William Curtis argues that the Post-Modern Classicists, far from re-interpreting history effectively as they claim, have succeeded in capturing outward appearance only.
Originally published in AR August 1984, this piece was republished online in December 2011
‘It is the proper study and labour of an artist to uncover and find out the latent cause of conspicuous beauties and from thence form principles of his own conduct.’ - Joshua Reynolds
According to current folklore, architecture’s purgatory is now over and paradigms, once lost, are being regained. Modern architecture sinned (we learn) by embracing utopianism, functionalism, abstraction, the notion of zeitgeist and, above all, by spurning tradition. These ills are being absolved by the demotion of functional and structural rigour, the promotion of an ironical view of progress, and a commotion of historical references and images. There has been much talk about conventions and codes, and about the need to communicate on obvious as well as abstruse levels. Old realist doctrines have been served up in new semiological bottles.
So far, evidence is slight that forms clad in chrome acanthus leaves communicate better to the man in the street than did their naked predecessors: little is done to explain why one tradition rather than another would be more relevant to the present; and in eclectic collages not much discrimination is made between clever collisions and cogent wholes. The critical line between thin pastiche and genuine invention rooted in past principle is rarely drawn.
Despite repeated exorcisms, the forbidden ‘Modernism’ cannot be banished altogether; it remains to haunt people with doubts. Perhaps it is not possible to wake up one morning and gain control of the Classical orders; to evade the stylistic traditions of the immediate past; to pretend that one’s roots lie elsewhere. Perhaps Modernism is not such an anti-historical monster after all. One looks in vain for a cultural situation that would make the revival of Classical antiquity compelling. Yet columns and pediments proliferate. The question of tradition -its use and abuse-is ripe for closer scrutiny.
To begin with, there is the ritual incantation that Modernism (a monolith embracing the peaks of formal poetry and the depths of speculative building) involved the complete rejection of the past. This historical misconception serves the purpose of inflating recent revivalist exercises. But it is scarcely an adequate description of the varied views of tradition entertained by Wright, Behrens, Perret, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Terragni, Aalto and Kahn-to mention only a few.
While these artists discriminated their forms from those of nineteenth-century eclecticism, and while their apologists (eg Pevsner, Giedion, Hitchcock) pushed the idea of an entirely new style, they actually drew on history in a number of ways which informed the anatomy and underlying formal structure of their designs.
Conservative … that law and order inherent in all great architecture’; and Le Corbusier, it should not be forgotten, spoke of history as his only real master, drawing inspiration from Greek temples as well as liners, silos and cars. What these artists managed to do was absorb primary lessons from their sources whether vernacular or monumental, then to transform these into vocabularies adjusted to the contemporary world.
To the question of tradition within the Modern Movement I shall return; for the moment the aim is to cast a critical eye over recent fashions in form and ideology, and to try to separate the bogus from the authentic. The customary battle between caricatures-the tedious Modern/ Post-Modern debate-can surely be avoided. To assert that an assemblage of concrete Doric columns or coloured plywood pilasters is somehow automatically superior to a building using pilotis or steel frame stanchions, or to assert the exact opposite, is to reduce criticism to a pretty silly level: fashion versus old habits.
A longer critical perspective is necessary which seeks out precisely those qualities that transcend mere stylistic usage. One needs to cut through the polemical advertising and come to terms with the context, order and impulses of the individual work, its resolutions or irresolutions, its depth or shallowness of expression.
Few indeed are the buildings in which idea, form and technique are so fused into an indivisible unity that it becomes impossible to remove anyone element without destroying both its individual significance and the life of the whole; few are the works of art that crystallise a particular cultural or institutional situation yet address fundamental human and moral questions as well.
Such buildings blend modern and ancient as if there were no real difference and touch our deepest imaginative stirrings through the direct impact on the senses of light, space, proportion, form and a sublime sense of order… We are talking, of course, about great architecture, that reduces all ‘isms’ to insignificance: little wonder that contemporary polemics do not grasp that nettle-almost everyone would get stung.
The scholar can easily distinguish between a fair and an unfair use of historical documents, but what is an artistic abuse of the past? While there can be no sure recipe for the effective renaissance of past forms, or even for the unhackneyed continuation of an accepted set of norms, there are still some broad areas towards which one may point. A merely academic reproduction of however fine an original is unlikely to reproduce its excellence. Yet a model or type may still be reinterpreted to produce a work of power; one thinks of Hawksmoor’s Mausoleum at Castle Howard as a strong restatement of the circular, Tempietto formula.
Free combination of past elements may produce a grotesque assemblage or a stunning new set of creative potentials like those revealed in the Pantheon by the addition and fusion of the pedimented temple and the rotunda; or those revealed in the Villa Savoye by the elision of the mechanical, the Classical, and the spatial richness of Cubism.
Every creator is an ‘eclectic’, in that innovation consists of finding new relationships in pre-existing patterns: yet a distinction must be drawn between a forceful new bond of form and content, and a merely beguiling collection of parts that have undergone no profound redefinition of meaning, no revitalisation of expression. The issue, then, is not so much the range of sources as the ability to forge the sources into a new amalgam, a new style based on principles rather than arbitrariness.
Such an architecture goes beyond formal and functional elegance; it crystallises a world view, a feeling about the way things ought to be. The depth of comprehension of tradition is also crucial: not a playboy promiscuity without commitment, but a loving involvement with the spirit behind past forms which transforms this knowledge into vital new inventions; the first position cheapens tradition, the second keeps it alive. Ungers suggests the difference in an observation on Schinkel:
“Without this principle, without idea, without theme and spiritual concept, architecture touches but the surface and loses itself informal ornament. Then it is merely applique work, apercu, historical quote and, if worse comes to worse (sic), a joke”
ON APPEARING TO BE CLASSICAL
The difference between authentic synthesis and superficial pastiche seems pertinent to Post-Modern Classicism about which so much has been said and written in recent years. Charles Jencks, the chief salesman of the movement (some would say its fabricator), has argued that it offers a new’ lingua franca’ - he dare not say ‘International Style’ - but every effort is also made to show how sensitive the style is to particular regions and urban settings.
Social concern is addressed through the device of ‘double-coding’ so that ordinary people as well as architectural elites can relish the displays of wit. Ornament is valued for its decorative potential and because it allows ‘representation’: there is even the suggestion that buildings covered in references must mean more than those not so covered. Post-Modern Classicism does not single out any particular moment in the Classical tradition for revival; on the contrary it revels in the promiscuous possibilities offered by modern air travel and coloured slides: all periods are game and a technique of bricolage is often used to stick the references together.
This is sometimes discussed in terms of social pluralism, but the result often smacks of a merely academic formalism. An observation made by Viollet Ie Due over a century ago might well apply:
” … a certain school has lately arisen based upon the principle of composing a new architecture out of all the good features of these former styles ; a dangerous error because a macaronic style cannot he a new style. It may indicate some knowledge and a certain amdunt of skill and spirit … but it can never be the manifestation of a principle or an idea.”
Post-Modern Classicists contrast present - day savoir faire and inclusiveness to the supposed mundaneness and univalence of Modernism. It is against their rules to illustrate anything done since 1914 unless it be a monstrous housing scheme or skyscraper which everyone agrees is horrible. But comparative bits and pieces of Mannerist and Baroque Italy are highly prized as if they were talismans which could somehow transfer their qualities to the present.
The implication is that lost arts are being refound after a dark age. But there is a limit to the number of times that works can be justified for having overthrown recent taboos. If a design claims special status because of a new orientation towards tradition let it be judged in the long perspective of tradition rather than via the myopia of fashion. If a kind of Classicism is intended, let it be judged alongside past Classicism, including those outstanding buildings of the past few decades that have rested in part on Classical principles: Le Corbusier as well as Ledoux should stand witness.
Columns and skyscrapers
Recent American attempts at an overt Classicism search for rhetoric. Rightly or wrongly, the reductivism of modern architecture is blamed for lack of meaning . The mission is to save the American city from an excess of industrial standardisation and the abstract glass box . The prognosis is in the use of metaphors and historical associations: the Italian past is regarded as a repository of architectural and urbanistic answers.
Classicism has a clean pedigree in America: there are no Fascist stains. The lineage contains the civic efforts of the Beaux Arts as well as Thomas Jefferson’s belief that Rome and France in the right mixture were apt for the new republic. Classicism, reduced to a commercial veneer, or a Pop sign, can somehow be absorbed by these lofty credentials.
Since so much fuss was made about Philip Johnson’s AT&T when the model was first revealed and since it is now on the point of completion, the building is an appropriate starting point. Five years ago the model was discussed as a rejection of the monolithic slab formula that had begun to dominate every American skyline. Johnson’s critique included reassertion of entrance, base, middle and top. Of course Mies and Johnson had both attempted to endow the Seagram building and plaza with latent Classical qualities of symmetry, repose and nobility, but this was within the steel and glass vocabulary.
Johnson now sought a less mute and less subtle Classicism including the Serliana reference at the base, and the ‘Tallboy’ pediment at the top. The building was clad in a restrained veneer of stone and its vertical piers were adjusted towards the boundaries to reinforce the corners. Much of this was well within the bounds of Johnson’s personal stylistic evolution in the previous 20 years, but the media (with a little help from the architect) jumped onto the piece as a complete break with Modernism.
Actually the building was more reasonable than revolutionary, being a blend of Sullivan’s late nineteenth-century definition of the skyscraper as essentially tri-partite, an idea of both Classical and natural inspiration (base, shaft, capital; feet, body, head; roots, trunk, branches); and of the handling of vertical piers in such 1920s Neo-Gothic schemes as the Chicago Tribune Building by Hood & Howells. Thus AT&T took its place with a lineage of skyscrapers emphasizing verticality as a primary feature of the type.
Ironically Johnson has remained too restricted by his own version of the Modernist straitjacket, and is not Classical enough. A difficulty of skyscraper design is maintaining unity and human scale when seen close to or far away. Mouldings and protrusions have their uses to introduce multiple rhythms and a certain relief and texture.
The base of the new building has presence at the street level, but from the avenue the top just fades away without sufficient termination of the sort that some species of cornice might have provided. The middle level has a deadness and blandness of character traceable to the feeble distinction between horizontal and vertical planes.
Sullivan handled this area with distinction in the Wainwright Building (1895) with the help of vertical brick beading and terracotta ornament; these were not used extraneously but as means to accentuate the visual forces of the design and to give unified expression to the building’s idea. The Sullivan solution possesses that sense of repose, proportion and tactile strength that one associates with the harmonious resolution of visual load and support in the truly Classical work; a harmony that works within each storey or for the facade as a whole (eg the Colosseum, the Palazzo Rucellai).
It is what Geoffrey Scott had in mind when he discussed ‘coherence’ and stated that: ‘Architecture studies not structure in itself but the effect of structure on the human spirit’. At AT&T the lower piers on either side of the arch have an uncomfortable thinness, while in the building as a whole there seems to be hesitation between the notion of sculpting voids from a block and the notion of accentuating a frame; there is an overriding flatness.
Well-groomed in granite but shallow in expression, AT&T is like an upwardly mobile executive who has picked up a veneer of patrician pretension. There is a sniff of vulgarity that some might associate with the rather obvious show of prestige and others might designate ‘High Camp’. Johnson has proclaimed that there are no rules, that one must take everything from everybody; that there are no faiths worth entertaining, only ‘currents in the air’.
So an agnostic indulgence in the ‘freedom’ of fashion is proposed. But chic historical reference lacks symbolic substance-and without depth of content a work of true formal power becomes impossible. The pose of the dandy aesthete is linked to cynicism; moral convictions are regarded as tiresome, pointless or impossible.
But one lesson that the history of Classicism has to teach is that the peaks of expression have occurred when significant content is given a significant form. It can at least be said that the expressive thinness of AT&T encapsulates the glibness of Johnson’s amoral stance with some precision.
The decorated box
Michael Graves’ Public Service Building in Portland, (1979-83), another protagonist in tilting matches of opinion, has been promoted for re-asserting the facade as a public, rhetorical device, referring to some very ordinary Classical buildings nearby, and invoking the tripartite order. Opponents have compared it to an enlarged jukebox and an over-sized Christmas parcel. Despite the contextualist rhetoric they say that it sticks out like a sore thumb in Portland.
The ‘Classicism’ is obviously highly idiosyncratic. It values the clash of scales and fragmented devices: the giant wedge of the keystone, the vertical ‘fluting’ and horizontal ‘rustication’, the highly abstracted pediments and aedicules are handled with a dissonance that one hopes was deliberate.
Really it is no surprise that the term ‘Mannerism’ has been brought to bear, except that Mannerism requires some pre-existing and appreciated norms and rules of appropriateness if the distortions are to achieve their point. Profound Mannerist works like the Palazzo del Te by Giulio Romano possess an armature of harmony and unity of theme over which the naughty play with Classical grammar takes place; a courtly and knowledgeable elite was assumed as an audience.
But these days nobody cares much whether you drop a keystone or two. If this sort of preciosity has an audience at all it is certainly not in the streets of Portland, Oregon, but in the architectural magazine section of the library at Princeton, or Harvard or Yale. The populist pitch of Post-Modern is surely a masquerade.
Graves’ acquisition of Ledoux’s architecture parlante, of Pompeiian wall paintings, of Schinkelisms and even of Rossiisms over the past few years has had a painful self-consciousness about it. What has emerged is a bizarre personal style which courts the grotesque and the primitive. The sensibility is perhaps at its most effective in drawings and paintings because there one can perceive the various transformations and permutations of private themes occurring.
But seen in real light Graves’ buildings have a flat, lifeless, unrelieved character, like billboards that have been dolled up with cultural graffiti; they remind one that the new Classicism has still to establish its craft if architectural ideas are to find an appropriate life in the society of building materials.
The Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans (1976-80 approx) by Charles Moore, has been set up as an exemplum of Post-Modern Classicism on the grounds that it rests on ‘three basic justifications for choosing a style; or mixing them, as the case may be: the context that the building fits into the character of the particular functions which must be ’ enhanced by style and the taste-culture of the inhabitants’.
The approach from Poydras Street is heralded by a vaguely temple-like portico with crude concrete columns surmounted by a metal truss system masquerading as a pediment. This dreary and off-hand piece of Classical slang is the preamble to a sequence of gaudily-clad architectural one-liners: the map of Italy built up in relief with Sicily at the heart of the bull’s eye; the rows of screens with their ill-proportioned arches and Pop Art capitals; the death masks of Charles Moore spraying water; and, at the other end, the Lafayette Arch, a top heavy concoction combining tubular fluting, a bulky reminiscence of a Florentine masonry arch, and Italian flag stripes about where there might be an entablature.
Just what it is about the urban setting that is being respected remains unclear after a number of visits day and night and in all weathers, especially since the most worthwhile neighbours - the row of facades on Lafayette Street - are violently bullied by the heavy-handed bulk of the Lafayette Arch in a way recalling the ill-mannered urbanistic behaviour of various Brutalist creations of the 1960s.
The celebration of ‘ltalianness’ implied by the map, the flag details and the pile-up of columns reeks of the sort of jovial sneering that might conceivably make a polystyrene water melon patch to celebrate the ‘taste culture’ of Southern rural blacks.
Through a longer historical lens
Perhaps there is more to cultural interpretation in architecture than the embroidery of ethnic stereotypes. This is to assess the Piazza d’Italia by criteria custom-made to fit it. Scrutinising Moore’s jolly Falstaffian Classicism through a longer historical lens it is the lack of a controlling order that is most striking. Because the columns and arches are so feeble, the jokes never achieve the status of true wit (such as in Michelangelo, or Vanbrugh, or Lutyens or Le Corbusier).
Much recent Pop Mannerism in the USA has used cute games with imagery to mask the lack of any real content. Lutyens’ stricture never seemed more relevant:
“You cannot play originality with the Orders. They have to be so well digested that there is nothing but essence left. When right they are curiously lovely…unalterable as plant forms. The perfection of the Order is far nearer Nature than anything produced on impulse or accident-wise.”
Columns for the people
Overt use of Classical Orders encounters more political, moral and aesthetic taboos in Europe than in America. Some still think of storm-troopers when they see columns. Tight economic conditions do not encourage whimsy, unless it is on paper or in the odd tv studio. Besides, the past is longer and weightier than in America; the antique Classical inheritance is present in fact as well as in imagination, The prospect of trying to compete with Palladio, or Ledoux, or Rawksmoor on their own territory is daunting. You do not put up a Piazza d’Italia when the Trevi fountain is just down the road.
But the Venice Biennale of 1980, under the banner ‘The Presence of the Past’, suggested that the overt exploration of Classicism was not exclusively American property. Hans Rollein has shown himself capable of a suave and glitzy historicism of some wit and control; Ricardo Bofill has pre-empted international attention with grandiose gestures close to Paris; and James Stirling has continued to straddle trans-Atlantic fashions with cunning, skill and the occasional pediment.
Among the most interesting probes into the Classical tradition have been those attempted by Ungers, the Kriers, Rossi and the Ticinese group, notably Botta: architects who have been concerned with the abstraction of traditional lessons in bold, simple forms.
Bofill and the Taller de Arquitectura had already begun to explore a vocabulary suggesting an eerie monumentality in their housing schemes of 10 years ago. In Les Arcades du Lac and at Marne la Vallee an attempt has been made to evoke the Classical language in plan (grand axes, dominant symmetries, circles, squares) in typologies (viaducts, theatres, circuses, triumphal arches, palaces) and in the facades through the gigantic mimicry in concrete of columns, pilasters, rusticated bases, triglyphs, pediments, attics and mouldings.
Bofill could claim an honorable pedigree in providing a Baroque Palace for the people in Fourier’s Phalanstere, which had also inspired Le Corbusier’s Unite and a redent housing. Bofill, like Le Corbusier, argues that the individual example should be seen as a demonstration-type portending a desirable form of city for the future.
The full implications of this are a little hard to grasp as one comes across the huge bulk of the ‘Theatre’ and ‘Palacio de Abraxas’ stranded together in a half-formed and vacuous overflow district off an auto-route to the east of Paris. Evidently the inward-turned configuration of the Theatre is supposed to supply an iconic public place (‘public realm’ in buzz terminology) linked to the evermore private areas further up the buildings by vestibules and streets in the air.
To dissuade you from thinking that you are dealing with Team Ten street decks there are symmetrical stairs linking upper street levels, Pompeiian-red rusticated concrete surfaces and little plastic notices bearing the names and dates of such luminaries of the Classical tradition as Ledoux and Boullee. Evidently Marne la Vallee is yet another critique of the free-standing tower block in the open park; the park is back inside the block.
Much of the ingenuity of the scheme lies in the interlocking together of a variety of standard apartment types within the rather rigid edges that the architect has set himself. The building as a whole does have the support of an ethos of habitation:
“The exercise showed us that it was possible to build symbols (theatres, temples, triumphal arches etc) which in the future could be transformed into habitable communal spaces … that it was important to be able to use the vocabulary and elements or architecture of the past and to bring these within the reach of the whole society … “
How easy symbolism has become. You want a symbol? Open up a history book and find one, and if you need a little functional justification then ‘typology’ can come to the rescue: communal space equals theatre: grand public residence equals palace. Some people toss around keystones, others prefer Colossea.
Rather than symbols, this facile approach to typology manipulates signs- signs that give only the longest distant echo of a previous meaning and which are only lightly re-charged with content. The danger is skin deep instant history very close to ‘kitsch’ in which appropriateness is superseded by a facile replication of type.
Both Wood at Bath and Aalto at Otaniemi used Classical theatre architecture as an inspiration, but they transformed their prototypes to infuse them with new meanings appropriate to site, programme and culture. Marne La Vallee would be more convincing if it were an appetising and well-scaled environment.
As it is, the worthy-sounding intentions are expressed in a Fellini-esque stage-set of oppressive monumentality gratuitously clad in mockeries of the Classical grammar. The place conveys the impression of a smart marketing t rick designed to lure prospective inhabitants away from the true city into a suburban commuter silo. Along-side it the Marseilles Unite d’Habitation looks positively delicate!
Bofill, like Johnson, is much less of a Classicist than perhaps he would like to be: mouldings, profiles and columns have a lifeless and wooden character quite at odds with the fluidity, grace and unity achieved in many a Chateau facade within 30 miles of Paris. Some difficulties perhaps stem from technique: joints in the concrete of primary volumes set in motion an ‘ornamental’ system that speaks a different language from that of the intended ornament; mouldings, capitals and rustication are extremely blunt. The architect has fallen between the stools of a language he controlled well but did not like, and a language that he may admire but cannot control.
Ironical, representational and ambiguous
Some argue that arbitrariness of signs is inescapable in an electronic age in which the manipulation of images for persuasion leaves no relationship between form and content inviolate, and in which the barriers between the natural and the ersatz become extremely confused. Japanese architects of the past decade have explored the bizarre confrontations offered by a highly urbanised and commercialized culture with more than a slight schizophrenia between old and new, East and West.
This milieu helps to explain Arata Isozaki’s attempts at colliding, sometimes fusing, motifs from various traditions over an armature of primary geometries. In the Fujimi Country Club, the snaking vault form is a counterpoint to the surrounding country-side and provides a dominant image which seems somewhat forced on the complexities of the programme.
The vault lacks the haunting Antique gravitas of Kahn’s solution at the Kimbell Museum, nevertheless a resonance with Classicism was intended. This becomes overt at the sliced-off end over the entrance with its teasing though bland overtures towards the Villa Poiana by Palladio. The unease generated by the wide placement of columns that feel too thin is exacerbated by the upturned planter walls which acknowledge where a pier or pilaster might have been were this a masonry building.
In this instance the ‘Maniera’ of the solution does at least grow from witty control of ambiguities offered by constructional logic. In the Tsukuba Civic Centre, by contrast, arbitrariness sets in: the quotation of Michelangelo’s Capitoline piazza is that and nothing more.
Montage-the confrontation of two or more images-allows the development of a theme which may be more than just the sum of the references. When the confrontation is weak you have an empty pose; when it is strong, a Surrealist tension can be created which recalls the best of Cubist collage: identities become suspended, things are, and are not, what they seem. One guesses that a procedure similar to this may have been at work in Stirling’s buildings and projects of recent years.
Visual explorations of ambiguity and irony, balancing belief and scepticism, might almost be seen as illustrating the puckish cynicism of Stirling’s main intellectual mentor, Colin Rowe; it is a perspective on Modern architecture which combines admiration for past conviction with a disbelief in the possibility of a similar utopian fervor for the present time.
In truth, Stirling’s work has long possessed something of this flavour of collage and commentary. The Leicester Engineering Building could be seen as an eclectic assembly of partially disjointed fragments lifted from industrial archeology, nautical engineering, and the lukewarm remains of the ‘Heroic’ period of Modern architecture: Constructivism spliced together with Le Corbusier, Futurism with Wright. In recent years the palette has widened historically, but the personal style has maintained some of the same procedures and patterns.
Stirling’s recently completed Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, is dominated by the clear conception of a symmetrically-placed monumental dough-nut flanked by rectangular strips, two of which act as wings; this controlling form is cut through by a zig-zag path clearly signalled by diagonal ramps and curved planes. The placement of a circular form towards the heart of a vaguely Neo-Classical armature inevitably recalls the plan of the Altes Museum, Berlin, by Schinkel, or one of Durand’s museum plans.
The family has other members, too: if one were to slice out a chunk of facade and portico from the British Museum and then dramatise the Panopticon library as a cylinder the result almost gives Stirling’s diagram. The Parliament Building in Chandigarh is another cousin. Part of the richness of the Stuttgart building lies in the synthesis of axiality of form and asymmetrical expressions of movement.
Simply, the Cubist flanges, inviting the flow of the city into the building, have been mated with a type-form for the civic monument; an ideal type has been eroded and deformed to meet a particular context.
Basic polarities spelt out in the plan idea are continued in some of the smaller parts of the building. The free form curves in glass and ‘modern’ materials elide-and collide-with masonry and ornamented walls; free plan areas enmesh with areas of strong enclosure; High-Tech details confront Egyptoid columns or cornices. The side wing masses, controlled in bulk to match nearby structures and define the street, also echo some of the surrounding colours and textures.
At this point the contextualism becomes too fussy and, along with all the other fragments and elements that are in ironical ‘quotation marks’, threatens the unity of the building. The feeblest aspect of the design is the High-Tech costume jewellery. The little pedimented portico does not have sufficient power and stance to do its rhetorical job.
A tight matching of details, material surfaces and underlying formal intentions has never been a strong Stirling point, and here, again, a showy cosmeticism afflicts the handling. Stirling does not yet seem to have found a way of orchestrating theme, form and detail in a way that embeds ‘realist’ historical references into an overall gestalt.
Artists need a prodigious power of abstraction to pull everything together; they also need an ordering’ grammar’. As Wright put it: ’ “Grammar” … is the shape relationship between the various elements that enter into the constitution of the thing … its manifest articulation of all its parts. This will be the ‘speech’ it uses … Everything has a related articulation in relation to the whole and all belongs together: looks well together because all together are speaking the same language. If one part of your (building) spoke Choctaw, another French, another English, and another some sort of gibberish, you would have what you mostly have now-not a very beautiful result.’
Any review of recent Classical tendencies would be incomplete without some mention of Quinlan Terry, who has been modestly pursuing a dull, rather literal Classicism for the last two decades. Perhaps unwillingly, Terry has been pushed into the limelight by that brand of right wing traditionalist opinion that sees all modern architecture as a nasty internationalist intrusion into the calm of English country life, and that imagines ‘taste’ will somehow restore national cultural glory.
Terry’s work has little in common with the Post-Mods. He has expressed disgust at ‘Columns made of coloured plastic which give the wrong impression’, and of PostModern Classicism he has said:
“It is temporary rubbish. It is even worse than Modernism because it is done with irony. The result of looking at Post-Modernism is that it makes you hate the real thing. It is awful to be put off a thing that you love by an ironic attack. It is Satan’s work.”
Unfortunately more than a critical sense and scholarly grasp of Classicism are necessary to create vital architecture. The Thetford summer house, for example, is polite and not without inventiveness in its combination of Renaissance details, yet it lacks that noble and forceful sense of unity that one experiences before a Palladio facade. The building has the dull air of a piece of Georgian reproduction furniture and puts one in mind of Geoffrey Scott’s warning that:
“Academic art has its danger. Sometimes it implies a refusal to rethink the problems at issue. Sometimes … it attempts to make the imagination of the past do service for imagination in the present.”
Abstraction: dilution or compression?
A scrupulous attention to Latin may end up in dry phrases unless it is accompanied by penetration to deeper levels of expression within Classicism. Another approach skips the Latin altogether (except in a stripped and vestigial sense) and attempts to transform the armature of underlying qualities.
Some would argue that the results should not therefore be called Classical in the full sense of the word; but there are many different ways of referring to a tradition and abstracting its ‘substructures’ simultaneously. What might be called the ‘abstract’ attitude to tradition has played a major role in the Modern Movement and continues to inspire that extension of it loosely referred to as ‘Neo-Rationalist’.
It is an outlook containing a number of strands: an Idealist view of primary forms as a key to metaphysical order (Boullee, Ledoux, Le Corbusier, Kahn and Terragni all occupy a place in the pantheon); a preoccupation with types and their transformation; attention to construction as a generator of vocabulary (articulation by simple openings, structural joints etc); the search for consonances between modern and ancient simplicities; and a fascination with the supposed vernacular and natural roots of Classicism.
This primitivism links the essentialism of Laugier with Kahn’s search for the archetypes behind institutions; it accounts for the obsession with the vernacular and geometrical aspects of Palladio. Geometry, proportion, the compression of meaning through abstraction: these become the keys to the past.
Against saccharine historicism
The original Italian Neo-Rationalism crystallised in reaction against mere functionalism on the hand and against both saccharine historicism and a forced ‘Social Realism’ on the other, Aldo Rossi has attempted to instate the notion of type as the means for transcending both style and political ideology, as if there were a higher realm of ideas that could lead to absolute architectural values.
In this connection Terragni has been disinterred, purged of his Fascist associations as a suitable father figure who achieved the elision of the International Style and Classicism. Despite the lofty aims, Rossi’s production has rarely achieved poetic heights. Reductivism may very easily lead to blandness.
This certainly the case with many of the imitators: in the United States there are Italophile architecture schools which crank out Rossi clones with facility, while in Germany Neo-Rationalist elevations are reportedly sold by the metre. The theorising of O. M. Ungers has attempted to build an idealist bridge over anti-Classical taboos operating since Naziism, but built results tend to be diagrammatic.
Robert Krier has achieved relative success at infusing housing with Classical urbanity and formality without pretentious and gratuitous displays of pseudo-Classical ornament. With Neo-Rationalism in general the danger lies in lapsing into a simplistic geometrical formula. Analysis by type may lead one to penetrate generic principles, or to produce lifeless diagrams. As usual, a vital imaginative transformation is required.
The Ticinese group of architects in Southern Switzerland have obvious affinities with their neighbours across the Italian border. The most interesting of them seems to be Mario Botta, and this despite the fact that his forms are in fashion. Botta has never pretended to be anything other than a ‘modern architect’ , a fact which annoys those of his colleagues who spend time trying to hitch up with the latest ‘ism’. Indeed Botta has a better claim to the title than most since he was apprenticed briefly to both Kahn and Le Corbusier.
Like a number of Indian architects - Doshi, Correa, Raje - Botta has explored the correspondences between these two mentors and has sought to link the dual inheritance to regional concerns but without recourse to a superficial regionalism: there is no straining after the cuckoo clock style. In his case, abstraction has served to blend and to compound historical precedents rather than to exclude them. This is also the level on which he has understood Le Corbusier and Kahn: as a way back to the past rather than away from it.
The Casa Rotonda (1980-81) is surely one of the most bizarre of Botta’s creations to date, This semi-suburban house is transformed into a solid monument that defies the recent urban sprawl and invokes a return to archaic, rural values. Its plan contains an elemental gesture: an axis aeross a circle. This aligns the cylinder and cuts it in two with the slot containing the stairs. The maintenance of polarities and their gradual unification into the encompassing circular geometry is one of the guiding formal themes of the building.
But the plan is also rich in associative qualities which carry through into the volumes. There is the suggestion of a sort of solar calendar, as if the slits and openings in the cylinder had been aligned to catch rays at specific times of the day of the year; it is an observatory, a bastion, a tower for spiritual retreat from a world that is becoming increasingly tacky. The penetration of this tower by a stair and shafts of light is not without primal and ritualistic overtones. The building seems to be haunted by a mythical agenda of the artist’s own.
The jointing of stair slot and cylinder is handled adeptly on the exterior: the walls step down and away to reveal the curved end of the stairs. Kahn’s massive vertical circulation towers, or Le Corbusier’s use of stacks or silo-like elements for the same purpose come to mind, but the form has here been embedded in a new grammatical usage and has been transmuted into Botta’s own terms of reference.The form also evokes a column, but one generated from within, functionally and in terms of ideas; not just an attached ‘sign’ or quotation. This ‘column’ is generalised to possess resonance with Romanesque as well as Roman; it touches on the idea of the column in general.
The forms of the Casa Rotonda have resulted from a thorough assimilation of Kahn, Rossi, Le Corbusier, the rural vernacular, and certain organisational principles from Palladio. The past is present in them in a way that makes the ‘Modern versus Post-Modern’ affair seem quite beside the point.
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