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Establishing Period Style

 

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Excerpt from Creating the Custom Home.

To order this hyperlinked CD rom go to CD's/ Books.  To go to a comprehensive listing of reference books concerning the history and evolution of the private residence and related works go to Bibliography.
  • "Boxy, but Good" is an essay describing the benefits of simple geometry in the layout of the floor plan, as created by prominent Renaissance architects, with applications to today's custom homes. 

  • "Millennial Architecture, Traditionalism, and The American Luxury Home"anticipates the future by examining the past. 

  • "A Not So Big Idea": Why the "Not So Big" approach is not complete nor accurate in its assessment of American lifestyle, space needs, style trends, nor cost trade-offs.

  • Disney's Celebration: Another Stepford?  New Urbanism failure.

  • "The New Cultural Urbanism" with John Henry and Allan Banks, television feature. (no longer online)

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On Re-creating Period Architectural Styles: To be or not to be historically 'correct'

'Period Style’ is usually a referent to historical styles based on Greco-Roman or gothic motifs developed after the Renaissance. Technically the term can be used to identify any architectural production from antiquity to current fashion dated by either a unique artistic and/ or material innovation usually associated with a historical period and its social, cultural or political system. Period style has had a negative connotation among modernist theorists since it implies an unoriginal adaptation of a previously established way of designing and building, prior to of course the dawn of the Modern Movement.

Modernism

That all contemporary architecture should be ‘of our time’ is a postulate of modernist thinking, meaning that architects must use only the latest industrial materials production and the appropriate construction applications, to solve the exigent ‘problem’ or programmatic spatial/building requirements. The result can only be a logical, rational form. This ‘architecture’ of pure function is not, and can not, be arbitrary; it cannot be based on a priori aesthetic principles or composition. Beauty, if possible, is the result of a mechanical process that has been distilled so that all architects can apply the same process to all programs to produce similarly appropriate results. This methodology has produced the occasionally strikingly bold and original signature piece by leading practitioners but has left in the main a legacy of mediocre to barbarically insensitive works in the residential and commercial sphere. Mass production techniques cut out any contribution by individual artisans except for the simplest trimming of details. And if we must rely only on the latest materials and processes (machine made glass, steel, plastics, ferro-concrete, etc.) when is the cut off date for what is permitted --1840, 1940, 1980, last month, last year, last week, or yesterday?

Classicism

By the moderns’ thinking, all architecture that refers to classical influence of any type therefore is necessarily ‘not of our time’, an archaeological vestige unworthy intellectually at least, and not fitting for reproduction in any form or for any reason. The classicist view is that a three thousand year tradition cannot be abrogated by any pseudo-intellectual argument, albeit in the instances of expediency allowing minor movements that stray from this tradition for only a short period of time (for example, fulfilling a housing and infrastructure shortage at the end of world wars) and that eventually in times of peace and fruition a turning to the ‘people’s art’ is inevitable; that architecture is a public art more than a private one; that civitas must be maintained between the individual and the public realm, and that a fitting architecture has evolved and is in place which offers a complete vocabulary – an eternal language – suitable to fulfill practically all the urban, commercial, public and private building needs of succeeding generations.

Post-Modernism

"My hope is that our reluctance to abandon traditional architecture in our homes will lead us back to a re-examination of the classical tradition in our civic life as well."  Alvin Holm

This recent (15-20 year) movement was based on a prevailing political and social change towards plurality in personal and artistic expression. If modernism was perhaps extreme in its agenda, then other views were permitted, even the invocation of precedent. At the beginning, the practitioner who included classical elements in his or her work risked censure by the status quo theorists and architectural critics, so such examples had to be packaged with ‘irony’ or intellectual apologetics – exaggerations, purposely out of scale elements, ‘playful’ concoctions, irrational arrangements of the architectural elements, etc. – to soften the academic backlash. In reality, postmodernism was a response to a call to end or modify the strict dogma of modernism; it was the first step to assuage a disenfranchised public, one that was tired of modernism’s incessant banalities hiding behind a metaphysical curtain. No more blank walls and soulless concrete and glass. No more boxes, no more extruded diagrams. wpe1.jpg (5731 bytes)

The parallel thinking in philosophy and social science has produced a cultural relativism that is reflected in our current architecture.  The production of idiosyncratic works with 'quotation', 'irony', etc.where there is 'no necessary connection between the signifier and the signified, between spoken word and object' (Derrida) has led to unstudied compositions leading to further bizarre works of deconstruction.  No rules, no process, no building on achievements generally considered sine qua non in previous generations -- only the unfettered search for the new, the sensational: to be of the moment.

-- "that way madness lies." Christopher Norris


Status Quo

The problem now is that an insatiate and slowly re-educated public is demanding more than the profession is capable of delivering: period work that is authentic in spirit, style, and detail. The postmodern architect – meaning almost all architects practicing today – has had little or absolutely no training in the creation of classical or gothic architecture, the root form of period work. There was no teaching on basic theory except in describing a dry progression from the Egyptian pyramids to the Paris opera, and this has been only in the past 20 years. Walter Gropius, Bauhaus initiate and Harvard professor in the early half century, insisted on "starting from zero". The profession is ignorant, inept -- the academic world only softening their implacable stance on attempting any approach towards teaching the breadth of classical architectural theory. To practice serious period work now entails personal research and study, observation, and steady practice. To pretend otherwise proves folly with usually ridiculous outcomes.

The architect, who employs period elements then, is drawing on tradition to design for current needs and wishes. Whenever we design and build projects offering ‘original’ works, it is only disingenuous to claim an ignorance of all that preceded; it is stupidity to purposefully ignore the great works of the classical past. Every architectural work is a period piece unless our definitions of gravity, windows and doors, walls and roofs, floors and ceilings have changed -- or change from day to day. We always build variations or near copies of what were built before. Anything else is anti-architecture: deconstruction is one such manifestation.

Consider a writer or playwright, or even a musician who must invent a completely different language, notation or script upon writing or composing successive works in order to claim originality. Such a notion is absurd. One uses the same language with proper syntax to communicate to his audience but tell a different, or slightly different, story. The syntax of column and wall, pitched roof, porch and arcade, beam and arch – and the multitude of evolutionary original variations -- has been concretized over four millennia and remains still the vital source, inspiration and model for any contemporary work, period or modernistic. Whether one builds of wood, stone, or steel the component pieces remain the same, the ideal model is intact. One can strip away the decorative work that embellishes, the vestigial bands, trim, and moldings necessary to articulate and join the parts, but in the end the syntax remains. Consider, for example, how similar the multistoried Palazzo Farnese resembles the modern mid-rise office block, especially now that ribbon glass is being minimized for energy conservation. Moreover, why does modern steel construction resemble the timber frame in its layout and principles of connection?

In the residential field, the penchant for modern or postmodern work appeals to a very slight minority. Throughout the changing mainstream of artistic production this century on canvas, with sculpture, film or music, the form of the house has remained relatively constant. Only when the simple house is elevated to villa, palace, or mansion [Def: Middle English, a dwelling, from Old French, from Latin mânsio, mânsion-, from mânsus, past participle of manêre, to dwell, remain.] does style become a conscious objective. Otherwise, one builds in the vernacular. The vernacular form can mutate of course or disappear completely through neglect or more likely, from outside influence (style mongers) or for reasons of cost and affordability.

Present period work on the whole is inaccurate, sloppy, and often farcical or grotesque. This is a problem due simply to a lack of an in-depth education of the orders and theories of proportion and composition (terms outlawed by the modernists) by registered architects, and the even more unfortunate circumstance of the suburban house culture in the main, where over 90% of the residential landscape is designed by in-house draftspersons of large production builders and ‘residential designers’ accepting custom home commissions, whose backgrounds are nearly completely devoid of any theoretical instruction concerning period design. Even for the aspiring classicist or period architect or designer, the direct link with academia or a 'master' in which the tradition is properly understood is not possible.

Greco-Roman and Gothic models

As mentioned at the beginning, we usually refer to period style work derived from the Greek and Roman example that was developed throughout Europe following the Renaissance. When we speak of French, Italian, Mediterranean, English, Dutch, etc. period style, we are recollecting the post-Renaissance architecture typical of a certain country and time of history. Nevertheless, it is not that easy to categorize the period because art is constantly changing from generation to generation, even within a lifetime.

Art and architecture may evolve to a high point, then plunge to a limbo before being both rediscovered and revived or forever dying out. Extinction of a culture usually spells an end of its art. Egyptian art and architecture is chronologically specific but after the might of its latter kingdoms waned found its artistic heritage barely appreciated outside its borders. The Cretan kingdom was wiped out by earthquake and tidal wave; the artifacts at Knossos, especially the inverted column, are not to be found elsewhere. The Etruscan people practically vanished with their architecture. Fortunately, the Romans appreciated the remains of the once proud Athenian acropolis and the colonial Ionians enough from which to grow their unique buildings of brick, mortar and stucco as well as hand hewn stone. However, after half a millennium of conquest and glory their protracted defeat by the Goths threw their masterworks into obscurity and ruin. Another thousand years passed before the great temples, forums, amphitheaters, and baths were rediscovered and measured, rebuilt and restored forming the pure models for classical revivals henceforth. The intervening latter period, the Romanesque (consisting of Roman and Byzantine styles of the 11th and 12th centuries), offers a wealth of detail and beauty that inspired Florida architect Addison Mizner in the 1920’s to combine Tuscan stone, stucco and tile roofs in creating a unique Mediterranean period style residential architecture.  Architects of subsequent generations share the same privilege.

Evolution of the Periods

As each European country of the 15th and 16th centuries interpreted the Renaissance interest in Greek and Roman art and architecture, they had to build on or reject the unique architecture that was already in place -- that termed Gothic originating in Norman France. The Romans viewed the Goths as barbarians; their architecture was likewise despised. Thus began a rift between the antique classical tradition of Greece and Rome against the 'modern' gothic style (a unique method of stone construction which lasted for nearly 400 years before being revived in the 19th century), a rift which threw academics and practitioners into theoretical polemics again and again during the 17th through 19th centuries. [Our current housing styles overall tend toward the gothic derivative as interpreted by the Victorians: the free plan and its resultant irregular roofline.]

The state architecture of Greece and Rome was adapted for public and private commercial structures in urban centers and for palaces for royalty and the wealthy merchant class, while the villa form popularized by Palladio seized the imagination of those who would build in the country and suburbs. The French kept their gothic tradition at first grafting the stylish Renaissance features, but eventually accepting the Italian pure form -- with some modifications, notably the steeper rooflines. While the Italian Renaissance was clearly a revival of the Roman republican and imperial type (the 14th- 15th century Italian artist/ architect/ builder had meager means to explore the Aegean Hellenic marble and stone temples), it was only in the early 19th century that archeological record was available to the architect desiring to correctly emulate the pure Grecian type, on which the Romans believed was their basis.

As each country’s architects compared their vernacular works to the Renaissance discovery of Roman architecture, distinct personal interpretation and invention – a combination of craft and education – was woven together that left distinct imprints per house, city and town. The Renaissance ‘period’ then has to be further subdivided into the various countries in Europe that aspired to integrate the ancient way of building into their current architectural practices which was based at that time, in the 14th and 15th centuries, on gothic and Romanesque form. The gothic manner of building, as a major architectural phenomenon, developed nonetheless completely on its own track before fading away toward the end of the 18th century.

The gothic and classical modes, although theoretically completely opposite in style and composition, form, engineering, etc., were either combined in varying degrees as each architect was moved in the ensuing centuries (an eclectic motive), or were archaeologically duplicated in exterior form and major detail, while serving modern needs. Revivals of these two primary roots of the Western Tradition continued after the Renaissance to contemporary times, each having its major and minor recurrences, the major ones termed Neo-classical or Victorian, Greek Revival or Gothic Perpendicular for example. The appreciation for both models has never faded in spite of modernist experimentation. And architects to this day attempt ‘period style’ revivals of their own, one project at a time, at their clients’ bidding. The question remains: how good are these revivals: can contemporary architects, builders, and craftspersons design and execute the work in an authentic manner?

Identifying the Periods

In attempting to identify period styles in architecture, and to realize the difficulty involved, we need only to examine the Egyptian evolution in art and architecture to understand that within each country’s historical development, the archaeologist may identify distinct shifts in form, craftsmanship, decorative effects, scale and type. The history of Egypt includes several dynasties ruling over 3,000 years among which the earliest are deemed artistically superior, while the latter show dissolution. It can be confirmed that Egypt enjoyed its own Renaissance, much like that of the United States commonly figured at the turn of the century. Attempting an Egyptian period style makes about as much sense as trying to build in the American period or French, English or Italian. Clearly further subdivisions are necessary. The English Tudor style, for example, was an artistic development paralleling the ruling dynasty begun by Henry VII until Elizabeth I, a period of about 118 years. The Tudor style evolved during that time and can be accurately described as

"…a transitional style between Gothic Perpendicular and Palladian. Manor houses, built for the new trading families, exhibit the style's characteristics of greater domesticity and privacy: rooms multiplied as the great hall's importance diminished; oak-paneled interiors had plaster relief ornament; furniture increased. Exteriors showed modified perpendicular features, e.g., square-headed, mullioned windows. Brickwork combined with half-timber, high pinnacled gables, and numerous chimneys to create a distinctive look. Principal Tudor examples are parts of Hampton Court Palace (begun 1515) and some colleges of Oxford and Cambridge."

Notice that this dictionary definition includes comments relating to lifestyle (domesticity and privacy), the floor plan or layout (number of rooms, sizes, and change in use), the interior details (oak panel and plaster ornament), interior furnishings (an increase in permanent fixtures), the exterior form (perpendicular geometry), the fenestration (square-headed mullioned windows), the exterior materials (brickwork and half-timbering), and the roofline (pinnacled gables and numerous chimneys).

Establishing the Period: Materials, Planning, Composition and Detail

Such an examination as above is necessary to define the essential ingredients of a period. The overall layout is specific to a period. It reflects the lifestyle of its occupants per that time. The status of the homeowner is evident by the scope of construction, the expense of materials, the quality of the work, the level of elaboration in its decorative effects. The architecture of the king’s castle is different from the Lord’s manor, which is still larger and more elaborate than that of the lowly merchant’s townhouse, etc. So even within a period, domestic, public and private buildings may have varying characteristics. The elements that are most similar among all are generally used to identify the period.

We can note how kitchens are often separated from formal areas and completely segregated into separate structures. Why is this? Because the slaughter of animals and cooking odors was offensive and the fear of fire from multiple pits and ovens could spread to engulf the living quarters. Even townhouses of Tudor times had separate kitchens and outhouses, a feature that prevailed until the 19th century.

The plan will reveal how close farm animals, stores, and servant’s quarters are set to the owner’s private apartments. We can see how large the separate rooms came to be relative to each other, how that built-in closets were not in use, but rather chests and armoires which were carried back and forth from other residences. Secret passageways, the separation of staff persons, stables, armories, sick rooms, anterooms, etc. can be identified per period.

The materials for construction: how the stone is cut, which coloration and type of roofing is employed, the finishing and textural finishes, the handling of wood and trim, the application of plaster detailing, moldings and paneling, are all indicators of a particular period. The height and breadth of rooms, whether or not they corresponded to specific ratios, the flooring materials, ceiling decoration, amount of gilding, window types and general design, also point to a specific period.

Period Interiors

Period interiors are difficult to establish when it comes to furnishings and accessories. The interior architecture normally remains intact, although subsequent remodelings, to keep up with current fashion, change the interior style in regards to moldings, trim, decorative paneling, and ceiling treatments even making it at times impossible to determine what came first without going backwards through the layers. Mary Gilliatt (Period Style) points out the problem of determining the associated interior decoration:

"Unless you are a specialist in the style of decoration associated with different periods it can be confusing to distinguish between, or even to recognize, the various components that together form a particular style. Apart from the interiors depicted in early paintings (notably those from the Dutch and Flemish schools) and the domestic settings which can be glimpsed in the backgrounds of early portraits, there is very little record of what interiors were really like before the latter part of the eighteenth century."

 

Architects and interior designers normally matched the style of exterior architecture to that of the interior until exotic contrapositions and the introduction of different period treatments, rather than maintaining a single unifying style throughout, became fashionable. This change became widespread during the eclectic variations of the 19th century. Period style came under repeated attack, as academics yielded to the wild experimentation characterizing a century when no single style could claim preeminence.

A reaction against the stricture of symmetrical classicism on the interior disposition of rooms eventually led to the adoption of the gothic based ‘picturesque’ or romantic mode characterized in smaller domestic structures. Palaces, hôtels, and grand manors however seemed to retain the Renaissance French and Italian influences as interpreted by the expression of Beaux-Arts masters in the late 17th through 19th centuries. But the loose and free layout of interior space was eagerly adopted by the Victorians whose spirit we have incorporated in our time for nearly all our domestic architecture, modern (contemporary) as well as bastardized classical.

 

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Period Exteriors

The elevations that correspond to the plans are considered more telling in setting the period. An elevation that is symmetrical is usually based on the Greco-Roman model. The temple front is the definitive element. The gothic is generally asymmetrical when applied to domestic work (most of the main cathedrals were symmetrical excepting their towers, often completed by different masons at different times, or asymmetrical due to expansion or initial construction respecting irregular adjacent structures). Is the structure set on a plinth or pedestal base? Are there columns supporting arches or a straight entablature? Is the workmanship and detailing medieval, neo-classical, or Victorian? And are we speaking of American Victorian or British Edwardian? Are the columns proportional according to the Orders described by Vitruvius or is there some liberty in their ratio of width to height, the spacing between each intercolumniation, and could the voussoirs of the arches point to Art Nouveau or Art Deco perhaps?

The pitch of roof, height and width of windows, handling of stone and decorative trim elements, design of chimneys, proportion of wall to window, all combine to create a particular period style. The ratio of wood siding and trim to stone or brick is important. The size of the individual masonry units, how deep the mortar bed happens to be, how the joints are pointed, and in which pattern they are laid, all add up to a specific style. Are the windows casement types or single or double hung, etc.?

Signature Style

Period style can be attributed to individual architects and interior designers even. Artisans as well as architects traveled across borders, allowing further distinctions. Italian architects were invited to remain at court in France and England. English architects were employed in Russia. Palladio’s work comprised an identifiable style that was disseminated throughout Europe via his ‘plan book’ Quattro Libri dell’Architettura, published in 1570. We can speak of Miesian, Corbusian, Wrightian, and Michaelangelesque styles. In the case of Wright, we have to inquire of which time in his life we are seeking a particular effect. His early Prairie style houses are different from the International Style of Fallingwater or the later Modernist Guggenheim museum. His very first secret commissions while working for Adler and Sullivan were in fact period style colonial revival and Tudor styles! Now we can ask for a Mark Hampton interior or Gehryesque design. We know each individual stands for a particular point of view while their oeuvre has been well publicized.

In recent years it is clearer that within movements and periods, the work of the individual architect becomes the defining element. So within the Modern movement, Mendellshon is markedly different than Gropius, the Russian structuralists vary from the Italian futurists, Paul Rudolph is not quite like Richard Meier; the Postmodernists have Michael Graves and the late Charles Moore sharing irony but not quality, Robert Stern’s and Ricardo Bofil’s attention to authenticity is not as academic as Allen Greenberg’s. The architect for Louis XVI handled frou-frou differently from his predecessor the XIV. The latter style is less flamboyant. Henry V’s apartments do not share the decorative flair of Henry VIII’s, as the royal quarters of Elizabeth I begin to be influenced by the new modern style of the    Renaissance.

Creating the Period Home

It is obvious that our notions and understanding of period style elements are barely accurate. This is due simply to a lack of proper education. The level of detail and proper dissemination of classical and gothic theory and practice is not found in the architectural curricula of most U.S. universities or even abroad (since almost all have yielded completely to the modern movement). Most architects must have to either travel abroad to witness first-hand the fine details, workmanship, and overall applications, or worse (since it is truly 'third generation') -- visit colonial to pre-40’s work in this country to witness the best examples, and/ or to rely wholly on reference books, which fortunately are in ever increasing supply as relates to historical and period architecture of all types. Only two or three U.S. universities offer comprehensive courses in classical production.  We have a hazy idea about our ‘French country’, ‘English Tudor’, ‘Mediterranean’, and ‘Contemporary’ styles, at least what the recent spate of fashion designers interpret for our digestion. That they are mostly woefully inadequate in proper execution is deplorable. The fact remains that good period work is more costly and time consuming to recreate than the half-baked 'transitional' styles filling in. So little is produced that is truly first rate. Our current ‘custom’ homes, generally merchant built notwithstanding, are greatly distilled and stripped-down variations of true period architecture.

Vanderbilt’s Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina is an ideal example of near-perfect period work. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, this sprawling estate was the culmination of hard experience and learning. Hunt was one of a few Americans who attended the internationally prestigious Paris school of fine arts (Beaux Arts) near the turn of the century, France’s leading institution of the decorative arts. Here he studied the Grand Manner by sketching entire buildings and classical elements on site, by learning theories of proportion, composition, principles of axial symmetry, and renderings of wondrous imaginary projects consisting of palaces, public works, casinos, bridges, fountains, and the like. In the atelier system  Master was able to transmit to the pupil as much as possible in terms of theory and technique. Ancient and exemplary contemporary Buildings were analyzed much like medical students dissecting the human body.

Biltmore is a Renaissance French palace based on Francis I’s Fontainbleu. Hunt cleverly retained all classical proportions and decorative details while combining a masonry veneer with contemporary materials (cast in place concrete walls, electricity, elevators, steel roof framing, modern plumbing, etc.). While he had the ability to innovate ‘of his time’ using these modern materials, he and his client instead realized an exquisite masterpiece of American architecture. One cannot leave Biltmore without feeling he or she was transported not only into the 1890’s but also to the French Renaissance. The effect is truly a period style work of parallel detail, spirit, and grand conception in terms of siting, massing, and proportion. But is it authentic enough? And how does the workmanship and attention to detail compare with anything built in this country after the mid-20th century? While Biltmore was an extravagant expenditure, it achieved its ends admirably and with precision and grace. But even the more modest mansions that preceded it up to the turn of the century, had a more convincing execution than any of our current work, primarily due to the mostly academic approach taken -- even through the most eclectic fashions. The architects were simply better trained and educated, having traveled to the fountain source, thus able to make their own 'original' works truly unique in 'correct' period manner.

 

Authenticity

The American Renaissance was the time of the mid-19th century through the 1920’s and 30’s when industrialists and merchant princes, the Medici’s of art and architecture, produced this country’s highest quality residences inspired by the glorious period styles derived from gothic and Greco-Roman models. The originality displayed by the prominent architects of the day, Carrére and Hastings, H.H. Richardson, McKim, Mead & White, and Hunt were displayed in dazzling compositions ranging from academic renditions to eclectic combinations of several styles. Originality and creative exposition was evident in either mode.

The search for the proper or universal style, and a truly 'American' architecture characterized this period. Current practitioners of 'contemporary' styles owe their freedom to the experimentation of these eclectic architects, who initially worked out free-flowing plans clothed in period elements. Classical pediments found their way on rambling elevations, gothic and Greek were mixed, spindles and crockets were combined with Moorish arches.
  wpe2.jpg (17956 bytes)  To be authentic is to freeze a certain period and recreate as closely as possible every aspect of a design, from its floor planning to exterior massing and detail. As Gilliatt comes to the heart of the matter: "Quite apart from considerations of budget and lifestyle, the salient question must be exactly how far should you go in your attempts to preserve or recreate the past?" wpe3.jpg (7848 bytes)We obviously deviate from period work if we include the conveniences and technological advances to designs developed before the advent of air conditioning and central heating, convenient toilets and baths, electricity, television and telephones (there were pull cords attached to bells for a long time), and the separation of kitchen facilities. -- Or do we? Again, would we be emulating the 'original', or the manner in which a revivalist interpreted a particular style in his or her own manners, in the spirit or their time? [This last phrase is the philosophical basis of gestalt that the modernist jealously claims to legitimize employing only the current technologies within the socio/political/economic exigencies, characterizing that moment in history -- even forecasting the future! No one may thus invoke the past for any reason: it would not be of "our time"; such a move stands to be verboten by zealous adherents.]
This seeming faux pas, of incorporating many modern conveniences and technological advances into an ancient form -- revivalist or not, can be rationalized to some degree as long as we are careful about door hardware, plumbing and electrical fixtures, cabinets and countertops which must follow the particular details of the period. There remains the great balance of the equation: heights of floor to ceilings, disposition of spaces, architectural interior moldings, coloration and materials, period windows and doors, exterior composition and elements, roofline, and associated details. If one does not observe these points, the attempt is not truly a period work, but an eclecticism. We have rationalized the effort to achieve period style unfortunately, the ends are a Diaspora of jarring and ill conceived concoctions of a bit of this grafted to a bit of that, all justified under our current pluralist maxim: for if a client may behave as he wishes, why can't the architect? An abrogation of any rule results in chaos and overall ugliness. The 'rules', developed over millennia in the 'original' form, while revived through the centuries, are the basic guides to follow even today. Period work is more careful and studied, yet achieves a 'right' expression: it is learnable and its execution by a conscientious, if not completely competent architect or designer, is less harmful to the aesthetic sensibility and the built environment, than the wholesale display of arrogant and ignorant individualism tempered by whim alone. The latter effect parallels individual exuberation in the art world, especially the ongoing wild experimentation from the mid-20th century to present times.

 

 

 

 

The Pluralist Mode

At the first we must recognize some of the leading problems that today’s design professionals have concocted -- the first being amorphous floor plans, especially with the introduction of diagonals, curves, and other visual tricks at first draft to make the ‘reading’ of the plan interesting and exciting to their potential clients, before proceeding with elevation studies. Since the ‘plan is the generator’ – modernist archispeak, the typical approach is to secure approval of the perfect layout from which an elevation is then concocted. If we look at the plan of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda, we might feel bored about the strict geometry throughout, especially compared to even our medium sized ‘semi’-custom plans which reek of drafting melange.

The 'plan' was studied obsessively by the students of the Beaux-Arts and the principles of symmetry, procession, axis, proportion, weight, and composition – shared in part by the development of the elevations as well -- as were applied in formal or classical buildings. Even the asymmetry of the gothic revival elevation has a logic derived from the plan, which contains elements of the above. The pure geometry of classicism includes the circle and square, while the octagon is more associated with the gothic. (The Temple of the Winds, at the base of the Parthenon, is one of our few classical precedents for employing the octagon.) Ellipses, half-circles, apses, barrel vaults, groin vaulting, rotated grids (evident in Roman palace construction but lost for many years until examined and recorded by archaeologists) and rectangular spaces often following mathematical ratios based on musical harmony and octaves, seconds, and third intervals – all were key in the development of the plan. It was during the eclecticism of the late 19th century that these principles were abrogated in the search for a democratic plan for the common man.

So one must decide the level of period style one wishes to incorporate. How archaeological do we wish to be; is being architecturally correct important? What key elements can be retained before contemporary floor planning disturbs our recipe? To what extent will eclecticism affect the design? Do you believe in the principle of diligently recreating the past or simply adapting the ‘feel’ of a bygone era into a contemporary structure? The choice is clear, and considering the enormous expense to faithfully create period style, it seems most opt for a distilled version. My view is that the closer one achieves period style, the more enduring and timeless the results. Investment value is arguably greater.

Considering the plurality of our time, this issue has been dismissed by the art intelligentsia as spurious. One does as one feels or believes, irrespective of any particular theory or set of principles -- except, maddeningly -- the pursuit of period style. The architecture of tradition is one of observing precedence and honoring the work of the past, especially what we have come to inherent in the Western Tradition by way of the ‘ancients’. Rules of architecture are as important to maintaining civility as rules of law. And .... both professions have their loopholes and exculpatory clauses. The art world has reveled in anarchy with obvious results including a general degradation of effort, technique, quality, and substance. We have achieved the empowerment of the individual, the apotheosis in our time of the id, of Ayn Rand’s ideal. We have lost our collective heritage in the rush for individual expression. It is more important to exercise our unfettered imaginations than build on past achievement. How ridiculous this notion is if applied to science or philosophy? The following excerpt from an undergraduate essay further illustrates problems of revivals, authentic and eclectic:

I am still not sure what is the difference between a style, a revival of that style and an academic eclecticist version. Perhaps a revival tries to reproduce the original and an academic eclecticist version merely tries to make associations? It seems to me that every piece of architecture has to take something from the past. It's hard to do something totally new after three thousand years of building has already occurred.

I thought academic eclecticism might be a logical conclusion to the problem of style (i.e., what style is it? Is it original or a copy of something else?) because if it is subtle, it is style-less. If this movement is the culmination of all styles (which I thought maybe it would be) how do we account for the work of Le Corbusier and others who followed who did not want to have any historical associations?(Barbara Craven ,1997)

Period designoffers the basic building blocks from which any generation can improvise. When we have seen one temple front, we have not seen them all. To take the argument to its extreme: imagine a village, town, city, and domestic architecture either based on gothic and classical precedent or the same completely conceived laissez-faire a la modern, post-modern, decon or what have you. Is rampant artistic freedom worth the loss of order of any kind, of a kindred style betwixt the individual parts? The former model might be the city of Bath or any town that retains its historical past, especially the style of forefathers who built before the great disappointment of modern times and the horror of world war. The latter model is a reflection of chaos and nihilism, of a psychopathic culture. The post war suburbs in Zagreb, the public housing projects in Chicago, the concrete jungles of Houston and Los Angeles, the deadening effect of the New Berlin, all epitomize a mandate zealously promoted, but whose physical manifestations have created the ugliest, most miserable private and public places history has witnessed to date.

To acquiesce to period style of late however, is quite chic. But the academic world cannot quite shake off its status quo dogma inherited from the moderns. So we find individual practitioners bucking the establishment, while reviving the beauty of past styles. (Odd, the role reversal!) Their work is quiet, since the mass media is slow or fearful of making their case too strong: it is not progressive, it is not new -- only fashionable. The movement toward traditional architecture and urban planning (‘New Urbanism’) has gained momentum, and perhaps the time of a second Renaissance in this country is near. There is no doubt we are seeing a return to tradition.

 

"We talk of creativity and the future, but we ignore the discipline of learning the rudiments of the past.  I maintain that the past is our most important source of creativity.  True creativity is always the acquisition of the old in order to fashion beautiful and meaningful things for the present.  If we wish not to be a culture marked by servility, a terrible intellectual and moral error born in the absence of creativity, we must conserve the past.  Tradition is, as the philosopher Josef Pieper viewed it, a challenge."          E. Christian Kopff, The Devil Knows Latin

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