Peter Jackson’s trilogy of 2001-2-3 is more than a sweeping, gorgeous adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s books, and more than a massive magnet of critical acclaim, public adulation and a small army of award statuettes. It’s also your easy-peasy guide to pretty much everything you need to learn about architectural history. The combined run time of the movies equals just over eleven hours, which is also a much more efficient means of absorbing the essentials into your noggin when compared with the drudgery of attending some forty 50-minute lectures across a whole semester. And while your professor may fancy herself a wizard, when’s the last time you saw her do anything useful like zap away a Nazgûl? We didn’t think so.
Comb your feet fur and join us on our epic journey through the architecture of Middle Earth:
1. Origins Stories
Every culture has a starting point for their architectural traditions; oftentimes it’s closely aligned with their beliefs about the actual ending point for its people. Generically considered, the Egyptian benben-mastaba-pyramid, the Mesopotamian ziggurat, Buddhist stupas that become pagodas farther east, Mycenaean tombs and Etruscan tumuli are each related to its culture’s ideas about the start of things (elemental origins stories of the earth emerging from the deep; rounded rocks echoing the curvature of the heavens and so on) and the end of them (tombs for bodies and relics alike). In Rohan the earthen mounds where the dead are laid to rest are adorned by apparently wild-growing Simblemynë; by the look of the movie it’s the only place where flowers grow in the realm of men, which is a pretty sweet idea in such a stark landscape.
2. Vernacular Traditions
Until the Industrial Revolution came along and ruined everything, it was second nature (har, har) for builders to efficiently harness nearby materials to protect building inhabitants from particulars of local climate. The Shire was blissfully removed from mechanical nonsense and exhibits the Hobbits in their element, building earth-dug Hobbit Holes and public houses that are economical, cozy, and sustainable, as well as having delightful arts-and-crafts interiors tucked into the thermal mass of earth. Clever Hobbitses!
This is once place LOTR is an object lesson in what not to do. Helms Deep was sort of a disaster waiting to happen. Stuck in a niche in the hills (rather than on TOP of the hill), it presented a broad wall easily assailed by an army of zillions of orcs standing five miles wide. Granted, the ultimate entry was at the top of a tricky, skinny, defensible path (but which still allowed a full-on assault). The rest of the thing was just asking for it. And the big drain in the bottom? Surely Gondor’s historic enemies were simple foes to have overlooked that not-so-minor weakness, as well as the advantage of rappelling in from above and behind. The fall of the fortress would have been game-over had it not been for the last-minute appearance of Gandalf and the erstwhile disgraced horsemen. The Riders of Rohan would have been smarter to build as did the Mycenaeans, who did not count on wizards to save them. At Mycenae, a narrow path forces the foe to march only a few across, with their (usually) weak, left sides toward the wall where they can be beat down pretty bad even before getting to the front door. Take heed, Rohirrim.
4. Roman-ish architecture
For expressions of empire and might nobody surpasses the Romans, and all the great halls of men (“Men, who above all else desire power”) in Middle Earth bear the strategies also seen in Imperial Rome: lengthy axes defined by architectural features and sculpture (or perhaps a straggly tree and/or diving board for self-immolation) and reinforced by soaring walls bearing elaborate ornament in the finest materials available (black and white stone in Minas Tirith, finely wrought Scandinavianish interlace in Edoras). Sheltering stewards or bewitched kings, built of stone or wood with row upon and row of round arches: they’re all Roman basilicas.
5. Gothic & Art Nouveau architecture
Just as the Elves are a fair bit superior to men, their architecture is finer as well. What would you expect of a race of folk who don’t leave footprints in the snow, than architecture that is wispy, light, graceful, even an aesthetic improvement on the surrounding nature that inspires it? (And don’t forget the jewelry !) Men have (Roman) round arches; Elves have (Gothic) pointed ones in buildings that seem to predict architects like Victor Horta who have graced our puny existence.
What better to spell the end of the Elven Belle Époque than the same kind of thing that happened in our realm at the fin de siècle: out with the coup de fouet and in with the jagged langauge of Expressionism. The creepy buildings of Isengard and Moria (below) are all sublime height, jagged edges, blackness and gloom. The architecture of shivers for houses of dread and shadow.
And that’s the end of what you need to know about the history of architecture. Of course in our realm there is more to follow, including a twentieth-century story heavy with metal and glass. But never you mind that in this survey of everything you need to know about the history of architecture: you don’t need that later boring stuff, and not because it’s not in the trilogy, but rather since Tolkien taught us why we don’t need it. You know what happens to anyone who relies on metal and glass? Giant walking trees ruin their yards, they get trapped in a tower with creepy dudes, and little dudes steal their stuff. You’ve been warned.