Assessment / Byzantine Institute / Hagia Sophia / Kariye Camii / Robert Van Nice / Thomas Whittemore

More Than One Way to Measure a Building

As I’ve noted before, Van Nice and Thomas Whittemore (the socialite and amateur archaeologist who oversaw the mosaics restoration project at Hagia Sophia) didn’t exactly get along.  Van Nice’s letters and notes give the distinct impression that Whittemore essentially ran Hagia Sophia during the years that he was there, which caused endless friction between the two. Often, no one was allowed inside the building any time that Whittemore wasn’t physically on site, which was especially irritating given the fact that he was known to leave abruptly and without warning for days or weeks at a time.

Van Nice also complained about being roped into checking measurements and giving hours of his time to Whittemore’s project. Being constantly mistaken as a member of Whittemore’s team, even in published accounts, only made matters worse.

Because of these and other, more ideological reasons, Van Nice developed a strong distaste for what he saw as the slow, sloppy, and expensive work done by the Byzantine Institute not only at Hagia Sophia, but also at other sites, like the restoration work at Kariye Camii (also known as Chora Church).  At the root of his complaint was the fact that much more money was spent on the Kariye project, despite the fact that Hagia Sophia was a much larger and more complicated building, and arguably occupied a more important spot in the history of architecture. Furthermore, despite all the resources poured into Kariye, almost no published material came out of the project, which was inexcusable to Van Nice.

Apparently, one of his favorite things to do when he was feeling especially bitter was to come up with unflattering ways in which to compare (in terms of precise measurement, of course) his work at Hagia Sophia with that done by the Byzantine Institute at Kariye Camii.  I came across some notes yesterday which illustrate Van Nice’s creative approach to venting his frustrations, or gathering evidence of inequity, or whatever it may be.  A few of them are pictured below, with partial transcriptions following.

Robert L. Van Nice Collection

In this note, titled “KARIYE: Area in dollar bills:,” Van Nice calculates that “70,000 one dollar bills would pave the entire area of Kariye’s ground plan,” meaning that, “The total cost of that project lasting from 1950 to 1965 with sometimes as many as 20 men…could be computed in layers of one dollar bills (or three dollar bricks), or by other comparisons.” By contrast, it would evidently take $442, 164 one dollar bills to pave the ground floor of Hagia Sophia.

Robert L. Van Nice Collection

Here, Van Nice straightforwardly compares the amount of money spent on each project over 10 years: roughly $300,000 for Kariye, and $90,000 for Hagia Sophia, despite the fact that Kariye is “a building 1/30th the size” of Hagia Sophia. (Note that this means that you could pave all of Kariye Camii with a few layers of dollar bills given the calculations from the previous note, but wouldn’t even be able to pave 1/4 of Hagia Sophia with just one layer given the amount of money that was spent on Van Nice’s project).

Robert L. Van Nice Collection

Or, if dollars per square foot is a little too mundane for your taste, perhaps you’d be interested in knowing the value of Kariye Camii in terms of “Square Ph. D’s,” “Cubic Byzantine Institutes,” “Man-hours per square foot,” “Photographs per square meter,” or “Area divided by the number of specialists involved.”

In addition to being amusing and personal accounts of the politics involved in funding these kinds of projects, these notes are useful sources because they contain clues about what Van Nice valued in an archaeological project, and what he expected from his fellow scholars, historians, and archaeologists.  “Photographs per square meter” only makes sense as a comparative unit of measurement if you value, as Van Nice certainly did, diligent documentation of every part of a project and every part of the building surveyed.

Similarly, the suggestion of “Square Ph.D’s” as a unit of measurement reflects Van Nice’s insistence that the value of an archaeological project is directly proportional to the amount of useful, precisely taken and consistently recorded information that comes out of it (and is made available to others).  As I mentioned in a previous post, the amount of raw data in this collection could easily accomodate a significant number of Ph.D projects.  He may not have published as much as he would have liked to in the end, but it definitely wasn’t for lack of effort.  The work done at Kariye, however, produced very little material in comparison, published or otherwise.

It is difficult to know how much it weighed on him personally, but I’m tempted to think that the fundamental injustice Van Nice felt must have provided some of the fuel for his unwavering commitment to finishing the project according to his own high standards.  He may have felt under-appreciated at the time, but he was able to maintain an energy and a devotion to his work that never allowed him to settle for anything less than perfection.


One thought on “More Than One Way to Measure a Building

  1. Pingback: Setting the Stage: Background on the Byzantine Institute | icfa

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