Lie heavy on him, earth, for he / Hath laid many a heavy load on thee! – this mock epitaph on the architect Sir John Vanbrugh is attributed both to Jonathan Swift and to the less-famous Dr Able Evans.
Whoever coined it, it was certainly appropriate, as Vanbrugh’s works – among them Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace – are prodigious works of architecture and certainly of considerable weight.
But although the weight (strictly, the mass) of a building can be measured in tonnes, heaviness in construction is not necessarily heaviness in appearance.
Modern architects use up-to-date construction methods to give the idea that their buildings are light, soaring in every direction as if in defiance of gravity.
We have only to think of Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku, Azerbaijan, which seems to be made of curled paper on a huge scale, or, nearer home, the Sage at Gateshead, designed by Foster and Partners, which may be thought to look as if it was made by inflating a thin membrane.
In the past, though, there was often a desire by architects to add apparent weight to their buildings, to make them appear to sit more solidly on the earth. And over the centuries they developed a number of visual tricks to do so.
The Greeks used mathematical formulae to ensure that their buildings were firmly rooted in the landscape. Among the tricks they used was the ‘Golden Section’, a formula of measurement that, by a careful balance of proportions, produced a visually satisfying harmony.
Indeed, the Golden Section has been one of the most long-lasting of architectural and artistic notions, encompassing the Egyptian pyramids and the Mona Lisa, among many other examples.
Back with the Greeks, they also used extremely subtle curves to trick the eye into thinking that their temples were firmly earthbound; on the Parthenon the curves of the platform on which the columns sit are equal to the arc of a circle that, if complete, would have a diameter of seven miles. The columns are tilted slightly forward, too, so they appear straight when being looked at from below, and they also bulge outwards near the base.
This bulge is called the ‘entasis’, and as well as producing the optical illusion of straightness when the columns are seen in a row, it adds a subtle illusion of extra weight at the lower part of the building, again helping to anchor it to its place.
All this extra illusion of weight at the base of a wall or a row of columns needs to be balanced at the top. That’s why the Greeks developed the deep cornice, known as the ‘entablature’, to run along the top of the walls.
The depth and design of the entablature varies according to the architectural order in which the building is constructed – Ionic or Corinthian for example – but is always carved so that shadows are cast along it, and is often the place for sculptured decoration, too.
All this adds to the apparent weight of the building.
The same can be said of the shadows cast by emphatic eaves on buildings; sometimes the eaves’ overhang is deliberately exaggerated – as Inigo Jones did at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden; his example was copied in what is now the public library at Stamford in Lincolnshire.
Nor does the illusion of weight stop at the top of the walls; balustrades and battlements on the roofline help add to the impression. Classical buildings added urns and statues to the roofline, and this trend continued through the Renaissance and into the 19th Century; many country houses have such adornments, helping again to ‘hold down’ the building visually.
In Gothic buildings, ornate pinnacles have something of the same function, while also helping to counteract the stresses of the structure.
There are other architectural features that also serve the same purpose; turrets that project higher than the main roof of a building help in this way.
Those attached, conically-capped turrets that begin partway up a wall (technically, they are known as ‘bartizans’) – the sort of turrets you’ll find on Sleeping Beauty’s castle in fairy stories and, in reality, on many Scottish castles, including Balmoral – help even more.
Pattern, too, helps to give weight to a building; a simple way of doing so is to produce patterns in the slates on a roof. There are spectacular examples like the roof of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, where multi-coloured zig-zag patterns add visual weight to the building. On a less-flamboyant scale, the varied shapes of the slates on the Community Centre near St Wilfrid’s Church in Ripon serve the same function.
Building a pattern into the walls of a building was particularly favoured during two periods of English architecture – the Tudor and the Victorian.
Brick patterns – using darker-fired bricks to create criss-cross and square designs on the normal brick colour – were popular with 16th Century builders, as at Cardinal Wolsey’s Hampton Court. And in the 19th Century the cause of patterned brickwork was taken up, particularly, by the architect William Butterfield.
Butterfield, who designed the church and many cottages at Baldersby St James and nearby Baldersby, developed a hierarchy of pattern. In part this was social – the higher up the social scale the occupant of one of his houses, the more pattern it received. But it was also architectural.
He would add horizontal bands of stone among the brickwork on plain walls, but, where the illusion of extra weight was needed – for example in the gables of a building, the design would break into diamond or chequer-board patterns.
This technique was taken up by other architects – in Ripon we have a good example on the exterior of what was once the chapel of the former teacher training college. The architect, John Oldrid Scott, has patterned the top of the eastern gable with a chequered design, to give extra prominence to it and thus increase its visual weight.
So when you see pattern on a building, it’s likely to be there for more than just prettiness – it has an architectural function, too – to make the building ‘lie heavy’ on the earth.