Space Planning Furniture And Design In Antiquity

To the people of antiquity, particularly as we approached the advent of written history, space planning, generically speaking, was a monopoly of temples and palaces.The chair was a status symbol for many centuries, used only by kings, nobility, and high officials. Moreover, the chair was prized by ancient monarchs because it represented the enemy's seat of authority, and its surrender indicated the enemy's subordination.This is clearly demonstrated by a relief discovered in Nineveh, northern Iraq (c. 704-681 B.C.), depicting Assyrian soldiers carrying away furniture seized as booty from a captured city (Figure 1.2).

The societies of early Mesopotamia and Egypt, which were the cradles of civilization, were highly stratified. At the top of the hierarchical scale was the king or pharaoh, whose powers were considered divine and absolute, and who represented God on earth. Next in line were the many princes, followed by priests, provincial governors, and the wealthy. Craftsmen were regarded as the lower echelon of society.

The first evidence of space planning as we know it can be found in Mesopotamia during the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3000 to 2350 B.C.). During this period, the ziggurat complex (overseen by a powerful priesthood), the monumental palace, and the administrative center all took shape. The temple, which was raised on gigantic bases, constituted the heart of the Mesopotamian city and for centuries constituted the hub of the city's economic system. In time, it lost some of its physical prominence to other points of the urban fabric—mainly the king's palace. By the Late Assyrian period, the ziggurat became a mere adjunct to the king's palace, which completely dominated the cityscape. What distinguished the ziggurat from the Egyptian pyramid is that the ziggurat was raised and reached by means of flights of stairs or spiral ramps (Figure 1.3). For the first time in history, we have evidence of the use of optical illusions in building by using the entasis principle, which was also used by the Greeks with the Doric column nearly a thousand years later. The Babylonians used this principle by incorpo-

FIGURE 1.2 Assyrian soldiers can be seen carrying furniture booty from a captured city.

rating a slight convex curving of the vertical and horizontal forms to overcome the optical illusion of concavity that characterizes straight-sided columns and walls. This made the ziggurats appear more solid from a distance.

It is clear that the Mesopotamian builders displayed an astonishing understanding of proportion and geometric principles in their architecture, as witnessed from their temples at Eridu VI, Songor b and other sites (Figure 1.4).The monumental buildings of this period appear to show an unusual grasp of harmonic proportions—the golden section and triangle, the Pythagorean

FIGURE 1.3 The ziggurat of Babylon as reconstructed by Stecchini (left). Reconstruction of the ziggurat of Ur built by Ur-Nammu and Shulgi, two Sumerian kings of the Third Dynasty (2113-2048 B.C.). It was constructed of mud-brick, reinforced with thick layers of matting and reeds (right).

Eridu VI - Grid Analysis Tell Songor B - Plan Analysis

FIGURE 1.4 Ancient Mesopotamian temples of Eridu VI (c. 3500 B.C.) (left) and Tell Songor B (c. 4000 B.C.) showing early use of harmonic proportions (right).

Eridu VI - Grid Analysis Tell Songor B - Plan Analysis

FIGURE 1.4 Ancient Mesopotamian temples of Eridu VI (c. 3500 B.C.) (left) and Tell Songor B (c. 4000 B.C.) showing early use of harmonic proportions (right).

triangle (an unfortunate misnomer, since it was in use in Mesopotamia nearly 4,000 years before Pythagoras was born), and geometric progressions. A similar approach to design was used in much later ecclesiastical buildings like St. Michael's Church at Hildesheim (Germany), built some 5,000 years later (Figure 1.33).

With regard to early furniture design and manufacture, history shows that in the ancient civilizations of both Mesopotamia and Egypt, designers were well aware of the social and political implications of their furniture.They also had an intuitive understanding of ergonomics, as is clearly observed in their designs (Figure 1.5). In antiquity, the crafts of the carpenter, the metallurgist, and the ivory worker were often closely related to one another. This was necessary because the manufacture of royal furniture required the skill of all three craftsmen. The carpenter would build the frame, the metallurgist would gild and produce the other metal sections, and the ivory worker would carve the panels that decorate the furniture, if the furniture itself was not made of ivory.

Ancient seating habits also differed. A reconstruction of a chair depicted in the Royal Tombs in Sumer (c. 2600 B.C.) shows a chair with a low back which was used as an arm rest (Figure 1.6). The earliest representations of persons seated on a chair or throne are those of kings or gods (Figure 1.7). The ordinary citizen squatted on a matt or on baked brick benches (Figure 1.8). In southern Mesopotamia, the Sumerians used cane to construct their chairs and tables (Figure 1.9), as well as the spiny part of the fronds of date palm trees. These can still be found today in many village coffee-shops around the Middle East (Figure 1.10).

FIGURE 1.5 Mesopotamian chair from Ur III period (c. 2050 B.C.) showing that ancient cabinetmakers had an intuitive understanding of ergonomics and took into account the seating habits of the day.
FIGURE 1.6 Illustration of low back chair with animal legs, used by the Sumerians during the Early Dynastic III Period (c. 2600 B.C.).

FIGURE 1.7 The earliest depictions of persons seated on a chair or throne are those of kings or gods. (Left) shows King Amenophis III of Egypt seated on a throne with elaborately carved side panels. (Right) shows King Hammurabi standing in front of the sun god seated on a throne with squared arches in its side panel (Old Babylonian period).

FIGURE 1.7 The earliest depictions of persons seated on a chair or throne are those of kings or gods. (Left) shows King Amenophis III of Egypt seated on a throne with elaborately carved side panels. (Right) shows King Hammurabi standing in front of the sun god seated on a throne with squared arches in its side panel (Old Babylonian period).

FIGURE 1.8 The common folk squatted on the floor as is still customary in many parts of the world today.

FIGURE 1.9 A reconstruction of a cane chair used by the early inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia.

FIGURE 1.10 A reconstruction of a chair called Kursi Jareed, which is constructed from the spiny parts of the fronds of date palm trees. These chairs do not use any nails and can still be found in many village coffee-shops in the Middle East today

Wood was the primary material used in furniture production, although ivory was used occasionally. Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian craftsmen had a wide variety of joint techniques at their disposal. Indeed, most of the woodworking techniques known to modern cabinetmakers were in use by the ancient woodworker. Dovetails, mitered corners, butterfly clamps, and scarf and half lap joints were common (Figure 1.11). Popular among ancient woodworkers was the use of complex mortise-and-tenon joints, sometimes secured by wet strips of leather wrapped around structural members and allowed to dry. Wooden dowels were also employed (Figure 1.12). Complex metal hinges and locking mechanisms that were initially utilized by the military also gained great popularity. The Egyptians used elaborate inlay and gilding (the application of very thin sheets of gold foil over an area) extensively on the more elaborate furniture pieces. Paint was also used for decorative effect by first covering the area with gesso. In many parts of the ancient world, including Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and the Levant, decorative textiles, pads, and cushions were also used for both seating and bedding (Figure 1.13).

FIGURE 1.11 The ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cabinetmaker was well versed with many of the woodworking techniques used today. (From Hollis S. Baker, Furniture in the Ancient World, The Connoisseur, London 1966)
FIGURE 1.12 Detail drawing of furniture joinery used by ancient cabinet-makers. Wooden dowels were employed in the manufacture of furniture from an early date.
FIGURE 1.13 (Left) a chair with curved back and arched side panel depicted on an ivory plaque found in Assyria (c. 9th century B.C.) (Right) an Egyptian chair showing use of fabric in furniture.

The peoples of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt also used tables, much as they are used today. In Figure 1.14 we see King Assurbanipal seated on a banqueting couch dining with his queen. Many of the tables used by the ancients were of the folding type, some with only three legs to facilitate their use on uneven floors. A reconstruction drawing of the Pagoda table, a highly decorative three-legged inlaid Phrygian table that was recovered from Gordion, is shown in Figure 1.15.

In Figure 1.16, we see the Persian King Darius the Great seated on a high-backed throne dating from the 6th century B.C., with his feet on a footstool. Both throne and footstool show elaborate turned work which was popular at this time.

Timber of suitable quality for furniture production and building construction was not readily available in either Mesopotamia or in Egypt, and in both cases had to be imported. These regions obtained cedar, beech, ash, box cypress, elm, fir, oak, pine, and yew from Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. From Sudan came African blackwood and from Ethiopia came ebony. Unlike Egypt, which had an abundance of stone for building its monuments, temples, and palaces— which has left lasting visual evidence—Mesopotamia had only mud for its base material. As we shall see, the limitations of indigenous materials available and in use at the time played a critical role in the ancient space planner's approach to architecture and design. Another fac-

tor that greatly influenced exterior and interior architecture was the arid climate. In both Mesopotamia and Egypt, there was intense sunlight with minimal rainfall much of the year. This fostered the use of roof ventilators to direct cool air to the innermost rooms and interior courts. It also promoted the use of flat roofs, porticoes, loggias, and small inward looking windows placed high on the wall.

Throughout history, and up until recent times, religion was the principle motivator of most aspects of daily life. The gods, represented by the king or pharaoh, were responsible for the entire citizenry, both the humble and the high. Moreover, the early architect's and designer's experience of space was very different from our own. The Egyptians believed in the concept of ever-continuing life and appeared to have been preoccupied more with the correct orientation and alignment of religious and ceremonial structures in the cosmos than with enclosed space per se.Thus, Egyptian pyramids and temples were always built on a north-south or east-west axis due to magical connotations. This is also an ancient Mesopotamian tradition and there are many examples of ancient buildings, temples, ziggurats, and secular structures oriented towards the four cardinal points.

In ancient Egypt, the architect was referred to as "director of all the king's works," and during the Old Kingdom (2700-2200 B.C.), we witness a period of architectural grandeur, such as

FIGURE 1.15 Reconstruction drawing of a three- FIGURE 1.16 King Darius the Great seated on a legged inlaid table found at Gordion (c. 725 B.C.). high-backed throne with his feet resting on a footstool (6th century B.C.). Both throne and footstool display an early use of wood turning techniques.

the great pyramids of Dahshur and Giza.The construction of an Egyptian temple was an massive undertaking and required elaborate preliminary ceremonials before construction commenced. In designing an Egyptian temple, the architect, with a team of theologians, had to consider a number of complex issues. These included the nature of the principal god and co-deities for whom the sanctuary was to be built, along with all of their esoteric cult requirements. Upon completing an initial analysis and working out the plan's details, the plan was converted into drawings and presented to the pharaoh for approval.

In Egyptian domestic architecture, interior architectural detail and surface treatment were influenced by the hierarchical status of the owner as well as by economy. Floors were covered with a variety of materials; mainly mud plaster or mud brick, although stone and glazed tiles were also incorporated in the palaces. Walls were often surfaced with plaster applied to a base of brick or mud.When the owner was affluent, stone or glazed tiles were used to line the walls. Ornamental treatment for wall surfaces include painting, use of inlay, and relief carving (Figure 1.17).

Mesopotamia on the other hand was a clay civilization, and houses were usually simple, made of mud and inward looking with the main rooms placed around an open internal court (Figure 1.18). For temple construction the Mesopotamian builder had to conceive a highly original way of disguising the ubiquitous characteristics of the clay material he was forced to use. His method was basically to manufacture tens of thousands of clay nails about 4 inches (10 cm.) long that he baked in the sun. He then dipped them in different colored paint and left them to dry. Once dry, these brightly colored clay nails were inserted into the wet plaster to give a highly decorative effect (Figure 1.19). Ceilings were supported by walls, as well as by stone or wood columns. Many examples of ceiling patterns are attested to, which include geometric and religious themes as well as scenes from nature. Both the Egyptians and their Mesopotamian counterparts had a penchant for applying strong color in their decorative schemes.

FIGURE 1.17 Examples of Egyptian decorative motifs.
FIGURE 1.18 Ur: A sectional reconstruction of an affluent house of the time of Abraham, c. 2000 B.C. (Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Mesopotamia)
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