposed to the Grand Victorian gingerbread and and you know the friendliness of the Victorian age.

Christine Malec:

Okay, I'm going to spring a question on you. Can you think of examples in movies where a particular style of architecture was really highlighted and reused really effectively?

JJ Hunt:

Hmm. Okay, good question. So a lot of film noir uses Art Deco all over the place. So film noir often offices that you'll go into for a private detective will have like a Deco style writing on the doors or, or cars the cars from that era share a very similar sleek styling with the rounded corners over the over the wheel wells are very similar to the kind of the rounded corners you see on buildings like the Empire State Building. Well, I mean really, anything that has a haunted house, it's going to be a Victorian. Any movie that's got a haunted house that's probably a Victorian, that they've let get old with cobwebs in the corners and built up in the gingerbread, maybe parts of the trim is falling down. If it's a haunted house, it's probably Victorian. Oh well, James Bond. James Bond and modernism go hand in hand. There was something about the clean lines of modernism [and brutalism] that worked really well with the cold. You know, Dr. Evil, the cold specter. So anything that's got that's either James Bond villain, or then James Bond parody. The villains are always using modernist architecture, modernist furniture, very clean, clear, cold architecture.

Christine Malec:

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Classical Architecture
Romanesque
Gothic
Art Deco
Modernism
Residential - Victorian, Ranch, and Arts and Crafts