How to… Build a temple

What considerations does an architect have to take into account when planning a temple?

A building as important or as big as a temple must have been a huge undertaking especially in Ancient Greece due to the fact that a lot of money was spent on buildings, as well as their significance within a deeply religious society such as the Greeks. The architect in commissioned with such a herculean task had a huge weight on his shoulders considering the amount of things he had manage: from the availability to the type of building material; to the political statement the building was meant to portray. When all these matters were correctly put together we get wonders such as the temple of Apollo a Delphi.

The most elementary aspect of the building that he had to consider was the type of building material to be used. In the beginning temples used to be made of mud brick and wood with thatched roofs. But by the 6th century B.C temples were made of marble. This being a very heavy material to build with and the sheer amount of it that was needed the architect needed to plan from where it could be sourced. Not all polis were surrounded by marble quarries and therefore had to be imported from abroad. An architect would also have to consider what colour the marble should be as well as whether to have it cut on site or at the quarry. This often depended on the accessibility of the place where the temple was to be built. The colour was also extremely important because of the location in which the temple was built. This is because the temple had to fit in with its surroundings and not stand out. Another feature which includes the building material is the weight of the roof and therefore the thickness of the walls. The tiles on the roof were extremely heavy and needed strong walls to support them. This was imperative because the roof could easily collapse and destroy the temple. One overruling standard of the Greek temple was conformity. An architect had to be able to plan and build a temple which was like all the others as this was more hilly appreciated and venerated than something unique in its design.

To which god the temple was going to be dedicated to was also significant because the architect was planning their house and it was important to please that god in order to remain in their favour. He main gods as well as protector gods needed large and grand temples in order to keep their blessing and help the inhabitants of the city state. The altar in front of the temple also had to be considered because all the ceremonies occurred out there and so it had to be in a prominent place where many could see the sacrifice including the reading of entrails.

Before even choosing the building material the architect had to consider the location of the temple and the landscape in which it would sit in. The landscape had to have some kind of flat ground on which the temple could be built. It was possible to flatten out land but there must have always been a starting point. Moreover, the architect how many trees would need to be cut down to produce an area large enough, however it needed to maintain the integrity of the site so the god could be more at home. The temenos or land set aside for the temple would have been included in the plans for the landscape. The architect would have to take this into account because it was seen as holy ground and therefore had to be preserved. The location of the temple went hand in hand with its orientation. The temple was orientated west to east with entrance facing west. This was extremely crucial as the Greek temples were designed in such a way that the sun rose over the statue of the god that was being celebrated in the temple and in the evening, near sunset, the light would shine into the temple and illuminate the statue of the god. This was really technical and the architect had to take quite accurate measurements to ensure that this happened. It would have been a sight to behold when the people looked up to see a huge structure backlit by the sun.

The location of the temple had also another component that needed to be taken into account: the amount of space that was available for huge crowds to gather during processions. Especially at Pan-Hellenic sites such as Olympia and Delphi it was really important because massive crowds would congregate. An architect would need to work out how many roads or paths had to be built in order to reach the site as well as how close it should be to a settlement in order for it to be reached on a regular basis by all during festivals or processions.

A further aspect of building a temple that the architect had to ponder was the political and economic statement the temple was supposed to promote. Temples were huge undertakings and depending on the size, could be very expensive. Rich polis  such as Athens (who had access to silver mines) wanted demonstrate their power and wealth through the construction of a temple. The architect had to consider this when planning the building because the temple had to be bigger and more expensive than the one of the neighbouring polis. In this way, people who came to temple from other polis would be both in awe and in fear of that particular city state.  Not only does it demonstrate wealth but also implies that the amount of money spent on the temple could easily be dispensed on raising an army. This was a powerful message to any city state thinking about attacking another. Incorporated in this showing off of wealth had to be the actual material and size of the statue. Really rich states could afford the statue in gold or ivory but usually they were made out of wood or bronze.

Overall, the architect in charge of planning and building a temple had to take many variables into account which would astonish even the most senior of mathematicians as well as the most cultured and qualified artist or indeed a politician. The social, economic and political aspects of a temple had to be considered at length so that absolute perfection could be reached. The fact that people did not spend much on their personal property but more on communal buildings means that the statue and temple had to be of the highest quality because religion was the one thing that united all people from the helots  to the nobles. In conclusion an ancient Greek architect was very similar to those in modern times although I doubt that the Shard will be standing in over 2000 years time!

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