Sunday, December 11, 2016

Traditional Classical or Not: Accept or Reject?

Robert E. Lee Taylor, Lambeth Field (former football field), 1911-13

Contributed by Carroll William Westfall 
Professor Emeritus 
School of Architecture 
University of Notre Dame

What standard must be met to be considered part of the classical tradition? A canon holds clearly accepted examples that act as models for current practice. There are also many variations, some are more successful than others, but should they also be considered models? 

I offer here a contribution is to stimulate discussions in further contributions, visual or verbal or both.

The question is usually guided by a style identified as classical and exemplified by canonic examples. Beyond style there is another meaning for the term traditional classicism. It links traditional with classical and passes judgment about quality relative to some standard that belongs to architecture as the highest achievement of the art of building, a judgment that pertains as much to the Gothic style as to the Classical style. It might even be stretched to reach a modern style if has managed to make a distinction between the art of building and architecture, a topic that falls within the range of what I am proposing here. 

Rendering a judgment about whether or not a particular example ought to serve as a model for traditional classicism needs more than words, but because images to do not speak for themselves words are also needed. To that end let me offer some images and these words as the framework for my comments: 

A traditional building is one that draws on the accumulated experience with the art of building that is familiar to the architect and to those who see and use the building, an experience that has been constantly revised by innovations to address then-current circumstances, past and present, with architecture used to designate the achievement of excellence in using that tradition.
I leave the standards of excellence to the discussion of the examples. 

Here I offer two examples of the columnar orders, the most conspicuous element in traditional classicism, and I focus on the top where we find the most easily identifiable elements in each of the five classical orders.

In the art of building the orders developed vernacular practices that identify the tectonics involved in transferring horizontal loads to vertical supports and the many other tasks involved in building something that is stable, useful, and delightful to behold. The art of architecture has celebrated and clarified those tasks to provide convincing expressions of stability and to the building’s task with ornament concentrated at the joining of materials to provide a convincing representation of the task being performed. This role draws on many techniques, among them proportioning and using the fall of light to reveal profiles where materials meet one another and the surrounding air. 

It also draws on traditional associations carried by each of the five orders. While there is no one specific association for each, they do fall into commonly suggestive ranges--for example, Doric equals strength. 

Here are two distinctive treatments of the tops of a Doric order for consideration.

Capital, staircase return, Castle Garden
Prague Castle, Joze Plecnik 1920-34
ACCEPT: Here we have an ingenious interpretation of the various structural roles of the canonic Doric order within the tradition that interpreted it as the imitation of vernacular wooden construction. All the expected parts are present: column shaft, echinus, abacus, and the three parts of the entablature: architrave, frieze, and cornice. The entire assemblage’s treatment is appropriate in the stair landing in a passage that makes the transition between two genre, the formal palace court above and palace garden down below. The materials doing the most rugged work are set apart and given an appropriately rough surface. Mutules carry the two stones steps while the beam projects into the open. Its let-in reveal, although rare in the canon, celebrates its structure role. The limitation of profiles to the ring within the let-in necking acknowledges that because it is within the staircase the sunlight will never penetrate, a further sensitivity to the most important aspects of the classical tradition that here are given exquisite and original interpretations. 
Castle Garden
Prague Castle, Joze Plecnik 1920-34
REJECT: Here the limit beyond which the forms of familiar elements must not go has been exceeded. While it is a clever interpretation of the classical, its models mere willful originality. Its acceptance within traditional classicism would encourage others to take similar liberties and undermine the canon’s role as guide to traditional classicism.  








ACCEPT: Here the baseless Doric is rendered in modern materials and stripped down to its bare essentials: it is up-to-date classicism. A slight reveal where the column shaft meet the capital is enough to show they are separate pieces. The missing abacus finds compensation in the echinus’ curling up to meet the beam where a simple band on top makes an adequate representation for the cornice that is consistent with the other abbreviations. 

VMDO with HOK, John Paul Arena, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 2004-06   

REJECT: There is no understanding of what architecture demands from the art of building. It probably responds to the client’s demand for a continuation of the Doric, the Order of masculine exertions, in a colonnade for an athletic facility at a university with Jefferson’s famous colonnades. It lacks the required expression, celebration, and elaboration of tectonics and attention to proportion and the role of light and is more about the architect than about the tradition of the classical. We can only guess what it shows about the architect? Did the architect think that the client would think it is classical but his modernist colleagues will see it isn’t, and is that why he placed exposed aggregate exactly where the beautiful trace of the echinus’ shadow would fall? Is this what an architect trained in modernism thinks satisfies the canon? Or is this an ingenious way to use modern technology and materials to “do the classical”? Or is it cynicism, or ignorance, or simply a lack of talent? Modernist often complain that the classical is now verboten because it is fascist, but did the architect know that Italian fascist buildings usually lack an abacus? Or is this quite simple something more random than studied? 

VMDO, Colonnade at Scott Stadium, 1998


Contributed by Carroll William Westfall 
Professor Emeritus 
School of Architecture 
University of Notre Dame


3 comments:

  1. Here's my judgment: Plecnik: thumb up; UVa arena: thumb down. Others want to vote or comment?

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  2. Plecnik's work is brilliant, especially earlier in his career when he was working within the classical tradition. The only disappointing Plecnik examples I've ever seen were done postwar, and were contaminated with Modernism of the time.

    The more recent examples, on the other hand, seem inept and ill-proportioned... apparently the work of a corporate Modernist firm who was forced into "doing something classical" by a review board. I could be mistaken because these images are a small sample, but nothing I can see contradicts this.

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