Asked to name our favorite concrete building, many of us would struggle to hold back a sneer. Though the copious use of that material by mid-twentieth-century style known as Brutalism has lately gained new generations of enthusiasts, we still more commonly hear it lamented as a source of architectural “monstrosities.” But as a building material, concrete goes back much further in history than the decades following World War II. To find a universally beloved example, we need merely look back to second-century Rome. There we find the Pantheon, looking much the same as it does in twenty-first century Rome today.
The best-preserved monument of ancient Rome, the Pantheon (not to be confused with the Greek Parthenon) has remained in continuous use, first as “a temple to the gods, then sanctified and made into a church. Now, of course, it’s a major tourist attraction.” So says scholar Steven Zucker in the Khan Academy video above, a brief photographic tour he leads alongside his colleague Beth Harris.
“As soon as you walk in, you notice that there’s a kind of obsession with circles, with rectangles, with squares, with those kinds of perfect geometrical shapes,” says Harris. “Because of the Roman use of concrete, the idea [obtained] that architecture could be something that shaped space and that could have a different kind of relationship to the viewer.”
You can go deeper into the Pantheon (built circa 125 AD) through the tour video by Youtuber Garrett Ryan, creator of the ancient-history channel Told in Stone. Calling the Pantheon “arguably the most influential building of all time,” he goes on to support that bold claim by examining a host of structural and aesthetic elements (not least its sublimely spherical rotunda) that would inspire architects in the Renaissance, a time dedicated to making use of ancient Greek and Roman knowledge, and in some sense ever after. This may come as a surprise to viewers with only a casual interest in architecture — more than it would to the Emperor Hadrian, commissioner of the Pantheon, who seems not to have been given to great doubts about the durability of his legacy.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.