plus ça change–sustainability vs. hubris and substitutions, Roman style

Image and original data provided by Bryn Mawr College, Orlandos, A. Ta hylika domes ton archaion Hellenon. v.2. (Athenai, 1958); Page 92, Figure 37. https://www.jstor.org/stable/community.12195054

The Chicago project is taking a breather while I get ready for the semester, and in the spirit of constant improvement, I’ve been rewriting the syllabus for Big and Tall: A History of Construction from the Pyramids to the Burj, which I’m teaching this Fall for the first time in a couple of years. The first couple of thematic lectures, on ancient timber and stone construction, have always relied on Vitruvius and the Yingzao Fashi, a 12th century Chinese treatise that was a combination of Sweet’s Catalogue, MasterSpec, and the International Building Code.

Inspired to dig a little deeper into Roman sources, though, I’ve discovered Pliny the Elder, whose Naturalis Historia is a thorough (and gloriously grumpy) chronicle of, well, the whole known world in 70 CE or so. Among his thoughts on building is a recognizable plea for a more sustainable approach to construction and an agonized accounting of the widespread pillaging caused by quarrying:

“Nature made mountains for herself as a type of bond for compressing the bowels of the earth and at the same time for holding in check the rushing strength of rivers and breaking the waves of the sea and to restrain with her hardest substance her least quiet parts.  We quarry these mountains and drag them away for no other reason than that our pleasure dictates it—mountains which it was once astonishing even to cross.  Our ancestors considered it almost a portent that the Alps were climbed by Hannibal and later by the Cimbri: now these very peaks are quarried into 1000 types of marble.  Promontories are laid open to the sea, and nature is made flat.  We carry away features, which were meant to serve as barriers for keeping nations apart.  Ships are built for the sake of transporting marble, and so here and there over the waves, the wildest portions of nature, are carried mountain peaks….Each of us who hears the price of these items and sees the massive quantities, which are being dragged around should meditate on how much better life would be without them.  Oh, that men should do these things—or rather, endure them—on account of no other purpose or pleasure than to recline surrounded by varicolored stones!”

–Pliny, Natural History, 31.1-3

The hubris that went into laying promontories open to the sea and the call for simplifying, downsizing, and thinking about whether the ability to topple mountains means that one should do so rings pretty true today.

But Pliny also found quotidian examples of the corruption inherent in Imperial construction. Not only were the mountains being pillaged, but client’s budgets were, as well. Here he is describing the process of fabricating marble slabs out of those Hannibal-trod blocks of stone:

“But whoever first discovered how to cut marble and split luxury into sheets showed harmful ingenuity.  This seems to be effected by iron but actually is done by sand, as the saw presses the sand on a very narrow line and brings about the cutting by its very passage back and forth.  Sand from Ethiopia is rated most highly….Later, a no less esteemed sand was found on a certain shoal in the Adriatic Sea, uncovered by low tide and not easy to spot.  But now, deceitful workmen have dared to cut marble with any sort of sand from any river, a source of waste, which very few notice.  For the coarser sand cuts less accurate slices, wears away more of the marble, and by its rough finish increases the work of polishing.  Consequently, the revetment slabs are thinner.  Again, Theban sand is suitable for polishing, and a compound made form limestone or pumice.”

–Pliny, Natural History, 36.51-53

Thinner slabs from cheaper sand…those ‘deceitful workmen’ were basically proposing an unapproved substitution, and I’m guessing that Roman practice and current AIA contract documents both took a dim view of those sorts of shenanigans. You can totally imagine the equivalent of the email to the client: “We have reviewed the proposed substitution of sand from the Tiber and find it unacceptable. The project specifications upon which the workmen’s bid was submitted clearly call for Theban sand, and…”

Leave a Reply

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