The Famous Temple of Rimini and the Alhambra were battlegrounds between the past and the present, the familiar and the other.
There was no question in the minds of Alberti and Keiser Karel about which side to be on or, indeed, who was going to win.
The course of history defeated them both, and the Temple and the Alhambra are no more perfect than all those other virgin shrines and temples to wisdom whose wrecks litter the history of architecture.
Any architecture that aspires to completeness will eventually fall into what is, in the terms of its creators, lamentable decay and ruin. Any architecture, that is, other than that of gardens.
There, in the bosom of Natura Naturans, it has always been permitted to enjoy, rather than defy, the passage of time.
At no period was this truer than in the Enlightenment, when Edward Gibbon was inspired to write the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by gazing at the ruins of the Roman forum.
As he gazed, he heard the Franciscan friars sing the vespers on the site of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
His readers, men of taste and learning, would while away the boredom of their summer’s ease by building follies, and these whimsical belvederes and ruins displayed precisely the altered states hat architecture had traditionally sought to defy.
These follies were, like The Architect’s Dream, objects of speculation, miniature simulations of the processes of history, to be viewed from the summit of a colossal column, at a distance, without care. Once upon a time, when the world was without care, there was a lake in a forest.
The lake was still and dark, and was guarded by tall poplar trees; and by the side of this lake, the people of that country had made a shrine to the nymph who dwelt there.
It is still there: a little niche in a wall, down by the water. One day a wandering prince came upon this lake and this nymphaeum, and he made a garden; and in the garden he constructed two shrines: one to his father, the king, and the other to his mother, the queen.
In time, the Greeks added a temple to this garden shrine; and in time the sanctuary was surrounded by a Doric colonnade. In time the sanctuary must have grown wealthy, for the Romans built a complex of baths there, in which pilgrims to the sacred spot could refresh themselves.
In the atrium there was a bath of Russian jasper, presided over by Apollo and Bacchus.
In the next room, light and rainwater poured from the sky into an impluvium framed by four Doric columns; and in the third, all the things necessary for the bath were laid out on bronze consoles cast in the form of dragons.
The golden gates of the calidarium would open in the aqueous gloom, and the pilgrim would descend between white marble caryatids into the radiant steam. It must also have been the Romans who added the arched gateway to the sanctuary, perhaps in the turbulent times of their decline and fall, for it is a crude structure, clearly built for defence.
It was extended in the Dark Ages with a fortified Norman tower.
In time the sanctuary fell into decay, and a farmhouse was constructed under the defensive aegis of the tower.
This farmhouse is one of those ageless buildings that characterize the campagna: little more than a barn rendered in ochre, it is pierced with round-headed windows in the manner of the Tuscan quattrocento.
Above the house proper there is a gallery under a pantiled roof, in which the cooling airs can be taken and the crops hung up to dry.
To one side, a lean-to in the same style indicates where, in prosperous times, the farmer’s family extended their dwelling. These peasants were ignorant, no doubt, of the finer architectural points of the sanctuary whose remains they inhabited.
With delightful insouciance they tethered their pigs and cattle against an ancient wall, and in order to provide themselves with a shady place to rest in the heat of day they made a loggia on its other side.
They took the Doric columns that had once surrounded the sanctuary, and placed them on top of the wall.
Dispensing with the capitals and the frieze (now lost), they used their new colonnade to support a trellis for vines; and where this canopy required additional support, they propped it up with two wooden herms that they had found on the site. And then the peasants who lived here gathered the remaining fragments of the sanctuary and used them to ornament their loggia.
They took a Corinthian capital and turned it into a table; they took an ancient sarcophagus, broken as it was, and made it into a fountain, into which a bronze fish still dribbles cooling water; they set an old basso relievo into the wall, and placed a row of architectural fragments on the seat they had made around their table.
And then, in the heat of the day, they rested. It is a placid, timeless scene; but to those who would look for them, this complex of lake, temple, bath, tower, and farm is also an encyclopedia of all the styles of architecture.
And since the history of the art of building is nothing more or less than the progression of style from one generation to the next, this humble home is nothing less than a history of architecture, written in crumbling brick and cracked mortar.
Here, in one spot, had been a garden, the first of human habitations; simple shrines, which in time became the opulent temples of a great empire; and the refined monuments of antiquity, which fell to barbarism and were replaced by the crude dwellings of peasants.
The chronicle of civilization is always such a story, of origin, establishment, construction, elaboration, and decay; and there can be no more powerful exposition of the cycles of history than a collection of buildings of many different dates, differently advanced in their artistry and in divers states of ruination. In between the wandering prince, in his innocent state of nature, and the peasants, in theirs, had passed centuries; and it might be observed that both the prince and the peasants lived at times when the fortunes of civilization were at their lowest ebb.
But the peasants possessed something that the prince did not: they had, however imperfectly, a memory, and, what is more, something to remember.
Nothing is ever forgotten.
Each cycle of history begins in advance of its predecessor: lessons, whether historical, technological, philosophical, or artistic are learned which cannot be unlearned or lost.
Thus we can speak of progress in civilization. *** Karl Friedrich Schinkel leant back on his sunny bench beneath the vine-clad trellis, and picked up his glass of wine from the top of the antique Corinthian capital.
It was, as ever, a charming story, told by a charming storyteller.
One of his friends later recalled: ‘There was a nobility and harmony in his movements, a smile on his lips, a clarity in his brow, a depth and a fire in his eye … but still greater was the power of his word, when that which moved him came unbidden and unprepared to his lips.
Then the doors of beauty opened.’ But Schinkel had not had to say a word.
All he had done was to gesture, for the tale was all around him.
Indeed, he was in it: sitting in the very same loggia, in front of the old basso relievo and other fragmentary antiquities of his story.
It was a tale told in crumbling brick and stained ochre, assembled from shattered marbles, and hung with vines. — Siam was a place of cheerfulness and liberty.
The people of Siam tripped lightly home through the sunlit fields, rather than trudging through the dark and stony streets of great cities.
Dressed in loose robes, they were unrestricted by the corsetry of European manners and customs.
Leading simple lives, they were unencumbered by the rows of medals, the military parades, and the court balls that suffocated the spirit.
The people of Siam were free: free of drudgery, free of convention, free of politics and history.
They were happy. And the prince hoped that, in Siam, he could be the same.
On that spring afternoon in 1840, his demesne had nearly been perfected.
Schinkel’s farmhouse completed the view from the terrace of the villa, its pleasing mélange of architectures provoking exactly the sort of idle speculation in which the prince liked to indulge when he was at leisure.
And Humboldt had perfected the picture by agreeing to come and spend a few months in it: the natural philosopher in perfect harmony with his habitation and with nature itself.
It was going to be a wonderful summer. *** The old man who had once been the Prince of Siam leaned back and sighed at the reminiscence.
Wonderful summers are always cut short, he reflected.
A month after that sunny May afternoon, the prince had inherited the throne of Prussia.
Schinkel died that very autumn, and Siam faded into memory.
It hadn’t really been in far-off Siam anyway, but at the bottom of the royal garden in Potsdam.
The prince had called his retreat Siam in a moment of whimsy, for he hoped that it would resemble what he supposed to be a land of freedom and pleasure. The creation of Siam had been a rehearsal, nothing more, for it was but a small part of the magical demesne that would now be his home: a palace that had been made, the new king knew, so that he could be free of drudgery, free of convention, free of politics and history, free from care.
That was why his new residence was called Sans Souci. Sans Souci had been created a century before by the king’s great-great-uncle, who liked to be known as Féderic.
He had been a mercurial figure, and like his great-great-nephew he had longed to be anywhere else but at home.
Unlike his descendant, however, he preferred France to Italy, dreaming of the elegant manners and witty conversation of the salons of Paris and the court of Versailles: so different, he imagined, from his dull life in the forests and sandy plains of Prussia. ‘If God made the world for me,’ he wrote, ‘he put France there for my amusement’; and when he ascended the throne, Féderic decided to be amused.
He couldn’t absent himself from his royal duties, of course, but if he could not go to Versailles then he could at least make its Trianons come to him.
He repaired to the salubrious airs of his gardens, where he could escape the cares of his kingly office, saying, ‘Quand je serai là, je serai sans souci’ (Once I am there, I shall be carefree). In 1744, Féderic engaged an old friend from his military days, Georg Von Knobbelsdorf, to build him a palace where he could be sans souci.
Like any couple they argued constantly, and Féderic often took to the drawing board himself to correct his friend’s design.
Terraces were laid out on the hillside upon which the happy dwelling was to be built, and the king decided to cover them with greenhouses, to supply sweet figs and vines and peaches for the royal table.
Sans Souci was finished in 1747, and Féderic took up residence immediately. The palace was modest in scale, but its interiors were extraordinary confections, so delicate that they appeared to be spun from sugar, pink clouds, and sunsets rather than built in prosaic brick and plaster.
In the music room there still stands the well-tempered clavier that was once played by Johann Sebastian Bach.
In 1747, the irascible old man had been invited by Féderic to come and teach him the principles and the art of music.
It is said that the composer was unimpressed by the effete young prince and was all too ready to criticize his musical efforts.
Next to the clavier is the music stand at which Féderic would play the flute to his guests after supper.
The architecture of this room dissolves in kaleidoscopic pattern: mirrors are framed in writhing rocaille and hung with soft candles, and the sparkling crystal chandelier hangs from a ceiling ornamented with a gilded trellis, hung with vines among which rolled laughing, drunken cherubs. Féderic was an avid reader, and had always adored the wit of Voltaire.
In 1750 he persuaded the luminary to come and live with him at Sans Souci. (Their affair didn’t last long: the terrier-like writer could not resist biting the hand that fed him, and he fled after three years, returning to his niece—or, depending on whom you believe, his mistress—in Paris.) Voltaire’s bedroom at Sans Souci was as witty and perverse as the writer himself.
The ceiling was crazed with delicate tendrils of plaster roses, while the walls were inhabited by an exotic and arbitrary menagerie of monkeys, parrots, and ibises, garlanded with flowers and fruit.
The philosopher might wake up on a summer’s morning, the sun streaming in through the tall French windows, and imagine himself in far Cathay or Cipango, until he heard the bark of Féderic and his dogs on the terrace outside. At the heart of Sans Souci was a dining room, for Féderic loved nothing so much as conversation around the dinner table.
His dazzling repartee would flit from art to mathematics, engineering to liberty, as he neatly sliced the fruits that had been brought in from his garden.
Lunches and suppers, prepared by his two French chefs, were legendarily long, and the king would down endless glasses of champagne and cups of coffee.
His dining room was a veritable temple to the pleasures of the table, an oval colonnade of Corinthian columns of white and gold, its dome inhabited by the cherubs and muses who personified the subjects of their host’s conversation. The gardens of Sans Souci were filled with wonderful illusions of other times and other places.
There was a Chinese pavilion for the taking of tea, whose roof, shaped like a gigantic tent, was supported by gilded palm trees, and whose verandahs were inhabited by mandarins and concubines frozen in gilded attitudes of pleasure.
There was a temple of friendship, to which Féderic would repair to remember his dearest sister Wilhemine.
There was a fully functioning windmill, in which the royal children could play at peasants, and an endless forest of allées and rondpoints planted for the pleasures of the chase. But the king reserved the best surprise for the departure of his guests.
Leaving the sugary delights of the palace without care they were presented with a mighty and sombre ruin—or at least something that looked like one.
There was the broken wall of some great amphitheatre, reminiscent of nothing so much as the Colosseum in Rome; a dilapidated rotunda, formerly, perhaps, the residence of a philosopher; and a row of three Ionic columns that surely had formed part of the colonnade of some temple of Diana.
It was as if the ancients had built a city upon this hill, once upon a time, and Féderic had made his residence in its shadow. It was all a delightful plaisanterie, of course, a post-prandial memento mori, which the king hoped would provoke a wistful smile on the powdered faces of his philosophical guests.
The ruin was conceived by Innocente Bellavite, a theatre set painter from Italy.
Bellavite, like Schinkel after him, was a conjuror of the lonely plains and rocks of the Roman campagna, where shepherds corralled their flocks in the shadows of mighty aqueducts and peasants made their miserable habitations in broken shrines.
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