Column Inches

"Klalim Lehameshet Ha'orderim Shel Ha'adrikhalut" ("Regola delli Cinque ordini d'Architettura") by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, translated into Hebrew by Ronny Reich, Dvir Publishing, 80 pages, NIS 54

"Klalim Lehameshet Ha'orderim Shel Ha'adrikhalut" ("Regola delli Cinque ordini d'Architettura") by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola, translated into Hebrew by Ronny Reich, Dvir Publishing, 80 pages, NIS 54

The culture from which I sprang as an architect was purely modern. From the first moment architecture appeared in my firmament, it took the shape of Erich Mendelsohn. True, as a child, my brother, sister and I were forced to huff and puff on our father's heels up the steep incline to the Acropolis in Athens three times a day in order to observe the colors of the Parthenon in morning, noon and evening light. But when I was studying architecture, the classical orders appeared nothing but anachronistic, having had Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright injected straight into my veins.

For that reason, when I was asked to review "The Rules of the Five Orders of Architecture" by the Renaissance architect Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-1573), I felt it was not a job for me. For two reasons, however, I have decided to give it a try. Being naturally lazy, I was attracted by the fact that Vignola's book is amazingly short, more a booklet than a book. The second reason is that during my career as an architect, a growing criticism of modern architecture has seeped into my soul, to the point where Le Corbusier and his ilk have gone from being immortal gods to false idols.

Reading Vignola's "rules," I found myself awed by his completely technical preoccupation with the five "orders": Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. Vignola uses the "module," a standard unit of measurement, to establish the size of different components of each order, in such a way that every measurement on a blueprint will be some multiple of this module.

Vignola's module was the radius of a column. In Table 4, for example, which deals with the Tuscan column, the height of the column is 12 times the radius. In the Doric column, the height-radius ratio is 1:14, and so on. The accompanying illustrations show all the elements that make up a column in precise detail: the base, the shaft, the capital and the ornaments that top it.

The classicists regarded the column as the essence of architecture. The facades of Greek temples were built entirely of columns. Church interiors were defined mainly by columns. For the modernists, the column was merely functional. To illustrate the difference, it is enough to compare two famous icons - one built in classical times and the other, in modern times: the Parthenon and Le Corbusier's Savoye House. I have no doubt that if Le Corbusier had figured out some way to get around the force of gravity, he would have gladly dispensed with the pillars that support the top story of the Savoye House over the glass wall on the ground floor. Omitting the pillars would not detract at all from the architectural statement here. But to take away the columns of the Parthenon would be to strip the building of its facade and ruin it entirely.

Vignola's "manual," as the book might be more appropriately called, brings to mind another phenomenon: the tendency of many famous architects to speak "architecturese." Too often, the connection between the architect's verbal description of a building he has designed and the building itself is merely coincidental. Nowadays it is becoming increasingly popular to have hostesses walk around with the guests at the dedication of a new building, reciting the architect's philosophy. Without it, no one, not even the experts, would understand. The acclaimed architect Daniel Liebeskind, who designed the new Jewish Museum in Berlin, is a perfect example.

Not so Vignola. In his introduction to the book, Ronny Reich writes: "Unlike Alberti, Serlio and Palladio, Vignola had no philosophical or historical pretensions. He did not compare the building and the human body, like the Roman architect Vitruvius, or the building and the universe, like Palladio, in order to justify the search for architectural perfection. His references to ancient buildings or architecture in his own time are few and far between, and when he does allude to them, he does not launch into any kind of historical discussion."

In light of the uniqueness of this book, one can only lament the poor publishing job. A book of this kind, full of illustrations, deserves to be printed on fine paper, with high quality reproductions, decent graphics, and an attractively designed cover. Having said that, the publisher and the translator Ronny Reich, have done an important service in bringing us this volume, considering the dearth of books on architecture, ancient and modern, in Hebrew translation.

Hillel Schocken is an architect.