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  • B. Harper Howard

Clinical Nostalgia: Why Architecture Evolves Too Slowly

           Both the Greek and Gothic Revival movements developed as responses to turbulent social, political, and economical issues. Architecture is, and was, a platform to address and solve these issues. However, rather than developing an architectural response tailored to the issues faced during the 18th century, the fathers of the Greek and Gothic Revivals used the architectural solutions to ancient problems and merely adapted them as answers to modern turbulence in Europe. Adapting solutions to past problems in order to solve current ones is a phenomenon architecture still experiences today because as humans, our brains are hardwired to create idealized understandings of the past in order to settle the uncertainty of our present.

           In the 17th century the term nostalgia was coined by Swiss physician, Johanne Hofer, while attempting to diagnose soldiers’ need to return home. During this time, nostalgia was considered a cerebral disease. In 1992, psychiatrist Dr. Alan R Hirsch released a report titled “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding” which gives us a better understanding of what nostalgia is, how it affects human behaviors, and how it manifests tangibly. Hirsch states that nostalgia is more than the conventional understanding of yearning for the past or the subconscious reliving of fond memories. In fact, Hirsch states that nostalgia is “a longing for a sanitized impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory – not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.” Because nostalgia is a combination of many different memories constructing an idealized understanding of the past, nostalgia inherently is applied to more than just a moment, but in fact nostalgia can only be applied to periods of time constructed of these many memories. Once we begin to see large periods of time through our screen memory with the negative aspects subconsciously removed from memory, we create an understanding and the “memory” that our past was a happier and more simple time.

           True instances of nostalgia occur most frequently in young adults and it is proposed that this is most likely due to the instability during that phase of life. Most often people in this age group face numerous changes such as going away to college, changing cities, gaining their independence, and starting careers. Professor David Gerber of the University of Buffalo noted that nostalgia, while once considered a cerebral disease, may actually be a healthy way for people to cope with big changes and uncertainty such as gaining new independence. He states that nostalgia’s focus on positive memories and filtering out negative aspects of the past counteracts the negative aspects of current life such as anxiety and uncertainty.

           Dr. Alan R. Hirsch suggests that this need to counteract negative feelings of our present, by striving for the simpler times of our past, affects our behavior and manifests itself tangibly through our subconscious actions. “This idealized emotional state is framed within a past era, and the yearning for the idealized emotional state manifests as an attempt to recreate that past era by reproducing activities performed then and by using symbolic representation of the past.” Most commonly, music and movies have been used as examples of this idea as movie plots are remade and melodies and lyrics are recycled. However, the greatest manifestation of our attempt to recreate the past as a way to settle our present is through architecture; the very forms we surround and envelop ourselves with.

           Globally, during the 18th century, countries faced exponential growth through the Industrial Revolution. Goods were now able to be produced and delivered quickly which created a higher demand for the standardization of products. The more easily and efficiently something could be produced, the more money could be made from it. Because of the industrialization of manufacturing capabilities, goods were being streamlined in order to be made more quickly, efficiently, and systemically. During the same time, France faced a revolution of its own which was driven by the notion of freedom and independence. Leaders of the revolution, such as Napoleon, felt France needed to move away from the monarchy and toward a government which was for the people. He felt it necessary that the government begin creating policies which were focused on benefitting the people rather than making money for the king. After the revolution, once Napoleon took power, his conquest of Europe expedited the outspread of these ideals as he moved across the continent. Because of these two colliding forces, Europe was engulfed in a state of uncertainty, exponential growth, and new-found independence, similar to what young adults face during their early twenties when nostalgia is most common. While many people say Greek Revival was a product of Hellenism it clearly was a product of clinical nostalgia. Hellenism, by definition, is the national character or culture of Greece, especially ancient Greece and manifests in the study or imitation of ancient Greek culture. However, the father of the Greek Revival movement specifically noted it was not to imitate the ancient Greek buildings. While the architectural shift in Europe during the 18th century was a direct cause of the new ideals of freedom and independence formed during the revolution as well as the new capabilities for standardization which stemmed from the industrial revolution, the underlying cause of the typically Greek forms used during the 18th century is a textbook case of nostalgia.

           In 1794, the French Revolution’s ideals had gained such strength that the Royal Academy of Architecture lost traction and fell to a more prominent academic model of teaching architecture; Ecole Polytechnique. Under Jean-Nicholas-Louis Durand, Ecole Polytechnique was devoted to public works and rational design. Durand outlined a formula for buildings with a similar universality as the Napoleonic Code and followed a new mantra of economy-simplicity-convenience.

Durand studied the buildings of Ancient Greek, not out of Hellenism, but out of economicism, convenience, and rationality, even urging architects to avoid imitation and focus on rational production. These ideals translated into architectural form through Durand’s focus on the gridded footprint frequently seen among ancient Greek buildings like the Parthenon. Focusing on the grid used by ancient Greek architects and using that as a driving force behind his own methods accomplished everything European people stood for at that time because of the industrial and French revolutions. The grid allowed for architecture to be accessible to the public by making it easily understood and accomplishable for the everyday architectural commissioner. These works were no longer only obtained by the church; creating an easily understood and simple to follow formula meant many public works could be commissioned for the general population. Working on a grid also meant production could be streamlined and components could be mass produced. Standardization allowed for a certain amount of prefabrication which reduced production and construction costs making this an ideal way to build in both a rational and economic sense. Durand stated that the simple grid layout created spatial relationships and simple forms which saved time and money making it the most rational and economic way to build.

           Further supporting the idea that the Greek revival was a product of clinical nostalgia rather than Hellenism, many differences are found among the columns used by ancient Greeks and the columns produced during the 18th century. Historical Greek columns came in just three decorative variances, but all were round. The columns produced during the 18th century came in numerous variances both in decoration and shape. The overall shape of the column was changed for convenience purposes and we began to see octagonal and square columns due to the ease in which they were produced. Durand’s project, The Temple of Equality, is a key example of how Durand used the forms of Ancient Greek architecture but adapted them to suit the needs of society at the time, effectively making the project a symbolic representation of the past in an effort to cope with the instability of the present. Where Ancient Greek columns were round with three decorative options, the columns on The Temple of Equality are square and the front six columns feature a different human head as its capital. On each of these six columns are also inscribed words such as economy, work, courage, and other words which were indicative of the virtues promoted by the revolution. In this example, Durand uses the basic structure and spacing of ancient Greek columns, when considering the strict uses and measurement of the columns as used in ancient Greece, Durand uses almost the essence of ancient Greek columns, but transforms them into something that suits the ideals and needs of his current era.

           Durand’s Greek Revival was a nostalgic response to the social, technological, and political changes experienced in 18th century Europe. Europeans were grappling with changes to their government and their freedom with ideals focusing on independence.

As Dr. Hirsch and Dr. Gerber state, these are ideal conditions for nostalgia to arise. While obviously subconsciously, Durand did not revisit and revitalize ancient Greek architecture because of Hellenism, but because of clinical nostalgia and society’s need, at the time, to settle their present by enveloping themselves with symbolic representations of the past; a coping mechanism proven to evoke positive emotions through filtered memories of an idealized past and fulfilling the human need to be comforted during times of unease and instability.

           During the same time as the Greek Revival, parts of Western Europe responded to the proliferation of technology, science, and growth in a very different way. Rather than embracing the capabilities of standardization as with the Greek Revival, Gothic Revival sought to bring society back to a time before everything became mechanized, before notions of independence brought liberalism and free-thought, a time where the church was still the authority and they used architecture to express such notions. In Germany, a protest against the ideals of Napoleon and against the rise of technology is the underlying cause of the shift in architecture during the 18th century but nostalgia is the underlying reason that the shift reverted back to using forms traditionally found in medieval architecture; thus being known as the Gothic Revival. While Greek revival and neoclassicism focused on ancient Greek architecture as a way to standardize construction in response to the industrial revolution, Gothic Revival sought to use medieval architecture as a way to return society to a simpler, “more humane” pre-modern time. Idealizing the memories of a time before Napoleon and when the Church had more power, the Gothic revival was a way to reform society through religion. Because of notions like this, the Gothic forms, especially those of churches, took root in western Europe’s architectural protest so deeply that the Gothic spire became almost synonymous with unified Germany as a three-century long project’s completion coincided with the formation of its modern state. In fact, John Ruskin, a strong proponent of the movement, expressed his firm belief that architecture should be a “transcendental experience” which creates a bridge between the imperfect human spirit and that of divine sublimity. In Ruskin’s essay “The Nature of Gothic”, he states that the use of Gothic architecture is not an arbitrary choice, but it is instead the only choice due to its relaxation on the notion of perfection. While ancient Greek architecture, and subsequently Greek revival architecture has a strong focus on perfection through the use of gridded footprints, Gothic architecture allows for the manifestation of human spirit. Human spirit, which as believed by Ruskin, is inherently flawed. Creating works to encompass and interact with the ‘divine’ through an architectural movement which is based on human spirit, perfectly manifests the ideas of Ruskin to bridge the flawed human spirit with divine sublimity.

           Because medieval architecture was less perfection-centric as ancient Greek architecture, Gothic revival has an numerous variance of appearance. In the same way that Durand used elements of ancient Greek architecture to create symbolic representations of the past in an effort to create forms strongly recognizable as ancient Greek building and was thus comforting in contrast to an unsettled present, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and other Gothic revival architects and theorists used elements of medieval architecture. Dissimilar to Durand’s use of the past, Gothic revival mainly used the facades of buildings as symbolic representations while the interior and the structure of the buildings were constructed using the current techniques. In some cases, the application of Gothic architecture was so light it could only be seen in the shape of windows.

           While the two distinct shifts in architectural development during the late 18th century and early 19th century in Europe were direct products of the 18th century French and industrial revolutions and respectively responded to the changing social, political, and economic turbulence of the time, the deliberate choice to revitalize past architectural movements and adapt solutions to ancient problems to work for current ones, was a direct product of the hardwired human coping mechanism, nostalgia.

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