The handsome Rouss mausoleum in Mt. Hebron Cemetery in Winchester, VA, is a fine, attentively designed version of a Greek Doric temple (figures 1, 2). Built after Rouss died in 1902, it varies in a dozen ways from the most refined examples of the 5th century, BCE, yet it feels right in a dozen more. Its squat proportions feel right; the view along the side colonnade feels right; the carrying through of the architrave, roof, and steps also feels about right. Yet it exhibits an inherent defect that even the best architects of the great age of Greece could not rigorously eliminate.

As I understand it, among the rules that govern Doric architecture there are two that evolved to contradict one another. They are sometimes explained through an appeal to the wooden forerunners that preceded the great stone examples of the classical age (roughly the 5th century, BCE: see, e.g., figures 3, 4). It proceeds from the notion that the triglyphs—the grouped sets of three verticals in the band above the columns—represent what were once in olde tymes the ends of beams made of bundled boards that supported the roof trusses. So rule number one, to make sure there was proper weight distribution, was that a triglyph had to be centered over a column center. Achieving this was no problem, because since in that remote time the triglyph had been the head of the wooden beam, centering it over the column automatically centered the weight over the column.

By the time we reach the stone architecture of the classical period this business had become a memory at best, but the rule was conservatively kept in this religious environment. So the triglyph pattern remained, now merely carved bosses on the blocks running along the architrave. Since in a practical sense they were merely decorative, there was no problem in having a triglyph fall right between two columns: the point was to maintain aesthetics, so we want the triglyphs to be evenly spaced, and if you’ve done everything right, the spaces between the triglyphs (metopes) should be square.

But stone required the architrave blocks to be rather wider than the triglyph: they’ll split and fall if they’re too thin or the space they have to span between columns is too long (see the discussion below around figure 9). This means that when you look at the corner, if a triglyph in stone were centered over the column, the block running down the temple away from you would be sitting with its center of mass slightly inward from the corner. This causes a momentum arm and there is a force trying to topple the block.

Figure 5. Diagram illustrating solutions to the Doric corner problem. Creator: SHZ.de. CC-BY-SA 3.0; CC-BY-2.0; GFDL. Wikimedia Commons.

Aesthetics rather than some residual sense of how wooden forebears were constructed gave rise to the second of these two rules: a triglyph must fall right at each corner of the building. The Rouss mausoleum (figures 1, 2) favors rule one over rule two. You of course see that since the mausoleum is so small the architect has widened the intercolumniation at the front door to get coffins (and living people) in; that’s immaterial to this discussion.

Figure 6. Doric corner solution. Dublin, IE. Photo: author.

Figure 5 offers a diagram created by SHZ.de, a contributor to Wikimedia Commons from Germany. The diagram does a good job of showing the ideal situation with wooden beams (I); the problem resulting when the triglyph is slid to the corner, leaving a big last elongated metope (II); another early solution in which the final triglyph is comically enlarged to give at least the impression that it is centered over the column (III); the classical solution, which again plays with visual impressions, in which the outermost column is slightly closer to the penultimate one than all the rest are to one another, thus reducing the scale, and thus too the scale of the disharmony at the corner (IV); and the Roman solution which was just ‘what the hell leave half a metope at the end’ (V).

The Mt. Hebron architect has adopted the Roman solution (figures 1, 2). So has the Dublin architect in figure 6, whereas William Playfair, architect of the Royal Scottish Academy building in Edinburgh, has pushed the triglyph out to the corner (figure 7).

Figure 7. William Henry Playfair, Royal Scottish Academy, 1822-26. Detail: corner problem solution. Edinburgh, UK. Photo: author.

Playfair has followed the second rule over the first, preferring the closure offered by the end triglyph, but not (to my eye) adjusting visually to disguise the problem. The same solution, but with weirdly proportioned metopes, was adopted by the architect of the Ulrich mausoleum in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. (figure 8).

Figure 8. Ulrich mausoleum, 1842. Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

Likewise the architect of the (in many respects fine) Brademas mausoleum (c. 2016), also in Congressional Cemetery (figure 9).

Figure 9. Brademas mausoleum, c. 2016. Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

This last offers a nice opportunity, because unlike the Greeks, the Brademas architect has allowed us to see the width of the triglyph compared to the width of the block it’s on, which is at the root of the Greeks’ corner problem. Don’t be fooled by the fact that the block appears not to be centered over its column: in this particular case, the porphyritic granite is strong enough to make irrelevant the practicalities the Greeks had to respect.

Figure 10. Van Ness mausoleum, 1833. Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington, D.C. Photo: author.

Of course, even a dog can solve the corner problem for a tholos like the Van Ness mausoleum in Oak Hill in Georgetown (figure 10). Canine wile would have sufficed for the following (figures 11-15) which render the problem moot by progressively emptying the form of its content. In figure 11 the architect is trying to do other things that are genuinely interesting.

Figures 14 and 15 show etiolated forms in which cost-saving streamlining has progressed far into the void. I am genuinely unable to be sure whether the Tom mausoleum (figure 15) is meant to be Doric or Ionic. It’s dreadful either way, and I have reprehended its architect here under the assumption it was meant to be Ionic.

Here, as a palette cleanser after the Tom mausoleum, is the Doric temple of 1899 built by William Ziegler, a baking soda magnate, in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx (figure 16). It is comparably grand to the Rouss mausoleum in figure 1: a little wider, I think, but one column less deep.

Figure 16. Ziegler Mausoleum c. 1899. Woodlawn Cemetery, The Bronx, NY. Photo: uncredited on Pinterest, linking to the Museum Planet website.

Figure 16 is from Museum Planet, and I found it on Pinterest. I have no right to it, but I think I may use it here for the purpose of commentary under the ‘fair use’ doctrine. There is no credit given on the Museum Planet website for me to cite.

Published by gsb03632

A college professor living in Arlington, VA

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: