Wednesday 15 Jun 2011

Ancient Egypt: the 'Big Bang'

In a book called ‘Visions of Architecture’ (Bloomsbury A&C Black 2011 ISBN 978-1-4081-2881-7, £16-99) the author Stephen Lees examines various buildings and the fascinating facts that caused their creation due to what might be termed the ‘Construction Process’ involving seven disciplines: Architecture, Religion, Engineering, Arts, Psychology, Economics and Politics, the influences of which have eluded people even though they may be familiar with the structures. Over the coming weeks, Stephen will share his findings with WAN readers in an exclusive seven-part series...

Ancient Egyptians initiated the architectural ‘Big Bang’ by using stone to ensure Pyramids built to house Pharaohs in eternal splendour would endure and achieve immortality, an essential religious requirement of the Egyptians in serving their gods. Not all early Pyramids were constructed successfully and some collapse internally due to the massive weights and forces not entirely understood by Egyptian builders. Later building techniques were perfected in the Great Pyramids at Giza. However this style of Mausoleum for the Pharaohs was abandoned in favour of alternative burial arrangements in order to defeat the activities of prolific tomb robbers.

Egyptians developed the basic architecture we recognise today in using stone Columns based on the lotus plant the top of which is splayed out forming the Capital on to it stone blocks could be placed creating an Ambulatory. A roof supported by a Portico of Columns around a structural wall creating a Colonnade and used in architecture today at the Lincoln Memorial and British Museum. Colonnades were used to front Labyrinths, a complex of tunnels, hiding a Pharaoh’s real burial chamber. Another stone mechanism of deception to defeat the robbers is the Cenotaph, an empty Mausoleum – a decoy! This new form of burial architecture was created within a walled Precinct called the Necropolis, a city of the dead, in which Pylons, Sanctuaries, Obelisks, Vestibules and Mortuary temples promoted structures built of stone.

Greeks refined Egyptian architecture from heavy monumentalism into the more elegant Classical style we know today. The Greek equivalent of the Egyptian Necropolis is the Acropolis, abode of the Olympian gods, the layout of which was the result of innovative geometry developed by Pythagoras. This mathematical logic resulted in creating beautiful visions and construction of temples, including the Parthenon re-created in Nashville Tennessee, in Berlin at the Schaulspielhaus and Valhalla at Regensburg.

Greeks copied Egyptian Mortuary temple architecture when building a monumental tomb - the Mausoleum for King Mausolos at Halicarnassos and that was re-created as the Freemasonry Temple in Washington. Access into the Necropolitan Precinct was through a Pylon, an inclined stepped structure that inspired the Art Deco buildings of 1930s and the Cenotaph in London. Greek name for Pylon is Propylaea and copied at Euston Station in 1835 as a massive Doric Arch. The Kiosk, a small Egyptian temple used in dispensing gifts and prayer, had an open Colonnaded Porch on each side around a small room, an inner sanctum. Kiosks are used today to dispense not prayers but newspapers and tobacco. Greeks called the Kiosk a Pavilion and used it at the Acropolis on the temple of Erechtheion and reproduced at St. Pancras church, London. In England the Pavilion became a field sport retreat building.

Stephen Lees
Visions of Architecture

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