What is the common link between the biblical Temple of Solomon, the dome over the tomb of Napoleon at Les Invalides in Paris and the Royal Bank of Canada's modern headquarters in Toronto? In all, gold has been used by the architects in one way or another. In the Temple of Solomon, the bible tells us, "Solomon overlaid the house within with pure gold: and he made a partition by the chains of gold before the oracle; and he overlaid it with gold" (Kings, book I, chapter 6, verse 21). The great dome over Napoleon's tomb is covered with gold leaf, which does not tarnish, even with the atmospheric pollution of modern Paris, and only needs to be renewed once in a generation. The Royal Bank of Canada has gold reflective glass in its windows, cutting cooling and heating costs. Thus, gold was applied from antiquity, not just for its beauty and splendour, but for its unique versatility in other applications. Even Shakespeare remarked on "The singing masons building roofs of gold" (Henry V, act I, chorus, line 198).
The role of gold was not in the structure of the building, but in its adornment and enhancement. In ancient Egypt the massive sandstone walled temples built to their gods were embellished with gold. The great monument to Ammon that Amenhotep III built at Thebes was described by a contemporary inscription as:
"An august temple ... of fine white sandstone, wrought with gold throughout; its floor is adorned with silver, all its portals with electrum (a pale yellow gold/silver alloy) ... it is supplied with a 'station of the King', wrought with gold and many costly stones. Flagstaffs are set up before it, wrought with electrum".
The Parthenon, that sacred shrine and symbol of authority, in Athens, completed in 432 BC by the architect Ictinus and the 'master of works' Callicrates, with decorations by the sculptor Phidias, equally employed gold. Standing inside its sanctuary was a monumental statue of the goddess Athena almost 12 metres (40 feet) high sculpted by Phidias from wood and covered in gold and ivory - gold for Athena's clothing, ivory for her flesh.
The empires of Rome and Byzantium introduced more subtle applications for gold within the increasing number of Christian churches and basilicas after 400 AD. This was the great age of early Christian art, which has survived primarily in the mosaics enhancing the interior of churches. The mosaics were composed of small cubes, or tesserae, made of stone, tile or glass laid in a bed of mortar; golden tesserae were made by affixing gold leaf to the cubes and often formed the background for the designs. "These mosaics owe their compelling power to the brilliancy of the gold grounds," notes the French art historian André Grabar. The church of Santa Maria Maggiore, built in Rome by Pope Sixtus III around 440 AD, remains as one of the finest early examples. The church has a splendid nave with majestic colonnades and between them panels of multicoloured mosaics. The mosaics covering the central triumphal arch are "scintillating against a gold ground", wrote André Grabar. In Ravenna the church of Sant' Apollinare in Classe, completed in 549, has similar brilliant gold backgrounds for wall paintings. Two other churches in Ravenna, Sant' Apollinaro Nuovo and San Vitale, built when it was the Italian stronghold of the Byzantine empire, contain equally compelling gold-backed mosaics. In these churches it is almost as if the architects were seeking to create an environment for mosaics and wall paintings; they are an integral part of the building.
In Constantinople itself, the capital of the Byzantine Empire for over one thousand years, the famous church of Hagia Sophia, with its great central dome held up by soaring piers, arches and vaults, originally had gold leaf on its pillars and a multitude of mosaics and wall paintings, so that its interior glowed warmly according to contemporaries; unfortunately many of these glories were destroyed in the 8th century. However, in later centuries of Byzantine power a revival came with gold-backed icons - the wooden panels covered with gold leaf painted on the screens separating the sanctuary from the nave of Byzantine churches. They can still be seen in such Istanbul churches as St Saviour in Chora.
The enhancement of buildings with gold has been global. To the Inca people of Peru, who regarded gold as the 'sweat of the sun', it was natural to adorn the walls of their Temple of the Sun at Cuzco with 700 paels of pure gold (though tragically they were ripped down by Francisco Pizarro's conquistadors). The golden spirals of Burma's celebrated temple, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, which dominates the Rangoon skyline, demonstrates the Buddhist religion's widespread use of gold in its temples and statues of Buddha, to which faithful worshippers often stick even more little specks of gold leaf. In Japan, the Moa Art Museum has a tea ceremony room completely decorated in gold, with gold leaf on the walls and 24 carat teapots and cups for the ceremony itself.
In a rather different attempt to improve the environment, Charles I of England once ordered that all London goldsmiths should work in Cheapside and Lombard Street so that the area should be "an ornament ... and lustre to the City". A sentiment that might seem worthy of modern urban planners.
And indeed, the love of dressing up buildings, religious and secular, in gold has not diminished. The ceiling of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York is dressed with gold leaf, as is the Helmsley Building astride Park Avenue. Politicians, too, seem to enjoy debating under an aura of gold. The state capitol buildings in Denver, Colorado, and Canada's Houses of Parliament in Ottawa have touched up their domes with gold leaf. Prestige is not the only reason. "If you paint a capital dome you're lucky if it lasts more than four or five years; but gold leaf will stay on for twenty-five or thirty years," says Mathew Swift, president of Swift & Sons, whose family firm has been beating out gold leaf for nearly 150 years.
Modern technology has found new uses for gold in buildings, both to reflect heat and to retain it. Glass coated with a thin film of gold not only reflects the sun in summer, but in winter bounces internal heat back into rooms, thus retaining warmth within the building. At the Royal Bank of Canada building in Toronto the 77.7 kilo (2,500 ounces) of gold used in its 27,000 windows was chosen primarily for energy conservation. In another Canadian building with gold glass not only were cooling and heating costs cut by 40 per cent, but the capital cost was also less because a smaller air conditioning plant was required. Aside from economy, the subdued greenish light within a building can create a particular mood, especially in such places as the Garden Court of Coutts' banking house in London, which is roofed entirely with golden glass. From ancient Egypt to modern banks, it seems architects find a use for gold.