Connecting Architecture to History


Having grown up in various regions of the Old Dominion I’ve been surrounded by Classical Architecture all my life.   From the capital city of Richmond, the outskirts of Washington D.C., the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge, to the Chesapeake Bay region, the columns, pediments and domes that characterize the ruined pagan temples of Greece and Rome, now grace private homes, government buildings, public monuments and places of worship throughout Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson, in the attempt to “improve the taste of his countrymen” by “presenting them models for their study and imitation,” left a legacy of classical architecture in Virginia.  He borrowed attributes of the Roman Pantheon for his beautiful Monticello, and used columns and pediment at Poplar Forest as well.  The classical Greek elements of the temple Maison Carree built in 12 BC by the Romans in Nimes, France provided a model for the Capitol Building in Richmond.  Hadrian’s Pantheon served once again as the inspiration for the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.   Over the years any church, school, local government or bank seeking to establish a sense of gravitas incorporates one or more classic elements.  Even the Scaring School in Pixar’s latest animated film, Monsters University, features columns, pediment and dome eerily similar to UVA’s Rotunda.

After studying the history and culture of Classical Greece, the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire in our homeschool, taking stock of the abundance of Greek Revival and Neo-Classical architecture all around us seemed an easy and obvious way to make connections between the lofty but unrealized rhetoric of the Classical Thinkers and the ideals of America’s Founding Fathers.  Especially since those connections are exactly the ones Jefferson wanted us to make!

Visual Reference Guide and Annotated Arch compare the Parthenon in Athens and the Pantheon in Rome.
Visual Reference Guide and Annotated Arch compare the Parthenon in Athens and the Pantheon in Rome.

To incorporate the study of architecture to our history studies, I turned to four helpful, affordable and easily accessible books for introductory architectural study:

  • A Chronology of Western Architecture, by Doreen Yarwood
  • The Annotated Arch, by Carol Strickland
  • Visual Reference Guide to Architecture by Jonathan Glancey
  • Building Big, by David Macaulay

All of these books will be consulted over the next several years as we connect history to architecture.

The first two books discuss the major periods in Western Architecture.  The Architecture Visual Reference Guide is full of pictures, which is helpful for my visual student, and for sketching.  To get a grasp of the nuts and bolts, we like David Macaulay’s book Building Big.  This book covers the structural requirements of Bridges, Tunnels, Dams, Domes and Skyscrapers from antiquity to the Astrodome.

As we approached Classical Greece, and then later the Roman Republic and Empire, I read through each of the books, noting the relevant pages, vocabulary that should be discussed and jotting down a few ideas on key aspects of architecture that we could sketch, and look for in our surroundings, classic paintings, movie sets (Ben Hur is a good example), and well-illustrated picture books.  With Greece, the Parthenon and the Greek Orders are the most enduring legacy; with Rome, the arch (think bridges and aqueducts) and the dome of the Pantheon.  As we move into the periods after the fall of Rome, Early Christian, Early Byzantine and Pre-Romanesque,  I will follow this basic plan.

I scheduled Architecture once a week for 30 minutes.  To introduce the period, we gathered the books and spread them out on the dining room table.  GraceNotes read through the text, and flipped through the Visual Guide.  For Classical Greece, I required a sketch of the capitals of the three main Greek orders.   She sketched an order a week, the Corinthian order capital took two weeks.  For Rome, GraceNotes chose to sketch a detail from a bas-relief.  As we are moving into seventh grade and middle school, she will begin a Book of Centuries, and architectural details will be one of the items she can include as we work our way through history! Finally we scheduled an Architecture Scavenger Hunt, and drove around town taking pictures of columns, pediments, and domes!

In my next post I’ll share pictures from our Classical Architecture Scavenger Hunt Field Trip!


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