ICAA Northshore splash

NorthShore_HomeDesignNorthshore, the stylish monthly of the shore north of Boston, has a spread in its October issue on the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. It’s an interesting think piece by Jeff Harder, with illustrations seemingly focused on the desk and office of the chapter’s former president and current treasurer, Eric Daum. There are also stories in the issue about John Margolis, who was president for five years until taking a job with a top architecture firm in Los Angeles late this summer, and Sally Wilson, who is also on the chapter board (along with your trusty and unbiased correspondent), and who, with her husband John Kelsey, runs Wilson Kelsey Design out of Salem.

For the ICAA spread, this link will take you to a digital version of the October issue, and the article is on page 87, or you can search the issue for “ICAA.” The other stories may be tracked down in the issue using similar detective strategies.

Of particular interest are quotes in the story on the ICAA chapter from Daum’s excellent speech at last year’s Bulfinch awards. I posted it last year, but it is worth scrutinizing for those who did not read it last year, or for that matter, hear it. If you did, it is worth scrutinizing again, so I’ve printed it below. This year’s Bulfinch ceremony, by the way, is Wednesday, Nov. 12, again beneath the dome of the architect’s Massachusetts Statehouse. You can make reservations here. Again, Eric’s speech from last year:

Why Classical?
November 14, 2013
Eric Inman Daum AIA

The Classical is the foundation of Western Civilization.

We study the Classics, the surviving literature of Greco-Roman antiquity, because they address the fundamental issues of our humanity. We return to Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil and Ovid because we continue to learn from them, because their universal themes of life and death, love and hate, peace and war, honor and truth remain relevant today. Our forbearers grappled with their humanity, as we grapple with our own.

The sole surviving text devoted to architecture from Classical antiquity, is Vitruvius’s De Architectura, or The Ten Books of Architecture.  Vitruvius describes the means of building in classical Rome, including a system of architectural composition and proportion derived from the Greeks.

So, what do we mean when we describe the Classical in architecture?  Sir John Summerson 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, described by Vitruvius, reborn during the Renaissance, embellished by the Baroque, rationalized by Neoclassicism and codified during the Beaux Arts, live on, and their continued use connects us back not just to the our Classical foundations in Greece and Rome, but through the ages of Western history.

Vitruvius’s most well known claim is this: “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 of the builder’s craft should satisfy them: a building must stand up and be useful.  

The third criterion, beauty, is what we honor here tonight.

But are not all design awards about beauty?  Is beauty subjective, or is it objective?  

We live in an age of relativism.  Our current culture espouses the belief that beauty, like reality and truth, is subjective. This relativism is the legacy of Modernism.  Le Corbusier, Gropius and Meies removed beauty from the conversation about architecture just as Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, removed beauty from the conversation in music.

The Modern movement explicitly is not about beauty. The seminal texts of Modernism, Le Corbusiers’s Toward a New Architecture, and Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, claim to describe the end of history, the end of beauty, and the death of human-scaled classicism for the technology driven rule of the machine.

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. Modernism was relatively successful in its attempt to obliterate the Classical.  Beaux Arts training was banished from the academies, collections of classical art and casts were discarded, or worse, destroyed. Knowledge and tradition centuries in the making was nearly lost. And yet the threads of history and tradition survived, hidden from the mainstream and ignored by the architectural press and schools.  

One curator of this tradition was Classical America, one of the parent organizations of the ICAA, which under the stewardship of Henry Hope Reed celebrated the great buildings of the American Renaissance, and championed the few surviving classical American architects, John Barrington Bailey, Alvin Holm, John Blatteau and Allan Greenberg.

Many of us here are now in the middle years of our practice, for architecture, as we were told as students, is an “old person’s profession.”  But when we were students during the 70’s and 80’s, we had front-row seats to heated conversations about the “Presence of the Past” in architecture.  Re-examination of traditional forms opened our eyes to history as a legitimate precedent for our own work.  But many of the results of the Postmodern era seemed to us glib and uninformed. We wanted deeper truths and collectively, we traveled the path toward a new authenticity.   

But our paths diverged.  The majority returned to the forms of the Modern movement, giving rise to Neo-modernism, a historicist collage of the forms of early 20th Century Socialist worker’s housing in celebration of finance and the Information Age. The minority followed an academic disinterment of the Western tradition. We taught one another what we had learned of the long-forgotten classical cannon: the books, the forms, the theory and the techniques discarded by previous generations.  

This younger generation of emerging classicists, coalescing during the early 90’s in the offices of their Classical America forebearers, embraced an activist streak.  They conceived of our other parent organization, Institute for the Study of Classical Architecture, with the purpose of resurrecting not just classical forms, but the academic tradition at its heart.

So, we ask the question again, “Why Classical?”

We are faced with a myriad of possibilities in the contemporary age. Technology has given us the capability of creating unbelievable virtual worlds that defy the laws of nature. Technology has also given us the capability of creating real places that seemingly defy these very same laws. We must remember that we build not just for ourselves, but in this fragile time of diminishing resources, for many future generations as well.  

There are those who claim that traditional architecture replicates the past and that we must build in a contemporary style. In an age of unlimited possibilities, all styles are contemporary.  Any language I choose now is contemporary. Architecture and building need to be more than mere fashion if they are to be permanent.   As Steven Semes has so eloquently put it, it is more important to build like the place we are in than like the time we are in. There is no one style unique to our time, but we can collectively understand the deep rooted truths of a place as evidenced by form, scale and materials that underscore the continued relevance of the Classical.

Given the choice between Modernism on one hand – the machine-aged architecture of constantly changing fashion enabled by technology – and Classicism on the other, the architecture of Humanism, Reason and Democracy, enabled by craft and expressing the human spirit …

We choose the Classical.

We choose the human.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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1 Response to ICAA Northshore splash

  1. Reblogged this on Architecture Here and There and commented:

    Reposting with link to Bulfinch reservations site.


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