Posted below are Eric Daum's introductory remarks for a round table discussion presented by the New England Chapter of the ICAA for Design Week, Boston, 2017.
I suspect some of you are look upon us and wonder who are theses retardataire fogeys? These champions of the Ancien Regime, these defenders of the one true faith? We are not lost souls wallowing in nostalgia; we are not, as many critics might say of us, trying to turn every place into Disneyland.
We believe that the purpose of architecture is to serve the needs of man. Not only through the use of science in order to provide shelter, but to use artistry to enrich and ennoble our lives. We believe that architecture is the Art of Building, that art is not just the idea but also the craft of its making. We believe that there are important lessons to be learned from history: about how we build; about how we shape our cities, about how our buildings relate to one another, and what they say about us as a culture. We believe that we have history, art, and science on our side.
The act of building is far too important to be nothing more than a financial transaction or an opportunity for wanton arrogant self expression. James Kunstler has described that most modern of environments, automotive based suburban sprawl, as the "Crudscape". He contends that if we persist in building places that are ugly, places that no one wishes to be, that they are not worth inhabiting and certainly not worth preserving. In an age of limited resources and environmental degradation, should we not be building better? Should we not be building places people wish to inhabit, places we can love, places we would be proud to leave to the next generation?
So what do we mean when we describe Classicism?
Classicism is the architectural tradition derived from Greco-Roman Antiquity. Our understanding of this language is derived from archaeological research and close study of the writings of Vitruvius, whose de Architectura, known popularly today as the Ten Books of Architecture, it is the only treatise on Classical Architecture surviving in its entirety from Antiquity. These Ten Books, which are the core text of classical design and construction, describe the essential criteria which must be observed in order to create a “good building”. Vitruvius’ most well known claim is that “Good Building fulfills three conditions, firmitas, utilitas, and venustas. According to the 1624 translation by Sir Henry Wooten, these are commodity, firmness and delight. It goes without saying, that all buildings should embrace the first two criteria. In fact, mere competence by a builder should satisfy them: a building must stand up and be useful. Vitruvius claims that beauty is objective, that there are strict criteria describing beauty that a building should fulfill, rooted in rhythm and proportion, and rules of composition and ornament.
Sir John Summerson, in his collection of short radio essays for the BBC complied as The Classical Language of Architecture, describes the fundamental elements that make a building “Classical”:
First: Symmetry, either as the large scale bilateral symmetry evidenced by the human form, or as the more subtle Vitruvian theory of the harmony of the parts and their relationship to the whole.
Second: Hierarchy, by expressing the importance of the primary spaces in a building so that their use corresponds to its architectural form.
Third: that the building explicitly or implicitly exhibits the proportioning system of the classical orders.
These orders, the architectural language of Greco-Roman antiquity, are described by Vitruvius, and were rediscovered during the Renaissance. Their continued use connects us back not just to the our Classical foundations in Greece and Rome, but through the tradition of Western Architecture. So, what does any of this that have to do with making architecture today?
I would like to digress briefly and talk about my own experiences. I grew up outside of Providence in the 19th Century streetcar suburb of Edgewood and spent much of my time on College Hill. I knew that I loved these places, and by walking down both sets of streets, marveling at the details of each building, and experiencing how they sat together on the street, I saw places made greater than the sum of their parts.
My first job upon completion of graduate school was in the office of John Blatteau in Philadelphia. In addition to teaching design, drawing and watercolor techniques at the University of Pennsylvania, his office had recently completed the Benjamin Franklin State Dining for the State Department in DC, a project that was the the result of a winning competition entry. It was John who first taught me that Classicism was a Civic architecture. If we look back to the early Republic, our Founders chose the Classical as the built expression of our ideals because they wanted to make direct reference to the Democracy of Athens and to the Republic of Rome. But they referenced not just Antiquity, but the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the belief that our understanding of the Universe could be achieved through logic and reason.
Classicism is an inherently rational building system. The clear logic of the trabeated assembly of post and beam developed into a legible and potent symbolic language through an ongoing 2,500 year process of precedent and variation. The analogy that Classicism is a language is based on the belief that a new classical building could still be understood as such by builders from Antiquity. David Brussat, Architectural writer and a member of our Board, in his blog, Architecture Here and There, recently quoted Contemporary British Architect, Robert Adam:
Living languages are not scrapped and reinvented every fifty years. We may express ourselves a little differently from Charles II or Nicholas Hawksmoor but we can use their expressions today because what they were is part of what we are. Our civilization and means of expression are modern but they carry their past with them and we are the richer for it.
It is difficult to make the claim that Modernism is a coherent language as each new generation throws out History and starts from scratch. The theorists of Modernism speak of the end of history. They sought to reinvent new methods of building not tied to the past. To them, tradition was something to be discarded. They removed the human from design, and with it the belief that beauty mattered. Design was reduced to the Scientific, the quantifiable. What mattered was not utility, strength and beauty in equal measure, but merely utility and strength.
According to Roger Scruton in his essay, Architectural Principals in an age of Nihilism, "The substance of aesthetic judgment lies in feeling, imagination and taste". There exists a possibility and necessity for aesthetic education. The failure of "Modern Architecture stems from the misunderstanding of this education and a disposition to discard the true disciplines of the eye and the heart in favor of the intellect."
During that time I worked for John Blatteau, his right hand was Stephen Bonitatibus, a young architect of immense talent who had a great passion for the Italian Baroque. Steve was also a devout Roman Catholic. In his mind, he had conflated Catholicism and Classicism. He believed that if someone understood the basic rules of classical design: proportion, symmetry, and hierarchy, that even a building that was not brilliant, would be a worthy addition to its environment. If a city is greater than the sum of its parts, a classical understanding of hierarchy will enable designers to create buildings which will sit comfortably with their neighbors. Bonitatibus considered Modernism to be a risky proposition. In the hands of a genius, it could create magnificent unique sculptural works, but in the hands of anyone less than a genius, it could be disruptive to the neighborhood and city around it: soulless and inhuman. In the universal sense of the word catholic, with a small "c", Steve quipped, "Better a bad catholic, than a virtuous heretic."
We advocate for tradition because building is a social act, because tradition embodies architecture that people respond to positively. A building designed to a simple agreed-upon set of principles fits with its neighbors and contributes to a harmonious whole. In a recent column in The Spectator, entitled Classical Architecture Makes Us Happy. So Why Not Build More of It? Ed West contends that the most desirable places to live in the UK share a large concentration of Georgian housing...and a Waitrose. Though I think that the presence of a high-end grocery store in a desirable affluent neighborhood could be considered a matter of cause and effect, West contends that "Beauty makes people happy." This can be measured through house prices, which consistently show bigger increases for more traditional buildings. A study from the Netherlands showed that ‘even controlling for a wide range of features, fully neo-traditional houses sell for 15 per cent more than fully non-traditional houses. Houses with references to tradition sell for 5 per cent more.’ Clearly there is demand for historic and historically designed houses.
We believe that beauty is an essential part of architecture; that beauty is not subjective, but objective, as described by Vitruvius and refined through more than 2,000 years of Western Tradition. We believe that people have a positive visceral response to classical design. Because beauty is desirable, it has a positive impact upon property value. But most importantly, beauty and tradition, applied through a rigorous authentic classicism, connect us to the flow of history, both to our past, but hopefully to future generations, through the legacy of the built world we leave behind.