Behold the classical disorders

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A gathering of embellishments inside the Weiss House, in Providence.

The other day I got word that the British architectural historian James Stevens Curl – with 40 books under his belt – had written another, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism. Due out next August from Oxford University Press, it tells the tale of how modern architecture vanquished classicism in a short and remarkably uncontested battle for dominance in the architectural establishment.

Unable to acquire a book that has not been published yet, I sent away for his Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. The author’s wry skepticism of modernist architecture is on full display. It arrived in the nick of time to help me defend the classical embellishment of a house whose interior I had extolled in my recent post “Stan Weiss’s house divided.”

Look at the shot of gathered embellishment, above, in Weiss’s house. One reader called it “awkward” and described its faults at length, concluding that “whoever designed the interior trim scheme knows nothing about classical architecture and picked a batch of moldings from catalogs and put them together as best they could. But a sorry mish-mash it is.”

I very strongly disagree, and am glad to have Curl’s dictionary to back me up. It may indeed be that Weiss’s scheme is not quite canonical, may betray disorder among the orders, but the history of the classical canon is itself a string of deviations from the original Greco-Roman orders. Over the centuries, some deviations have become acceptable, others are still considered deviant.

Under the heading “Order,” Curl, noting the disorderly variations even within the original canon, writes:

The Greek-Doric Order has no base, and sometimes (as in the Paestum Orders of Doric) entasis is exaggerated and the capital is very large, with wide projection over the shaft; the Ionic Order has variations in its base (Asiatic and Attic types) and capital (especially in relation to angle, angular and Bassae capitals where the problem of the corner volute is dealt with in different ways[.]

In the same entry Curl describes more recent discontinuities:

John Outram (1934-) incorporates services into what he called the “Robot Order” (Ordine Robotico), or “Sixth Order,” not coyly hidden away, but expressed as a new polychrome Order visible throughout the building [hiding service tubes.] … His work was hysterically described as “sheer terrorism” by a defender of the Modernist faith (although the Piano-Rogers Beaubourg, Paris, which shows off its service innards, of course, escaped such strictures).

This may be inside baseball (or “Greek”) to some readers, but the point is that variation is the only constant in classical architecture.

Andrés Duany, in his not yet published Heterodoxia Architectonica, stresses that the string of treatises that frame the canonical discourse is suffused with contradiction. The Greek and Roman orders as interpreted by Renaissance classicists underwent extensive modification as to what is acceptable, and the very idea of exalting only the “acceptable” was under stress long before the modernists came along with their bludgeons. The needs of practicality and the impulses of artistic creativity have always caused the classical orders to be considered less a boundary than an inspiration for stylistic change. Haste and ineptitude also feed the mix, and might be said to be as integral to the evolution of practice in the descent, as it were, from Greek and Roman forms, occasionally, no doubt, in a positive manner.

To me, it seems evident that the key to distinguishing what is or is not acceptable, what is or is not unduly disrespectful of the classical orders, is the result. Is it beautiful? I concede a degree of canonical ignorance regarding the by-the-book strictures of Weiss’s critic. Yet, as they say, ignorance is bliss. If a degree of tolerance truly equals a cesspool of ignorance, I can only plead guilty. But again, look at the photo above and decide for yourself. Ditto the photo below, which the aforesaid critic sent to exemplify his critique.

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About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy,, 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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12 Responses to Behold the classical disorders

  1. Pingback: Trad and not so trad, cont. | Architecture Here and There

  2. Pingback: Trad and not so trad | Architecture Here and There

  3. All I know is my eyes dance at the intersection and if I could print a set of note cards, with the artwork in that first image, above, I would do so….what fun…how Classical!


    • Nancy, if you have read all the comments here you’ll see that I’ve run into a buzz saw with people I profoundly respect and who, I must admit, are in general correct in their critique of my praise for Stan’s interior classicism. Their viewpoint is a lofty viewpoint. Bless you, nevertheless, for sharing your appreciation of what I consider to be the broader delight of what Stan has produced!


  4. David,

    The debate on this page is fundamental: one can use elements of a form language (in this case, the Classical Form Language) in an incompletely coherent manner. The result, as noted by those fluent in this language, is not coherent, even though it appeals to many who like Classicism because of the details.

    The explanation lies outside Classicism altogether, and is found in the theory of architecture created by the Alexandrian school, to which I’m devoting my efforts. Mathematical rules for achieving coherence are independent of any particular Form Language, but of course apply to the Classical one as well.

    Unfortunately, all the classical architects I know (many of whom are my close friends) ignore this theory and try to explain their design methodology by appealing to tradition instead of mathematics. I’m convinced that this effort is futile, because it lacks an epistemological basis.



  5. Patrick Webb says:

    That which is Classical embodies in itself that which is excellent. One can always do less but what is done must strive to be the best of its kind. The Classical is Apollian in another respect: it demands Order. This example betrays fundamental Classical principles of order and excellence. Where there should be a relation of parts to the whole there is discord. The overall arrangement lacks “composition”, alignments and relations that “put together” a unified whole. I can’t speak to the on site craftsmanship from a photo; however, the lack of artistry of the ornamentation reads clear enough. The details of the ornamentation are muddy and underdeveloped. I feel obliged to call them “impoverishments” rather than “enrichments” no matter how much coin was paid.


  6. Soundslike says:

    David, the problem isn’t that the house you’ve presented misses a few of the finer points of some arcane and fixed orthodoxy. The problem is that what you’re praising misses the underlying principles of Classical and traditional architecture–which when understood and engaged, bring harmony to work that eschews overt Orders but achieves order. The work you’re presenting grabs random words and phrases, but jumbles them into total disorder, saying nothing.

    There is an immense and incredibly rich potential for variation, playfulness, innovation and evolution within the Classical-traditional spectra of the world because they all have at their core qualities that transcend the particulars of any one detail. Modernists vociferously assume traditional architecture is unthinking, formulaic reproduction (“pastiche,” “kitsch”) on the part of all contemporary traditional designers. They argue this not simply because they don’t believe in (read: understand) the various details of traditional architecture; but more significantly because they can’t conceive of architecture as an evolving language, capable of marrying time-tested principles with constant contextual sensitivity and innovation to the particular problems at hand. They eschew standards of judgement, and pretend this is the same as the liberal, progressive humanist ideals of the post-Enlightenment era. This is why they have generally proposed the virtually identical “new” solutions wherever and whenever they are for the last 80 years: they don’t have principles girding their aesthetics, they don’t have a supple and nuanced language, and so they just repeat the same thing with superficial variation, going in viscous and vacuous circles and proving that repetition does not inherently generate a tradition. We traditionalists have to do more than the same superficial repetition.

    Those of us who work from a traditional basis always draw on the principles and language of our traditions–even when doing work that features nary an architrave, a dentils, an egg-and-dart, a modillion. Modernists, conversely, don’t see the Order for the taenia, as it were: when they’re forced to imitate traditional and “Classical” work because of market demands, they look at tradition and in a funny inversion of Corbusier, “have eyes that do not see” beyond the surface. They take in abstractly and then generate at random a piling up of meaningless details that act as post-modern signifiers. They do not create a coherent whole. Even those who mean well, if they refuse to look and see the underlying intent, will create a muddle, not the type of purposeful “discontinuities” we all love (from the Mannerist to the Art Nouveau to the simple vernacular cottage). Successful discontinuities–which I would call diversification and evolution–rise from a rich understanding of the “norm” from which designers and builders diverge selectively and purposefully.

    I understand your approach to defending traditionalism and Classicism wants to be populist, making the seemingly reasonable and friendly claim that beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder, fearful that if we press for anything more careful we’ll be viewed as bow tie-wearing fuddy-duddies. But if you look at buildings built before Modernism’s coup, in all of them–from the simplest 1770s house on Transit Street to the most ornate 1910s mansion in College hill to the 1890s Fox Point workforce housing to the City Hall to the Deco storefronts downtown–you see they achieve incredible variety, but that none of them makes any of the mistakes of proportion, tectonic clarity, hierarchy, etc. that are rampant in the house you’ve extolled. Getting the fundamentals “right” is hardly at odds with “making architecture the average person likes,” as when the languages of tradition were integrated into the design and building trades, all buildings had a basic dignity. (Look at the Sears Roebuck homes catalogs: literally mass-market, as popular and “common man” as could be, and yet all with a grace and clarity lacking in the much “fancier” home you’ve featured). People deprived of all food will eat anything you give them; that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve, and wouldn’t appreciate, wholesome, nutritional and tasty food.

    The more that well-meaning traditionalists defend bad-trad architecture that treats tradition as just another shallow stylistic grab-bag, the less of a real argument we have against the cruelties and follies of Modernist architecture, because we play into their approach of making everything a matter of “style,” of “preference,” nothing to do with real–which is to say, lasting and adaptable–beauty and function. We have so much more than “style” going for us, but not if we accept anything with doodads and gewgaws applied to speak for “tradition”. As a passionate and often eloquent defender of preservation, and as someone who–even more rare–has made the leap to the fact that what we would preserve materially can also teach us how to build today: it behooves you to educate yourself more to the language of tradition, about its core principles and sensibilities and goals, not just its superficial results. You have nothing to fear–you won’t become a purist stereotype, a snob out of touch with “the common man”. You’ll just be able to make the arguments you make for humane buildings and places even better, standing on terra firma. We do what we do rooted in achievements that have transcended and outlasted all vagaries fashion and taste and politics, that has produced millennia of humane buildings and places. Knowing where it comes from, what makes it successful, and calling for higher standards can only help our efforts.


  7. sethweine says:

    I get a stomach-ache, just looking at those photos–and Eric Daum brilliantly articulates what my stomach would say (if it could speak!)
    It is Not true that bad (or even poor) classicism is better than no classicism at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Disagree strongly, Seth. Most people can tell the difference only to some degree. They may know enough to disdain a very bad, dumbed down “classicism” of a high-end CVS but far less so that of an interior like that of Weiss’s house. The latter cannot hurt the reputation of classicism anywhere near the way the former can. Therefore it serves to enhance classicism’s rep in light of most of what the public sees in its built environment. It baffles me that so many classicist cannot appreciate this. Experts might understandably see it differently, and obviously high standards are the best standards, but we design and build for clients and the public, not the experts.

      Sent from my iPod



  8. Seth Joseph Weine says:

    Dear David,
    If you want to look into what Maestro Curl says about Classical Architecture, I commend his book which focuses on that topic–one that, for a while, the ICA&A recommended that all students obtain.
    It is quite a fine production: a banquet of classicism:


  9. Eric Daum says:


    I had refrained from commenting on the original post, but now that you feel compelled to justify this obscene pile of collaged fibreglass mouldings, I must concur with your commentator who criticized the project at length. We often take pains to describe Classicism as a language, and if it is, it can tolerate adaptation and mutation over time. However, to complete the analogy, the house you have illustrated shows a decided lack of understanding of basic grammar. It deletes adverbs, denies noun/verb agreement, and it doesn’t understand the rudiments of punctuation. The variations of the Doric order Curl describes in his quote above all exist within a basic grammatical structure as the parts are transformed throughout history. The Weiss house simply does not operate on the same plane as literate classicism. You claim to excuse it because you see beauty and you associate it with deviant orders. I cannot see the beauty because I see an inept hand at play in a dialogue it does not understand. By the definition of Classicism described by Summerson, I do not believe that it even qualifies as Classical.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Eric, Seth, Nikos, Patrick and Ian – All of you have expressed a kind warning that I back off my praise for Stan’s interior classicism, and I respect your viewpoint, indeed agree with it. I think a broader look at the already quite broad look you’ve all taken is in order, and as a prelude to that I have printed Ian’s comment along with Anthony James’s original email critique (and the other comments are readily viewed after the “Behold…” post). I will give it another go on Monday.


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