The Parthenon is a building in Nashville, Tennessee. Originally constructed in 1897 and repaired in 1920 due to the effects of weather and-
Wait a second. That can’t be right…
Alright, so there is one in Tennessee, a full scale model in concrete rather than marble and roughly 2400 years newer, but I mean to write about the original in Greece. Not the whole thing, but some particular characteristics that make the building, and the Greeks who built it, stand out not just in architecture, but among any people who have ever built anything, including the pyramids of Egypt. First, some bits and pieces that will save you a trip to Wikipedia.
Construction started in 447 BC, the structure itself being completed less than 9 years later in 438 BC and the interior and exterior decoration ending in 432 BC. That might be up for debate because decoration and adornments are usually thought to be on going in buildings like this, especially given the climate and it’s public nature (you don’t think theft and vandalism was invented in modern times I hope). It’s roughly 98 feet by 63 feet, which gives you a rough interior space of 6174 sq feet, maybe 4-5 times that of an average American home.
The Athenians completed it in less than 9 years and I realize I’ve already said that, but I want to stress that fact because it has currently been under restoration since 1983. Something that may not be that surprising given the current state of the Greek work ethic…
The first interesting thing I want to point out is that when you look at the building you might think it’s made out of more or less interchangeable pieces. You couldn’t be more wrong. No two pieces are the same, each having fine curves that are almost imperceptible to the naked eye. The foundation along it long axis has a “bump” in the middle of around 6 centimeters, not really a bump but a graceful curve. The columns also have a bulge in the middle and taper towards the top and the blocks that appear to be square are not so.
The reason is the opposite of what you might think. It’s well known that Muslim art always includes a small, intentional flaw so that artists are not perceived to be trying to rival the perfection of God. In this case the Greeks intentionally introduced ‘errors’ to create, not a work of intentional imperfection and outward humility, but a visually perfect one brimming with deliberate grandeur and symbolic power.
If that seems illogical, you are 100% correct. If you are familiar with the following optical illusion and why it works, prepare to have an epiphany.
The perpetrators are those lines in the background spraying out and creating a rudimentary form of perspective. The Athenians knew that in a building of such scale that the structure would appear misshapen as the lines to the right do. In other words a perfect building would appear imperfect while a carefully planned imperfect building would appear perfect. I know, so simple.
The same adjustments and careful planning that appear in the building overall, also show themselves in the individual columns, and this is where it really gets impressive and complected. The slightly bulging columns have such a fine curvature from top to bottom that it seemed quite impossible builders could have managed to do it with such mind boggling precision. The curve is so fine, so smooth, that if you made a circle of them laying end to end, it’s radius would be in excess of 1 mile. But how the hell did they manage that, and how did they achieve a degree of accuracy that would be equal if not superior to what we can achieve today with modern technology?
The method they devised was as elegant as it was simple. They merely reduced the vertical measure by a known ratio, in the case of the Parthenon, a reduction of 16. That part is kind of obvious, the master stroke was to not scale down the width. A template inscribed on the buildings floor, like the one to the left, ensured that every piece turned out exactly as it should have. A mason had only to place calipers on the particular drum (the term for the individual layers of the column) he was working on to create the curve. A drastically smaller compass is needed to create the scaled down version.
There are still some mysteries though, one of the biggest ones is how in the hell the Greeks managed to shape marble to such incredible tolerances that the joints, without mortar or anything are air tight in many circumstances, air tight not just at the time, but to this very day. The proof of these airtight fits is particularly easy to see in the photo below.
When the restoration team separated two drums of a column that had been together since the original construction, the cedar peg still smelled like cedar and was in a remarkable state of preservation considering it’s 2500 year age. You can also see how the system of alignment worked. There are a number of theories regarding how the builders were able to achieve the near perfect fits, the most likely of which used a flat stone with handles, under which fine sand would be placed and the stone pulled and pushed back and forth grinding away the surface little by little.
To wrap up I have one final bit of trivia to share. At the time the Parthenon was constructed Athens was a democracy. This is important because the people of Athens actually voted to build it and with public money, but in being a direct democracy the interest in and responsibility for staying on budget was everyone’s job.
This fact resulted in us having a remarkable degree of information about how much the building cost and how it was constructed. Stone tablets were posted on the acropolis at the construction site and they documented spending for anyone to come and see anytime they had a mind to do so. Imagine if we had that kind of transparency with our own governments today.