Classical Color: Take A Virtual Tour Of A 1st Century AD Roman Villa

We often think of the Classical world as a monochromatic place. This is partly because ruins and statues from the ancients have, in many cases, come down to us in shades of white and beige, utterly devoid of color. However the false idea of a neutral historical palette influenced centuries of architects and artists, who mistakenly believed that our ancestors lived in whitewashed surroundings, and reinforced this false impression on the public. This is clearly in evidence here in the Nation’s capital, which has two centuries’ worth of neutral-toned monuments, residences, and official buildings designed in a classically-inspired style.

In fact however, our ancestors loved bright colors, and used them on just about everything, including their own homes. If an Ancient Egyptian or Athenian were to turn on HGTV, and see a house flipper painting the interior and exterior walls of a house in whatever shade of gray Restoration Hardware is currently promoting, they would be appalled. In their day, the use of bold color in the home was an indicator of a person’s wealth and status.

With the passage of time, paint eventually fails, if surfaces are not maintained regularly or protected from the elements. Think of your own home, where in as little as a few years you may notice that the exterior paint color has started to fade. So in order to see just how colorful an ancient home would have been, we have to use a combination of research, technology, and imagination.

For the past 16 years, the Swedish Pompeii Project has been analyzing and recording as much data as possible to virtually recreate a single city block in the city of Pompeii, the Roman town that was buried by a massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  Contained within this block were luxury homes, gardens, and several shops, including a bakery, a tavern, and a laundry. The juxtaposition of these structures may seem odd today, when we typically zone residential and commercial structures into different areas. However if you visit historic neighborhoods here in the U.S., you will often find luxurious, historic homes located in the same block as small businesses.

As part of the Project, researchers from the Swedish Institute in Rome in collaboration with technical wizards at Lund University have been using a combination of hand-held digital scanners, drone photography, and other resources to come up with a virtual recreation of what the buildings in this city block probably looked like at the time Vesuvius blew its top. If you’ve ever watched the HBO series “Rome”, then these buildings will look somewhat familiar to you. For many however, I suspect that the results will be rather surprising.

The first completed recreation that one can virtually visit is the home of a wealthy Pompeian banker by the name of Caecilius Iucundus, a man who was clearly not afraid of color. The walls of Caecilius’ home office, for example, are covered in mythological scenes set against a blood-red background, while his banqueting room (shown below) is painted a bold, mustard yellow. The central courtyard of his house contained a small reflecting pool, which caught the rainwater from the large opening in the timber-framed ceiling above, and the courtyard itself was surrounded by an inlaid floor, as well as walls covered in colorful frescoes of flowers and birds.

As luxurious as this home appears to be, keep in mind when looking around that Caecilius was not a member of the Roman aristocracy. He had to work for a living, and was possibly a self-made man. Thus, this home of a well-to-do banker, which to modern eyes appears to be rather grand, would have been nothing compared to the even more grandiose homes of the upper classes. Those who lived on inherited wealth and the income from their estates employed people like Caecilius to manage their wealth for them. One can only imagine how boldly colored their homes would have been.

More virtual reconstructions from the Swedish Pompeii project are to be forthcoming, including two other luxury homes located on the same block as Caecilius’ villa. Given what we have already seen, we can reasonably assume that these houses will turn out to be brightly colored and decorated as well. (Personally however, I’m more curious to see what a 1st Century AD laundromat would have looked like.)

Significant Architectural Work By Novelist Thomas Hardy Rediscovered

A major architectural discovery may be about to change the way we think about one of the greatest writers in the English-speaking world.

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who is familiar to anyone who has studied British literature, was an acclaimed novelist, poet, and dramatist. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature a whopping 12 times, back when that was a highly prestigious award, although he never actually won. In books such as “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and “Jude the Obscure”, Hardy often exposed the darker, more savage undertones of the veneer of Victorian propriety. His works have been turned into popular films and television series many times over.

What you may not know about Thomas Hardy however, is that he was also an architect. Hardy left the profession in the early 1870’s in order to pursue writing full time, leaving few completed projects to his name. A simple, but unusual and creative example of his work can still be found, perhaps appropriately for Hardy the writer of somber literature, in a London graveyard – a design which deserves a brief detour in our story of discovery.

Back in 1865 the young Thomas Hardy, apprenticed to a London architect who specialized in the restoration and redecoration of old churches, was faced with a somewhat macabre task. He had been given the unenviable job of clearing part of the cemetery located on the grounds of Old St. Pancras Church in Central London. A new railway line was set to cut through the churchyard, but a number of graves stood in its path. The coffins of the deceased had to be disinterred, under Hardy’s supervision, and moved to another location which the church had acquired for this purpose.

The problem of what to do with all of the old tombstones, which would not be accompanying the remains to their new resting place, was another matter. At the time, common practice was either to smash up discarded gravestones for other uses such as paving, or to simply throw them away. Hardy’s unusual solution was to stack the stones against each other in concentric circles, around the base of a young tree. Today, the so-called “Hardy Tree” still exists; over the years its roots have enveloped many of the crumbling, moss-covered grave markers that Hardy had arranged around its trunk.

But back to our main story.

Hardy’s architectural renderings from his early days have reappeared from time to time, such as in the 1970’s when several of Hardy’s proposed designs for a reredos in the church of All Saints, Windsor, were discovered hidden in the organ loft of that building. In traditional Western church architecture, a reredos is a prominent structure located directly behind the main altar of a church, which is usually decorated with carvings, mosaics, or paintings. Until now however, it was assumed that these were just some ideas by the young draughtsman which were never carried out.

As The Guardian reported yesterday, two members of the congregation at All Saints were recently exploring the historic church, looking for the original foundation stone that had been laid by the Empress Frederick of Prussia, daughter of Queen Victoria back in 1863, when they stumbled upon what appears to be Hardy’s completed reredos:

I said, ‘Let’s have a root around with a torch’, and he said, ‘I’ve always wondered why the panelling behind the altar sticks out a bit’,” said Tunstall. “I lay down, and shone my iPhone torch up the back. I didn’t see a foundation stone, but I saw a carved motive and a decorative panel.”

Tunstall realised the design on the altar-stone resembled a design hanging at the back of the church – the one, he said, that had been designed by Hardy. “The discovery shows it did exist, but that it had been covered over some time in the 1920s,” he said. “It’s every little boy and little girl’s dream, to discover hidden treasure.”

The church is now engaged in a fundraising campaign to remove the carved paneling that was used to cover over Hardy’s altarpiece about a century ago. It estimates that it will cost close to $12,000 to do the work, and of course no one knows how much restoration will be required once the paneling is removed. When exposed however, I suspect that this discovery will prove to be a major addition to our understanding of Thomas Hardy both as an architect and as an author.

In later life, Thomas Hardy wrote an essay entitled “Memories of Church Restoration” for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, of which he was a member. In it, he recounted his experiences as a young draughtsman and architect working during the Gothic Revival period of Victorian architecture, when the influences of people like Augustus Pugin and John Ruskin were at their peak. Hardy voiced his regret over the tendency of architects and designers of that time to try to make existing Gothic buildings even more Gothic-y, by ripping out their ancient interiors. 

In the case of All Saints however, since the church was brand-new when Hardy was working on it, he must not have felt such concerns. He was designing something new, for a new building, albeit evoking the architectural styles of the past. Hardy’s appreciation of historic architecture, and his understanding that there is much to be learned from it, ended up significantly influencing his work as a writer. 

Although he later abandoned the profession of architect, Thomas Hardy never lost his interest in architecture, nor lost sight of the importance that a building’s design can have on the life of an individual. Old buildings and the secrets contained within their ancient walls often played key roles in Hardy’s writing. All the more appropriate then, that a secret hidden in one of the few buildings that he himself worked on, may soon be brought back into the light.

Air & Space and Architecture

​As those of us in the Nation’s Capital prepare for the arrival of the jawa sandcrawler – excuse me, the National Museum of African American History and Culture – another hideous building located just a bit further away on the national front yard may be facing the wrecking ball. The National Air & Space Museum, the most popular tourist attraction on The Mall, is falling apart. Its repairs will prove so expensive, that there are calls to demolish the 40-year old structure and start over.

Excuses made for the failure of the building include the rush to complete it in time for the country’s bicentennial, as well as years of deferred maintenance, but truthfully the Air & Space is just another example of the poor quality of most public buildings built after World War II. The museum’s original architect, Gyo Obata, has built numerous awful buildings, such as the giant stacked coffee filters collectively known as the priory church for St. Louis Abbey in St. Louis, Missouri, or the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, a complex whose central building the Air & Space somewhat resembles. There seems to be little love for the current museum building itself, although truthfully there are so many ugly museums on The Mall already, that at this point one more or less really will not make much of a difference.

In thinking about the Air & Space of course, one can’t help but think about architecture and air travel. We don’t have spaceports just yet, but for many decades airports have featured innovative, futuristic designs that give us a bit of a preview of what those may eventually look like. This is partly because commercial air travel is a comparatively new concept for architects to try and tackle, there are few if any historical constraints imposed upon the renderings of such structures. The notion of building an airport that resembles a Gothic guildhall, for example, would strike us as silly.

Given its rejection of earlier architectural styles, airports have had both notable successes and catastrophic failures when it comes to their design. The old TWA terminal at JFK, designed by Eero Saarinen, is a personal favorite; I was fortunate enough to actually fly out of there on several occasions, when it was still a functioning terminal. Meanwhile the blocky Dallas Fort Worth International Airport designed by the aforementioned Mr. Obata is routinely rated as one of the worst in the country. New airports continue to present passengers and armchair architecture critics with mixed results.

Take for example the concept art shown below for the new Kannur International Airport in southwestern India, which is currently under construction. The design features glass curtain walls at either end, which look out onto a broad strip of landscaping dotted with tall palm trees. The building has a gently sloping canopy to cover the roadway where passengers will be picked up or dropped off, while the opposite wall is clear of obstructions, so that passengers can look out to the runway as airplanes take off or land. It is not a large airport, but it seems like it would be a very pleasant one.

By contrast, the new Mexico City International Airport proposed by starchitects Norman Foster and Fernando Romero seems designed to fail. The design, which looks somewhat incongruously like a giant Nazca petroglyph of a spider, features the expansive canopies of glass which have become a trademark of Lord Foster’s style (see, e.g. the courtyards of both the British Museum and the American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery.) While the project’s designers claim that the structure will be efficient at cooling the space, one cannot help but think that all of that glass in a subtropical climate is going to bake the waiting passengers during sunny weather. One can also imagine it leaking or even cracking under pressure from the heavy tropical storms and hail of the rainy season that plagues this part of the North American continent.    

If there is to be a new building for the Air & Space Museum, it would be nice to see proposals that both reflect the monumentality of its surroundings, while at the same time provide something of the innovative yet functional design elements which well-designed airports provide to their passengers. No one expects a museum about air travel and space exploration to look like a Greek temple, but the heavy, uninspiring block of the museum’s present incarnation is a strangely grounded one, for an institution that is supposed to celebrate the story of human flight. This celebration of man’s perennial desire to soar into the skies deserves a better form of architectural expression.