Monday, January 30, 2012

Why Didn't Regulating Lines Get Passed Down? (#3 in a series)

When did we stop using circle geometry (aka: regulating lines, the Golden Section) to design buildings?

It has been suggested the change came when architects took over the design process from builders. Well, maybe. I just don’t think it’s that simple.

In Europe, during the Middle Ages, the understanding of how to use geometry was passed down through the guild apprenticeship system, specifically the masons’ guilds, the men who were the master builders of the medieval cathedrals, forts and castles.The title ‘architect’ was used in the late 1500’s, but often as metaphor. The OED cites its use as a synonym for God, “The work some praise, And some the Architect”. 1667, Milton, Paradise Lost. Only gradually is the word specifically associated with the task of designing rather than building a structure.

Consider this chain of command:
John Mylne (d.1657) was the Master Mason to the Crown of Scotland.
His son, John Mylne (1611-1667) and then his nephew, Robert Mylne (1630-1710), succeeded him. All were members of the masons’ guild.
Sir William Bruce of Scotland (c.1630-1710) is considered the ‘architect’ who brought Palladian ideas to Scotland. He was Surveyor General of the King’s Works. Was this a title created for him because he had lived and traveled abroad, had a great library but did not draw? Robert Mylne was one of the people who drew for him. Mylne also supervised the construction. And he, a mason, would most likely have been using the geometry passed down through the guild.
James Smith (1647-1731), succeeded Bruce as Surveyor General. He had traveled abroad, studied in Rome, but was trained by Mylne.
He in turn trained William Adam (1689-1748). Both were admitted to the local masonic guild. These men began to be referred to as ‘architects’: Colen Campbell (1676-1729) in his Vitruvius Britannicus calls Smith "the most experienced architect of that kingdom".
William Adam trained his sons, John Adam 1721-1792), Robert Adam (1728-1792), and James Adam (1732-1794) as masons.

Robert and John Adam are the men after whom the Adam Style (often called Federal in New England) is named. Robert was truly an ‘architect.’ He designed and drew, someone else executed.They traveled abroad. Most of them read Latin. But at least through the Adam brothers the knowledge of design and construction was rooted in the masons' knowledge, in regulating lines.

An aside: Scottish history during this time is full of political intrigue ( Queen Mary of Scots, King Charles, etc.) which influences who gets to design and build which buildings. For more information try Scottish Architecture, Glendinning and MacKechnie Thames & Hudson,Ltd., London, 2004. They are excellent historians and writers.

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