How do you build heaven? It’s a rhetorical question of course, because no one knows what heaven looks like. Even so, if there were any building in the world close to heaven, we believe it would be the iconic Pantheon in Rome. Rolf Blakstad was around eight years old when his father took him and his siblings on an architectural pilgrimage to the eternal city. It would be the first of many trips to see this remarkable structure that has informed, inspired and mystified him ever since.
The Pantheon is the best-preserved building from Ancient Rome. Beautiful, mysterious and exquisitely built, it was designed to awe those who enter despite its ingenious simplicity. “For me, the Pantheon is more about what’s not there,” says Blakstad. “The space between everything is as important as the structure itself.” The Pantheon’s original purpose in Roman life is not fully understood, despite an overarching belief that it was built as a temple to celebrate all of the Roman gods and an earthly gateway to the cosmos. Tradition states it was the location of Rome’s mythic founder Romulus’ ascent into heaven. Some scholars suggest it was more of a dynastic clubhouse associated with the emperors’ divine authority while shoring up the emerging trend of Rome’s ruler cult. The truth is, we just don’t know for sure.
The building was once flanked by a long colonnade which obscured the barrel-shaped rotunda, making the entrance through the portico into the domed interior even more stunning. The Corinthian columns of the portico are themselves a marvel. Each 11.8-metre high column weighs 60 tonnes and is made from one piece of Egyptian granite that was dragged more than 100 kilometres from a quarry to the Nile and then floated on barges across to the Roman port of Ostia.
Geometric clarity is the defining feature of the Pantheon. Perfect proportions are one of the reasons the structure is so pleasing to the eye, with the distance from the floor to the oculus being exactly the same as the diameter of the dome. The circle in a square motif is repeated in tiles and of course in the oculus – a perfect circle open to the skies at the top of the dome. The sun pours through this ‘eye’, casting a golden circle that travels across the interior of the dome throughout the day.
The interior coffers, or niches, are divided into 28 sections, equal to the number of columns below. It is said that 28 is a perfect number – meaning it is equal to the sum of its divisors. That is to say, 2 + 4 + 7 + 14 = 28. Perfect numbers were often thought to connect the earthly realm with the cosmos, which would have been wonderfully exhibited every April 21, the date of Rome’s founding and the day the emperor would stand in splendour in the piazza as sun’s rays streaming through the oculus would fall through the grates of the doors, casting god-like beams around him. A sight like that would be hard for even the most seditious citizen to resist. Who doesn’t want to be in the presence of a god?
The Byzantines took over Rome in the year 330, after which the Pantheon fell into decline. However, it was Pope Boniface who inadvertently saved the building – not only from disrepair, but from the ravages of the Middle Ages by consecrating it as a Christian church in 609. Saint Mary’s and the Martyrs was the first Roman pagan temple to be converted to a church and the Papacy continues to maintain it today. Naturally, as one of the most beautiful churches in the world, it became the burial place for many a renaissance superstar such as the painter Raphael and his fiancé, King Victor Emmanuel II and his son King Umberto I, his wife Margherita of Savoy, composer Arcangelo Corelli and architect Baldassare Peruzzi.
Given the building’s proportions, architectural perfection and historical significance, it’s no surprise that it is Rolf Blakstad’s first choice when naming buildings that inspire him. He has recreated its shapes in a few smaller replicas or homages, always testing the ancient techniques to get a better understanding of how they were achieved. “It’s very simple actually,” he explains. “You use a stick and a piece of string. Sometimes the age-old technology is so modest, and the results are so much better.”
Of course, he has taken his own daughters there on an architectural pilgrimage just as his father did with him. “They could immediately see the connection between the earth and the heavens. They got it,” he recalls. “We all seem to be understanding more and more, that what we do is not superior to what people were doing thousands of years ago. Nowhere near it. In my opinion, the Pantheon has never been equalled.” Architecturally and from an engineering perspective, the Pantheon is the essence of genius and grace.