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Building Power with the Spark Series

On Thursday 3 December, Ms K Murray from the Classics department gave a talk on the power of architecture and the architecture of power. Some aspects of this Spark Lecture were informed by her Masters thesis, while others were related to the annual Classics trip to Rome. In the talk, ‘Power Building: What do buildings tell us about those who build them?’ Ms Murray explored three key arguments drawn from classical architecture…

Firstly, that all buildings, ancient or modern, are built to demonstrate the builder’s power and status. Trajan’s column dominates the skyline of Rome and is an unmistakable landmark which tourists flock to in their thousands each year. The column, although a beautiful example of Roman craftsmanship and engineering, is also a political statement by the Emperor Trajan. In a world before telecommunications, the internet and Twitter, in order to broadcast your power and success to the world (especially an ancient world which was mostly illiterate), buildings packed a punch and delivered an unequivocal message about that person’s power and status. The same message of power can be detected today in London’s vertiginous skyline, which is becoming dotted with skyscrapers such as the Shard and the Gherkin.

Secondly we explored the idea that all builders, whether ancient or modern, engage in competition to outdo their predecessors, in their attempts to build taller, larger and more extravagant buildings. This constant upgrading and competitive construction thus leads to a city, like Rome, becoming a battleground, as successive emperors seek to stamp their own authority onto the fabric of the city and lay the foundations of their dynasty at the expense of others.

Thirdly we examined how the lives of ancient Romans were controlled by the buildings of their own city. The building of the Colosseum by the Flavian dynasty was a political manoeuvre as well as an act of largesse, as it transformed an area which had been Nero's own pleasure grounds, into an area dedicated to the entertainment of the Roman people.

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