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Saturday, 30 April 2011

From Myth to Reality

Like most people, the editors of Fortean Times generally ignore everything I say (presumably because most of what I say is indistinguishable from the ravings of a lunatic). However, this month's issue, FT275, does contain a letter from me... the first since FT187 way back in September 2004! The subject isn't particularly Fortean, but it's an interesting example of the way a long-standing "myth" can eventually become reality.

In this case, the myth in question concerns the great architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632 - 1723), who was supposed to have installed columns to support the ceiling of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford because his patrons insisted they were necessary. However, because Wren knew the columns were not in fact necessary, he built them so they stopped just short of the ceiling and didn't support it at all. This story was featured in FT271 (February 2011) in the "Mythconceptions" department, and can be read online here.

When I saw this, it rang a bell because I remembered hearing something very similar on a TV programme a few months earlier. Here is the text of my letter:

Another example of redundant architectural columns cropped up in the "Climbing Great Buildings" series shown on BBC2 last year. In the episode dealing with the Glasgow School of Art (aired 20 September 2010), it was revealed that the wooden pillars that appear to hold the roof up are not actually supporting anything. The capitals which supposedly form the top of the pillars are in fact hanging from the roof, while the pillars themselves are purely decorative. The architect in this instance was Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who the programme's presenter Jonathan Foyle describes as a "joker" and a "showman" whose aim here was "to have fun with traditional architectural styles".

Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868 - 1928) is more famous today as a furniture designer of the Art Nouveau school, but in his early years he was also an architect. The Glasgow School of Art was Mackintosh's first major work, as the Sheldonian Theatre had been Wren's more than two hundred years earlier.

Here is the relevant clip from Climbing Great Buildings (thanks to Paul Jackson for help in locating and extracting it).

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