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.

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