“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us,” said Winston Churchill. The power of architecture to shape is evident in the movie “Columbus” (2017), set in Columbus, Indiana, a small city which has numerous buildings designed by major modernist architects such as I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, Eero Saarinen, and Harry Weese. In the film, Jin, a resident of Seoul, South Korea, has been called to Columbus to be at his father’s bedside. Jin meets Casey, a recent high school graduate who is an enthusiast of the town’s architecture. Casey takes Jin around to her favorite buildings and tries to explain how living in proximity to them helped her deal with the hardship of having a drug-addict mother. Jin, who is estranged from his architect father, dismisses the effect that buildings have on us. “That architecture has the power to heal — that’s the fantasy architects like to tell themselves,” he says derisively. Yet the architecture that they walk and talk and sit by has a simplicity and stability to it that works on both of them.

Casey and Jin looking around.

The structures we frequent elicit reactions in all of us. A cozy cabin gives a sense of comfort, a quirkily painted house brings out whimsy, big-box stores and malls evoke consumerist trances. Following a recent trip to first-century archaeological sites in Turkey, I wondered how the citizens of ancient Greek and Roman cities were influenced by the architecture of those cities. I’ve written about some of the structures commonly found in those cities. In one post I wrote about agoras, baths, and theatres. In another I wrote about temples. The activities performed in each of these structures affected the lives of the local residents. What about the style of the buildings, though? What message was conveyed by their form, as opposed to their function?

I don’t have any definitive conclusions to offer here, but I do have a few ideas. Here are three features  Greek and Roman architecture that I imagine shaped the populace.

First, most structures were symmetrical. From whatever side it was viewed, the typical temple had rows of identical columns spaced (or at least appearing to be spaced) equidistant from each other. Colonnades used columns in the same manner. Theatres (such as the one at Aphrodisias, below) typically had seats in neat semicircular rows, each row looking just like the next. In many cases, platforms were constructed so that buildings could be built on perfectly flat, even surfaces. The message conveyed by such symmetry was one of imposed order. Chaos and confusion had been banished by the establishment of the Pax Romana. Subjects of the empire likely sensed that, just as slabs of marble had been tamed to create well-proportioned columns, arches, and pediments, so Roman ingenuity would insure order in all of life.

Second, cities for the most part eliminated nature from the architectural space. Most modern cities have green spaces included as an important feature of their geography. Urban parks are a welcome bit of nature in an otherwise man-made environment. Often, streets are lined with trees and homeowners landscape with bushes, flowerbeds, and lawns. Nothing in the Greek and Roman cities we visited was comparable. When visitors entered the gates of a city (as in Hieropolis, below), they often saw nothing but stone and the sky for blocks at a time. The only possible exception to this were agoras, open public spaces that served as marketplaces or civic centers. It seems that the only natural feature here was an expanse of grass in the middle. We saw trees in a few agoras; I suspect that they grew after the cities they were in were abandoned, but I may be wrong. In any case, the minimal presence of nature reinforced the notion that city planners had tamed and controlled even the elemental forces of the cosmos. Each city appeared to be a self-contained world, and the Romans made sure that cities were quite similar to one another (as discussed here; thanks to Cheryl Matthews for the link). Such control even over nature suggested that Roman power was limitless. This must have disheartened those who hoped to resist that power and reassured those who favored it.

Third was the grand scale of many buildings.  The bath/gymnasium complex in Sardis, for example, was huge. The stadiums were typically also mammoth (as was the one at Perge below), though they were probably given such scale not just to impress but also as a result of their function. Chariot races took a bit of space! Such large structures conveyed majesty and grandeur. This was particularly true of temples. Not only did many of them have a large footprint, they also extended upward. During my visit, I was amazed again and again by the sheer size of these places of worship. It must have taken thousands of workers laboring for decades or even centuries to build such mammoth structures out of marble!

A CNN article about the neuroscience of holy places talks about the feeling of “elevation” evoked by ancient and modern temples and cathedrals. Such a sense of elevation, awe or exultation comes from having our eyes drawn upward. The architect Louis Kahn remarked upon visiting the Roman Baths of Caracalla that “There’s something about a 150-foot ceiling that makes a man a different kind of man” (quoted here). To be specific, it makes a man (or woman) religious. The intense devotion to the gods prevalent throughout the Roman empire was certainly fostered by visits to the buildings that were dedicated to those gods. And, once temples were being built to worship emperors, it’s not surprising how quickly emperor worship became a powerful force in the society.

So the Roman political and religious systems were bolstered by Roman architecture. Yet Rome faltered, while a religious movement that had no permanent worship spaces for the first three centuries of its existence grew ever more powerful. How did Christianity spread so effectively? In my next post I’ll turn to the apostle Paul, who did more than anyone except Christ himself to disseminate the Christian message.