Saturday, June 22, 2013

What have the Romans ever done for us (continued)

I know I'm not the only one who has ever looked at an example of pre-modern architecture (meaning before the 12th century and the start of the 'Gothic' style)and thought that they have a certain style but more importantly, and something which I think is often overlooked with some modern buildings, functionality. That's not to say that I am a Luddite when it comes to modern buildings and architecture but I think in many cases, and in many towns and cities, the mix of the old and the new is wrong. The one saving grace of the ever changing London skyline that I grew up with is that the view of St.Paul's must remain unobstructed by whatever strange objects are built around it.

 I actually discovered my own vertigo (if discovered is the right word) during a visit to the Cathedral with my Dad and brother back in 1971 or 1972. Having climbed to the Whispering Gallery (259 steps above the ground) we made our way to the Stone Gallery and then the Golden Gallery, this is some 280 feet above ground level and is reached by climbing over 500 steps and then stepping through a small door onto what is basically a ledge with a railing. I was terrified, partly by the height and partly by the claustrophobia on the way up and my fear of heights started at that moment.  

St.Paul's is not only an English cultural icon, through its use for weddings and funerals of the great and good, but it is also a worlwide architectural icon and I would argue one of possibly only three buildings in this country that you could show a photograph of to a foreign tourist (the others being Tower Bridge and Buckingham Palace) getting off a plane at Heathrow and they would be able to identify it. That at least makes us one better than the French for whom I would suggest Le Tour Eiffel and the Arc De Triomphe would achieve the same reaction.

St. Paul's as we see it today was the third design of Sir Christopher Wren and owes much of its grandeur to the incorporation, some may some homage, to St. Peter's basilica in Rome (one of Italy's four  entries - see Leaning Tower of Pisa, Rome's Colliseum and St.Mark's Venice -  in the chart of easily identifable buildings) with its saucer dome although there have also been suggestions over the years that Wren was more influenced by a military hospital building in Paris. The interior of the Cathedral was the work of many craftsmen and one of them a person who has become almost forgotten in the history of our country Gringling Gibbons, a wood carver of Dutch origin who was ridiculed in his later life for his marble monument in Westminster Abbey to the British naval hero Sir Admiral Cloudesley Shovell who died in a shipwreck off the Isles of Scilly.

Anyway back to the building itself and it is made from Portland Stone and the story of the transportation of the stone is a great story in itself and something I may return to one day, Erosion of the stone has been the subject of many studies over the years, a recent study will publish its report in 2020 but the closure of Bankside Power Station (now the Tate) in 1981 halved the erosion rate immediately, and scientists and architects have puzzled for many years as to why it is that Portland Stone should have been eroding at a faster rate than buildings constructed by our old friends the Romans and the mystery of why Roman concrete apparently survivors longer than concrete using other 'conventional' materials is finally revealed here


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