On Solidity in Architecture: Ornament, Shadow, and Construction

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Trazic, Laura
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This paper investigates the divergent and conflicting effect of both ornament and its shadow on traditional architectural solidity. Classical ornament is well-known to support the constructive idea of an edifice. Its main elements and patterns, from the column to the entablature, have throughout the centuries conveyed the idea of its constructive system. Treatises, beginning with Vitruvius’ De Architectura, codified its proportions and disposition on key places of the façade in order to appraise, at first glance, the architectural solidity. Whatever may be the style—Doric, Ionic or Corinthian—whatever may be the purpose—church or palace—the mouldings and sculptures are deployed in an overall decorative system which should be in adequacy with the constructive idea. Yet, as architects systematized sculptural ornaments, they could not but face an inherent difficulty induced by the relief itself: its own cast shadow. If sculptural ornament is supposed to reveal tectonics and solidity, its shadow may have the power to affect the latter. How is it that a mere shadow, ever-changing and moving on the façade, could endanger the solidity of a building and the mass and weight of the stones? Based on architecture treatises, this paper will focus on a critical gap between two stances. First, we shall observe how Vitruvius and Alberti linked solidity with ornaments and their shadows, and if it was even of importance for them. A second step shall bring us a few centuries later in the French eighteenth century, when architecture borrowed from painting theories the question of aesthetic shadow. Beforehand, definitions of the three terms used—solidity, ornament, and shadow—may be useful to capture how shadows put at risk architectural solidity.
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