Daniel House




Alexander Learns Architecture: Learning to Sound Like We Know What We Are Talking About

Hello Friends,


I said it would be two-ish weeks and I can't let you down, so I am back! I have learned a lot over this time, sadly little of it has been related to classical architecture because Peter gave away my book! While I had planned to do a very quick overview of the various architectural columns, I think that is still beyond my abilities (and I would need my book). In the absence of my own knowledge I asked Peter to think of a list of vocabulary words useful to any beginning classicist, and to illustrate those words as well. He gave me only one word, and one picture, and while that seems like a small bit to chew off, he assures me it’s a word absolutely key to our understanding.





1.    An omission of a passage in a book, speech, or film.

2.    The process of joining together or merging things, especially abstract ideas.


Looking at the text book definition of this word, it seems more relevant to literary endeavors than to architecture. In fact, the greatest works in architectural history are literary endeavors – just as a wonderful novel has strong characters who develop over time and who’s interactions arrive at some sort of climactic moment, so too do great buildings. Think of what it might have been like to pass through the pylons of an ancient Egyptian temple, and enter into field after field of colossal, intricately carved stone columns whose very forms communicated vibrant stories. Consider too, the journey up the steps to a Greek temple. In their vital days, these temples were surrounded by statuary offerings to the gods brought to the exterior sanctuary by all kinds of visitor.  Beyond these statues, great Doric or Tuscan columns provided further exaltation as a guest moved inward to be in the presence of the tremendous, perhaps even frightening idol within. In both of these examples, anyone moving through the space understands he is a key piece in a story that is walking him closer to his god.

In the absence of great physical space, however, an architect of the classical world still had the opportunity to communicate a climactic story, just as a good author can do without infinite words. And he did this through the use of elision. Walk around your city in the coming weeks. Observe buildings with massive stone columns – really look at them. If they are worth their salt, their facades are layered. Small portions of columns vanish, or are obscured by the mass of another, only to appear again at the other end of the building. Cornices die away into flat, unarticulated planes. Usually the greatest build up of layers happens at a main passage way, which frames one’s entrance into the chapter that lays ahead.

It is no matter if you don’t know what a cornice is yet, or what it means for a plane to be “unarticulated,” or how to identify what a column fading behind another might look like. What matters is that you understand the elements of architecture as the words of a language that can be merged together or partially omitted to help their author tell a compelling story. The legible evidence of this process of merging and omitting is what is called “elision” and its presence is key to any good story, built or written.


Well wasn't that just a whirl wind of excitement! Whether or not you enjoy definitions, learning how to speak about something is often a fundamental step to learning about how to think about something. If we are going to learn architecture together we have to learn how to sound like we know what we are talking about.  



I'll see you in another two-ish weeks,