January 7, 2009

The Year of Palladio

Palladio's Villa Rotonda (E. Bootsma)

So ends 2008, declared by the Institute of Classical Architecture/Classical America to be the Year of Palladio. Andrea Palladio, an Italian architect of the Renaissance, is considered by many historians and architects today to be one of the greatest architects of history, if not THE greatest. Though the Year has ended, museums still are holding exhibitions in honor of the noble architect.

Praise has been filtering in from across the globe from architects, academics and from the architectural press. In NovemberRoger K Lewis of the Washington Post extolls the greatness of Palladio in terms of his masterful use of mathematics and harmony. Architecture critic Jonathan Glancey (Guardian UK) is not at a loss for words to praise Palladio.

However just as lauds are given to Palladio, they are always given in terms that reject any acceptance of classicism today. A caption for a photo accompanying the Glancey article reveal the bias of current architectural critique:
"...Palladians, were drawn to the crystal-clear design, free of the pomp and lavish baroque that preceded Palladio"
This is a typical line of argument in architectural history given by Pevsner, that great architects in the past were part of a great sweeping movement towards an inevitable Modernism of today. Truly great architects were not ones that practiced using tradition, precedent or beauty, rather
they are reformers, rebels and rare geniuses (Michelangelo is always seen as the solitary genius).

Palladio is always seen in terms of his stark churches, pure and white, as if he was sort of a Corbusier of the 16th Century. Rarely is it mentioned that Palladio preferred a church to be pure and white for theological, not architectural, reasons. Nor is it said he preferred for houses, lavish paintings and decoration, for this would not fit well with his reputation as a "purifier" of architecture, or as Glancey calls him, "a proto-modern."

The critics and academics make it clear that Palladio is NOT to be praised as great without reference to his time. Palladio is only to be understood and praised in so far as he is part of the development towards modernism, designing in the tradition of Palladio today would be "controversial" or simply verboten.

Glancey makes it clear:
Even today, there are architects, notably the father and son team Quinlan and Francis Terry, who continue to work in a tradition descended from Palladio. In fact, the Terrys attract controversy precisely because they insist on pursuing a line of Palladianism ... as if the days of Palladio, or at least his ideals, were still part, parcel and pediment of everyday life.
Palladio's ideals, beauty, harmony, order, learning from tradition, do not apply today, according to Glancey. He is wrong. The principles of beauty and order are as true today as they have been for centuries, and we call architects great not because they have created something new ex nihilo, but have uncovered or understood the great truths of beauty which is not created, but discovered. The truth about beauty is that is not changing, not different for different times or men, but is universal through out time and place.

January 2, 2009

Pastiche Ban a Stealth Ban on Classicism

Over at Greater Greater Washington a debate has been raging about an editorial penned by the English architect Robert Adam about the use of the term "pastiche." Adam makes the argument that the term pastiche, at least in the British dominions, has become a sort of buzzword used by contemporary critics to lambaste the New Classical architecture as some sort of schlock. Adam is justifiably incensed. Even the most elementary student of rhetoric would know the use of the "P word" is the worst sort of straw man argument.

Pastiche, which Adam defines as “a composition made up of bits of other works or imitations of another’s style,” is indeed a ignominious thing. Certainly the term is properly applied to a lot of bad architecture, as a commenter on GGW noted:

"Essentially, the clearest embodiment of pastiche is the McMansion. Where builders use "traditional" materials and forms, picking a little bit of this and a little bit of that, layer them all on top of each other without rhyme or reason, put them all together and in their marketing materials call it the King George Plantation model 5-bedroom, 3-car garage "traditional architecture." That is pastiche."

McMansion showing typical lack of harmonious composition.

Clearly, there is a lot of this sort of architecture out there, especially in the US. Such a thing rightfully should be avoided, but when this sort of bad non-architecture is connected with all New Classical architecture, the straw man pops his head out of the cornfield. This crow however is not fooled such scarecrows.

The distinction missed in the connection is the "rhyme or reason" of a properly educated architect. The trained eye of a Classical architect knows the difference between good and bad architecture and knows how to compose a beautiful building. The untrained eye sees no difference between the "McMansion" and a historic Alexandria Georgian manor house.

Kingfishers House by Robert Adam Architects (1998)

So too the critic blurs the distinction between the untrained cacophony of most suburban tracts and a harmonious composition made by one trained in the principles of architecture. However, unlike the merely ignorant, the critic blurs this distinction mendaciously.

This is what raises the hackles of the New Classicist Adam, that the critic knows better, but lumps the good in with the bad, so the critic's own ideology remains triumphant. But this triumph rests on shaky rhetorical grounds, and one wonders what other assumptions of the current architectural status-quo have equally shaky foundations? It remains to reform education about art and architecture, as well as understanding of rhetoric to counter such mendacity, that however is another discussion.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all my readers. I know that I've been on a bit of a hiatus, but I have made it a New Year's resolution to post here on a regular basis. So after all the Christmastide revelry, gallons of eggnog, countless hours of college bowl games and such, it's time to get back to the business of architecture.

Posts coming up today and in the next week or two will be focusing on:

Architectural theory - Doing my best to discover a "new" theory of architecture.

Pastiche - Responding to a series of comments on Greater Greater Washington about Robert Adam's criticism of the word.

Beauty - Following up on Abdel El-Wakil's comments on the first principles of architecture.

Historic Preservation - Keeping up on the DC area debates about what constitutes architecture worth preserving.

Architectural Education - Trying to define some basic principles in educating architects of the future.

Welcome back, lets get the ball rolling in a New Year!
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